7. Green River: A Volunteer of the Tribe of Gilpin

WELL BEFORE Powell’s preparations brought him to the water’s edge at Green River, what one may call the Gilpin mentality had taken notice of the Colorado River. It was inevitable that it should have. Distances in the Southwest were so great, grass and water so uncertain, difficulties of travel so numerous, that the imagination of pioneers was sure to be seized by the possibility of a great river highway from the Rockies to the Pacific. The explorations up from the Gulf of California by Lieutenant Derby and Lieutenant Ives in 1857-58 both had the intelligent object of discovering the possibilities of steamboat navigation on the lower Colorado, and Brigham Young, contemplating in that same decade an empire that would reach from the crest of the Rockies to the crest of the Sierra and from Oregon to the Rio Grande, hoped for an outlet to the sea and a water route to Utah for settlers and supplies. To that end he sent Anson Call to establish the river port of Callville, just above the present Hoover Dam, in 1864, and he kept his apostle to the Lamanites, Jacob Hamblin, busy for years searching out crossings and exploring the possibilities of the Colorado as a thoroughfare. These investigations established the course and nature of the lower river and the resources of the country through which it ran, and they arrived at a logical navigational head just above Black Canyon, near Callville.1

What distinguishes the Gilpin approach from this methodical and factual investigation is the inability to be content with facts, or even to see them: the quality of incorrigible faith, the insistence upon introducing fantasy into geography. It would be a valuable and exciting matter if a practicable water route split the plateau country in two and gave easy access to the Pacific. Therefore it existed, in spite of logic and topography and triply demonstrated fact. There were people who from physiographic inference knew what the Colorado probably did between its known headwaters and its known lower course. Its canyons had been peeked into at enough points to prove their continuity over hundreds of miles, the amount of its fall was on record, its rapids were attested both by logic and by spotty observation. But the Gilpin mentality was capable not only of convincing itself, but at times of imposing its fantasy upon a public and government understandably ignorant of the facts. It was the wishfulness of the Gilpin mind that had gotten James White’s raft story a respectful hearing the year before, in official as well as unofficial quarters. The same wishfulness at times imposed upon the Colorado some of the legendary properties of the Multnomah and the Buenaventura, those fabled rivers that drained the Great Basin into the Pacific until Jed Smith walked across the Nevada and Utah deserts and proved otherwise.

Of all the makers of fantasy who touched the history of the Colorado, few approached Samuel Adams.2 His career is a demonstration of how far a man could get in a new country on nothing but gall and the gift of gab, so long as what he said was what people wanted to believe. He was one of a tribe of Western adventurers and imposters and mountebanks, cousin-german to James Dickson and Walter Murray Gibson;3 and if his schemes were not so grandiose as theirs and his imagination not so lurid and his personal ambitions less godlike, he was still recognizably of that sib. As Dickson was to Sam Houston, as Gibson was to Brigham Young, so Adams was to Powell - a lunatic counterpoint, a parody in advance, a caricature just close enough to the real thing, just close enough to a big idea, to have been temporarily plausible and limitedly successful.

His spiritual relative William Gilpin, after half a lifetime in the West, could see through a glass eye so darkly that he denied geography, topography, meteorology, and the plain evidence of his senses, and his advice to America and his dream of the future floated upward on the draft of his own bombast. One who had frozen and starved and chewed his swollen tongue in thirst, he could still deny the facts of western deserts and western climate. Samuel Adams - Captain Samuel Adams he chose to call himself -with more actual experience on the Colorado than most men, could still talk of it as a thoroughfare.

He was posing as an authority on the Colorado before either Powell or James White ever saw it. In a letter to Secretary of War Stanton dated March 29,1867, while Powell was still planning his first mountain expedition and had probably not even conceived the notion of exploring the river, Adams named himself and outlined his expert qualifications. He said that in 1865 he and Captain Thomas Trueworthy made a voyage up the Colorado from its mouth in a little sternwheeler for the purpose of “demonstrating that it was capable of being ascended with steamers for over 620 miles from the mouth.” (Captain George Johnson in the steamer Colorado and Lieutenant Ives in The Explorer, shoving up the Colorado from Yuma, had demonstrated that in 1858.)4 As a matter of fact, regular steamer service was already established when Adams arrived, as he admitted in the next breath without apparent sense that he was contradicting himself. But this California Navigation Company which by 1865 ran six or eight river steamers between Yuma and Callville was, Adams said, a ruthless monopoly determined to stamp out competition, by the “bullet and the knife” if necessary, or by cutting the timber on both sides of the river to destroy rivals’ fuel supply. In spite of a letter of character he had carried there from Governor Low of California,5 it appears that Adams’ pretensions as an explorer had not made much impression on the lower Colorado.

But at least he was now convinced that steamboat navigation was possible as far as Callville, and he went eleven miles above Callville and built a raft and floated down with ease through Boulder Canyon, which he represented to Stanton as the biggest on the river. Before taking to his raft, he climbed the canyon wall and saw “an open valley, sixty miles in length, extending to the northeast.” That would have been the Valley of the Virgin, now the Virgin Basin of Lake Mead. Beyond it, Adams said, the land had been considered a terra incognita. But from his talks with Indians, his observation of the terrain, and his study of “maps and correspondence” in the “Historical Society” in Salt Lake, he had satisfied himself “that there are none of those dangerous obstructions which have been represented by those who have viewed them at a distance, and whose imaginary canyons and rapids below had almost disappeared at the approach of the steamer.”

Lieutenant Ives and his men would have been interested to hear this, for there, in one look and one sentence, went the whole canyon and plateau country that they had labored across on foot after being forced to abandon the river in 1858. It was imaginary. There went the Grand Canyon and Marble Canyon and Glen and Cataract and Labyrinth Canyons, there went the abysmal chasms into which Coronado’s men had peered fearfully and which so impressed Baron von Egloffstein, Ives’ topographer and artist, that his illustrations for the Ives report look like the landscapes of nightmare. There went the barrier canyons that had held in the southern edge of Brigham Young’s empire, to join the Great American Desert that other Gilpins were busily dissolving. Down this misrepresented and maligned highway of the Colorado, Adams said, must come the ties and rails and supplies for the building of the southern railroad. The Colorado must become for the Pacific Coast what the Mississippi was for the Midwest. The whole rumor of impassable canyons and rapids was a flagrant lie of the corporations now entrenched on the river and jealous of possible competition.

The yeasty schemes stirring in Adams’ head must have generated gases to cloud his eyesight. Eastward from that same canyon rim from which he looked up the Valley of the Virgin he could not have failed to see even at that distance the towering, level, four-thousand-foot rampart of the Grand Wash Cliffs, where the river emerges from the Grand Canyon into relatively open country. Those cliffs are the dominating element in the landscape Adams viewed. In mass and import they are enormously impressive - and the river, as Adams ought to have been able to see, either had to run along the cliffs or come straight out of them. Yet they did not impress him as a “dangerous obstruction.”

All Adams got for his letter to Stanton in 1867 was a resolution of thanks from the House of Representatives. But that was something. It was symptomatic. More might be had.

What Captain Adams did for the next two years, aside from writing letters, does not seem to be known. But early in May, 1869, as Sumner and the trappers were waiting in camp on the Green for Powell to return with the boats, a young man of impressive presence and a fast tongue climbed off the Union Pacific’s passenger train and made himself at home in camp. He said that he was to accompany the expedition in a scientific capacity; his mouth was full of big names. He had letters and orders which he would present to Major Powell as soon as he arrived.

The trappers, still concentrating on their quarrel with Jake Fields’ forty-rod whiskey, shrugged and let him stay - “a young scientific duck,” Billy Hawkins called him, part of Powell’s incomprehensible busy-ness. He was not so different from the other young scientific ducks they had had half a year’s experience with. And he spoke with confidence and particularity of his explorations on the lower river. He seemed to have qualifications, though they found him a finicky camper, and took a gentle pleasure in ribbing him.

When Powell arrived with the boats on May 11 Adams presented himself as one who had authorization from ex-Secretary of War Stanton to accompany the expedition. He might even have got away with his bluff if, as he thought, the expedition had been sponsored by the government. But Powell, who had himself planned and organized every detail of the trip, saw no reason why a retired Secretary of War should forcibly impose a recruit upon him, especially a lordly recruit who acted like the commander. He asked to see Adams’ papers, and Adams brought them out: letters from Stanton and others thanking him kindly for his communication and wishing him success in the exploration he contemplated. Powell said later6 that he read the letters and sent Adams about his business, but Billy Hawkins, whose reminiscences show more liveliness and more will to aggrandize Hawkins than to report the sober truth, had another version of Adams’ departure. He said that Adams was hard to please at meals, and complained a good deal about Hawkins’ cooking. One night Jack Sumner remarked something confounded queer about the coffee, and Hawkins, across the fire, reached down with his bowie and forked up one of Walter Powell’s black and dripping socks from where it had been soaking in a kettle. It looked to Adams as if the sock had come out of the coffeepot, and that finished his desire for frontier adventure.

Actually Adams’ desire for adventure and exploration was not in the least quenched, either by Powell’s harsh judgment of his character and claims or by Hawkins’ coffee. He was a hard man to quench. In Arizona Territory, his legal domicile, he had run for delegate to Congress in three consecutive elections, getting 31 votes the first time, 168 the second, and 32 the third. Now, swearing that he was misunderstood and abused, he climbed on the train and headed for Colorado Territory. If Powell would not accept his honestly proffered services, there were those who would.

There were, too. The Colorado was the natural highway, the beckoning door, of an empire rich in precious metals, timber, agricultural land, that empire of the Gilpin fantasy where fell not rain nor hail nor any snow, nor ever wind blew loudly. It would take more than a rebuff from Powell to discourage Adams from leading the nation into Canaan.

Let him go. We shall hear of him again.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!