Book Review: historian and author Don Lago breaks down the Powell Expedition

"The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell's 1869 River Journey" by Don Lago.

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"The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell's 1869 River Journey" by Don Lago.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Although the gold rush of 1849 and the years following the Civil War marked some of the greatest westward expansions in the United States, the Grand Canyon remained the country’s largest unmapped, unexplored area.

Until adventurer John Wesley Powell mustered 10 men and four boats and set off down the Green River to the mighty Colorado, through what was then wild and unknown territory. And while Powell and most of his crew emerged unscathed and victorious on the other side, lingering questions about the expedition have endured in the 150 years since.

Don Lago, an award-winning author with a long list of publications about the Grand Canyon, recently published “The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell’s 1869 River Journey,” in which he carefully unfolds some of the circumstances and mystery swirling around the historic journey.

The expedition members themselves invited plenty of speculation, both then and now.

There was horse thief and likely great exaggerator James White, who arrived on the banks of a small Mormon town with a whopper of story about floating the Colorado in a raft, alone and imperiled.

There were the three crew members — brothers Seneca and Oramel Howland, and quiet, mysterious William Dunn — who walked away from the expedition at Separation Rapid, never revealing their reason for doing so and whose fates remain unknown, despite rumors of murder and execution.

There were boatmen Jack Sumner and William Hawkins, who chose to remain with the expedition rather than hike into the unknown with Dunn and the Howlands, although they later assailed Powell as a poor leader.

And then there was Powell himself, a civil war veteran full of courage and bluster, who performed many heroic acts and great feats, and yet likely exaggerated many more.

Lago’s book explores the characters and their connections to each other, to Powell, and to the landscape in which many of them would perish or disappear. Lago offers the idea that the real Powell was lost amidst many admiring historians and researchers who glossed over errors in judgment and the likelihood that his great feats of exploration were not his alone.

Lago’s latest book is the result of 20 years of research across 13 states, digging into the history of the expedition’s individual crew members to tell a far more specific story that the broad tale of river running and canyon mapping.

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