6. Green River: the Gateway

THEY WAITED below the Green River bridge on the bank of the Green, the old Seedskeedee-agie of the mountain men, until Powell should come with the boats. While they waited they might have thought of the blankness of the map south of them, the half-known course of the river, the remote junction of Grand and Green to form the Colorado,1 the unlocated mouth of the San Juan and other tributaries, the unknown and unnamed creeks, the untouched country that stretched back away from the canyons on both sides. That country had been barely penetrated here and there. Coronado’s men had reached the south rim of the Grand Canyon in 1540 and peered over into that awesome ditch. Father Garcés had visited the Supais in Havasu Canyon before the American Revolution. Escalante had crossed the Green in the Uinta Valley in 1776, and come back across the southwestern marches to ford the Colorado at the foot of a canyon that Powell would name Glen Canyon, where James Ohio Pattie may have trapped beaver in the eighteen-twenties. Frémont had crossed the northern edge of the region in 1844, the southern edge in 1853; he had all but died in its mountains in 1848. Ives in 1857 had come up the lower Colorado as far as Diamond Creek, within the lower Grand Canyon, and had traversed the plateaus south of the Grand Canyon to the Hopi towns and across the Painted Desert to Fort Defiance and the New Mexico settlements. Captain Gunnison had surveyed a railroad route, some of it impracticable, along the 35th parallel in 1853. Captain J. N. Macomb in 1859 had run an exploration out from Santa Fe in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the junction of Grand and Green. Berthoud and Bridger in 1861 had gone from Golden, Colorado, across the western slope and the Uinta Valley and down through the canyons of the Wasatch to Provo, Utah. From the eighteen-twenties until the near-extermination of the beaver the mountain men had trapped eastern and northern Utah, southern Wyoming, western Colorado. But these were traverses only, touches; this country had never been spread out and walked over and brought within the control of definite lines on paper. Large parts of it had only been circumnavigated, never really visited at all. The real unknown lay between the Uinta Valley and Gunnison’s Crossing, now Greenriver, Utah; and between that crossing and the mouth of the Paria, now Lee’s Ferry, Arizona; and below that to the foot of the Grand Wash Cliffs, south of present St. George, Utah. The crossings had been located; the hinterlands were a tantalizing blank marked, in a cartographer’s neat lettering, “Unexplored.”

They were a meager force with which to conduct a major exploration : five trappers; a war-psychotic ex-captain and a one-armed ex-major of artillery. It was important, and would have serious consequences, that both Powells represented military discipline and the officer class, and that the men who were to accompany them represented frontier independence and a violent distaste for discipline of any kind. Sumner, Dunn, Seneca Howland, and Hawkins had all been Union soldiers, but all had served in the ranks, Hawkins so obstreperously that he was wanted by the law in Missouri. Oramel Howland, the oldest man of the party, was a printer, an outdoorman by preference rather than by calling.

In purpose, as in background, the party split. Powell himself was intense, ambitious, intellectually curious, wanting to know, committed to the abstract cause of Science. But of the mountain men, only Oramel Howland and perhaps Sumner had any notion what science was about, or any understanding of Powell’s motives. Their view of all his activities was likely to be tinged by that contemptuous amusement with which they had watched Keplinger try to find a lost wilderness trail by squinting at a star through a sextant. But action they understood, hardihood they all had. And there were the possible gravel bars. Green and Grand together drained a vast semicircle of mountains from the Wind Rivers in Wyoming through all the ranges of western Colorado and on down to the San Francisco peaks in northern Arizona. Where water ran and rock disintegrated, gold would wash down; where a river cut through thousands of feet of rock, veins would be exposed. Gilpin had said it for them. These were things the trappers understood well enough, and they appreciated Powell’s gift of being able to tell one rock from another, however cold his other scientific achievements might leave them2

Four trappers in buckskin pants, a printer, two ex-officers. And for backing, financial support? That was the principal reason, aside from the boats, for Powell’s trip east.

Leaving the specifications for the four boats with a Chicago boat-builder, he went on to Washington, one more among the throng of office-seekers, carpet baggers, pork-barrelers, men with schemes, thronging those muddy streets. He was not quite the unbacked unknown Illinois schoolteacher who had wangled a meager bone from Congress the year before, but he had little better luck. His hope was for a Congressional appropriation like that enjoyed by other government explorers and scientific investigators, Clarence King and Ferdinand V. Hayden among them. That hope failed him; an acquaintance with Grant, with Professor Henry of the Smithsonian, with Senator Trumbull and a few others, was not enough, and he had little time. When he came away he had exactly the same kind of governmental help that he had had the previous season. A joint resolution of Congress implemented with an order from the office of the Adjutant General allowed him to draw rations for 12 men from any western army post; to draw other supplies in lieu of the regular army rations if they were available; and (what actually gave him the bare minimum of cash he needed to proceed) to commute certain unneeded parts of the ration into money.

As Powell took pains to explain later in a letter to the Chicago Tribune from Green River,3 just before he shoved off, the party was not a government exploration at all. It was under the auspices of the Illinois Natural History Society, of which he was secretary. The funds available from the Society totaled less than a thousand dollars annually, and additional funds donated by the Illinois Industrial University4 amounted to only $1100 in all. Certain favors had been extended, principally in the form of instruments, by the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution.

And that was all. Powell apparently arranged some sort of wages for the hunters5 by taking cash in lieu of part of the bacon ration, on the theory that fresh meat was a legitimate part of the ration if it could be provided. The hunters would help manage the boats, as they had for the past year managed the pack train. Sumner later asserted, without proof, that he was in on a partnership basis, providing part of the outfit and some of the supplies for the winter of 1868. Powell provided the rations and the boats, and obtained free transportation for men and supplies from several railroads as well as from Wells, Fargo and Adams and the American Express.

So except for the wages provided the hunters, it was entirely a volunteer party. Before it started down the swollen current of the Green three more volunteers would join it, and one comic-valentine volunteer would try.

Two of the three actual volunteers simply happened by at Green River. One, Frank Goodman, a red-faced Englishman rattling around the West in search of adventure, wanted so badly to go that he even offered Powell money to take him. There is no record of whether Powell took his money or not, but he took Goodman. Another, Andy Hall, was a cheerful, husky, eighteen-year-old bull-whacker and vagabond whom Powell saw resting on the oars of a homemade boat and enlisted on the spot. The third, George Bradley, Powell went to some trouble to get. He had met Bradley the autumn before, sadly sitting out an army enlistment at Fort Bridger and whiling away his time in melancholia and amateur fossil hunting. Bradley was a New Englander, and he knew boats, and he would do anything to get out of the army. Powell’s one real success in Washington in May, 1869, was a War Department order authorizing Bradley’s discharge to allow him to go on the river expedition. On May 14 the hypochondriac sergeant was mustered out and came down from Fort Bridger in time to teach the mountain men how to calk and paint the boats.

Of those boats a good deal has been written, and Colorado boatmen ever since have argued their virtues and their faults. It is not even clear who was responsible for their design, since Jack Sumner, in his later years of bitter grudge holding, claimed to have drawn them on the White River. The fact remains that Powell, who had taken solitary collecting trips by rowboat on the Ohio, Mississippi, Illinois, and Des Moines, undoubtedly knew more about river travel than Sumner or any other member of his crew. Whatever the boats’ qualities, they were probably Powell’s design.

Rivermen since have designed boats much better adapted for the running of rapids. In particular the variety of “cataract boat” perfected by Nate Galloway has been used by most of the expeditions since 1909 except the Clyde Eddy Expedition of 1927, which returned to Powell’s heavy and clumsy craft. But Galloway, Norman Nevills, and the later boatmen have not had the double problem of constructing a boat that would both ride bad water and carry tons of supplies. And they were not facing an unknown river. Powell intended to stay in the canyons a full ten months. Because there was no sure way of getting out once he plunged in, he thought he had to take everything he needed, and prepare against every imaginable emergency, including the possibility of ice in the canyons. His boats, in consequence, even the light sixteen-foot pine pilot boat, were unwieldy, hard to handle, backbreaking on a portage, sluggish in rapids. But they were stoutly built, with airtight compartments at both ends. The three large boats, designed to carry forty-five hundred pounds apiece, were of oak, twenty-one feet long, with a long stem sweep for steering - as it turned out, an awkward and ineffective arrangement in the rock-choked rapids they would meet.6

The boats came off the cars at Green River with Major Powell on May 11, 1869, one day after Governor Stanford, General Dodge, and an extraordinary collection of celebrities, frontiersmen, saloonkeepers, Indians, Irish workmen, Chinese coolies, and plain spectators had ceremoniously put the transcontinental rails together between the cowcatchers of two facing locomotives at Promontory, a few hundred miles west. While the Powell party was still camped amid its stacked duffle below the Green River bridge, the first transcontinental train crossed the bridge above them and by its mere passing drew a line between periods of history.

Green River, which a little while before had had a population of 2000, and was now a diminished shacktown of a hundred or so, came to the riverbank to watch the party calk and paint and load. It speculated and spit and laid bets, and according to its constitution joked or looked solemn. In the river the four boats rode like a little navy, with the flag snapping at the jackstaff of the pilot boat, the Emma Dean, named for Mrs. Powell, now back in Detroit with her family awaiting the outcome. Under the bridge and past the camp the river went, swollen by the runoff from Horse Creek, the Pineys, Fontanelle Creek, and on the east the creeks from the Wind Rivers and the high bare divide along South Pass. In autumn almost pistachio green, the water now was thick with grayish mud. It moved fast, straining the flooded willows, hurrying with nervous whirlpools.

There is something ominous about a swift river, and something thrilling about a river of any kind. The nearest upstream bend is a gate out of mystery, the nearest downstream bend a door to further mystery. Even at Green River the waters of the Green in flood move swiftly. Powell’s men watched the river pour by, and felt with their hands the powerful push of the current, and reflected that this was quiet water, perhaps as quiet as any they would have all the way except in Brown’s Hole and at the mouth of the White. They looked southward at the badlands that hid the river’s course, and sometimes climbed to the bluffs and looked across the broken, yellow and ocher and brown barrens, across an expanse of sage that in August would be purple with bloom, but was now faintly green with spring. Beyond the broken land and the tortuous, disguised cut of the river came up the blue roll of the Uintas, whose east end they had skirted on their trip from the White River, and into whose flaming canyons, threaded by the thin green line of the stream, they had peered from high cliffs. They would soon be looking up at those cliffs; they would be shooting on the river’s back through the split mountains. Briefly, they would recognize the country where they had touched it in their explorations of the previous fall: in one or two of the Uinta canyons, at Brown’s Hole, at the junction of White and Green in the broad Wonsits Valley. Then there would be the unknown again, a mystery clothed in rumor, secret water trails where perhaps not even Indians had passed.

It was a thing to hurry the pulse. Even in 1869, with the railroad demonstrably transcontinental at their backs, the northern and southern plains split in two, the Indians doomed along with the buffalo by whom they had lived, Omaha only four days by palace car from San Francisco and elegant passengers leaning from the windows to stare down on the little fleet, there was still this opportunity to look upon something, as Sam Garman had said on Long’s Peak, just as God made it.

What they record in their journals and letters as they wait for the preparations to be finished and listen for the signal to start is not doubt, not fear, not any legitimate foreboding about a journey from which none of them might return. What they record is impatience and eagerness. The grumbling of the fall and winter, the cabin fever and distrust between dudes and mountain men, are gone and forgotten. They are tugged at as strongly as their four boats, pulling in the swollen current of the Green.

But before they leave, there is one final volunteer to be disposed of.

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