John Wesley Powell, the famed explorer, geologist, land planner, writer, artist, anthropologist and Civil War veteran, suffered his first stroke in November 1901. Though Powell would eventually recover, a second stroke struck down the larger-than-life figure of the American Southwest, and he died on the floor of his Maine home in September 1902.
More than a century later, Powell’s presence still lingers in Arizona and the greater Southwest. His 1869 expedition of the the Green and Colorado rivers, perhaps his most famous excursion, remains one of the most daring and exciting adventure’s in America’s history. But how much of it is truth and how much of it has been embellished by the admiration of inaccurate historians?
Don Lago’s new book, “The Powell Expedition: New Discoveries about John Wesley Powell’s 1869 River Journey” sheds new light on familiar territory.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
“I certainly never set out to write a whole book,” said Lago. “In fact, I’m pretty astonished that there are 400 pages of new material.”
After roughly 20 years of on-again off-again research, his new book, which originally started out as a way to scratch Lago’s own curious itch, is finally seeing the light of day. For Lago, it all started with a question: who was William Hawkins?
"I was just curious,” said the author. “I was from Missouri and William Hawkins, one of the crew members [on the 1869 river journey] was from Missouri, but there was very little else known about [him]. I was just curious to know where he was from. Was he from my own county? How did he end up on the Powell expedition? There must be a good story about it somewhere. So I pursued that, and I realized that the guy in the books was a case of mistaken identity. It was the wrong guy.”
Billy Hawkins’ real name was William Robert Wesley Hawkins, but his use of the name Billy Rhodes, presumably because of a run in with the law, had led Powell biographer William Culp Darrah, down a road of misinformation. It was a small detail that was overlooked and perpetuated as common knowledge.
“It really opened my eyes to how downright shabby history writing can be, that historians can make major errors and everybody just copies their homework.”
Lago also argues that Darrah dismissed some of Powell’s crew members who were critical of his leadership in order to protect Powell’s reputation.
“I’ve always loved history books and you assume their authenticity, especially if they are a university academic. You assume that they know what they are doing, that they’re doing their research and that everything is accurate,” said Lago. “I think it was really disheartening and shocking to realize just how poorly researched and documented these statements are and how historians can go on repeating these things for decades.”
From there, Lago sought more answers to questions about the men from the famous journey.
When learning about the three-month excursion down the Green and Colorado rivers, the most prominent figure is Powell. And for good reasons. With only one arm, the other had been lost in the Civil War, Powell took a wooden boat and traversed the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, then an unknown cavern full of dangerous myths and hearsay.
“I think he was very admirable in a lot of ways,” said Lago. “Powell was certainly a strong-willed person and that helped him succeed as a river runner. But that strong will meant that he wasn’t very considerate of other people.”
And Powell was most inconsiderate toward his crew on the 1869 journey. With “The Powell Expedition,” Lago hopes to tell the stories of some of the forgotten men during that journey.
“For some people, the whole story is about Powell, and the crew members are obscure and unimportant. So I think [the book] will raise the role of the crew members and raise the respect people have for them and how important they were in making the trip happen at all,” said the author. “They weren’t just names. They were real people with real histories and real backgrounds.”
Through letters, photographs and interviews with families of the crew, Lago flushes out their post-expedition lives and paints a full picture of the men who stood by Powell during his dangerous journey.
Those familiar with the journey know that three of the crew members, Oramel G. Howland, Seneca Howland and William H. Dunn, abandoned the journey, fearing for their lives under Powell’s leadership. In the largest section of the book, Lago explores the fate of the Howland brothers and William Dunn. In short, he explains, we still don’t know. Though the most likely scenario is that they were killed by Indians, Lago examines other scenarios including perhaps a deadly run-in with Mormon settlers.
“Powell is sort of a local hero,” said Lago. “Of course, here in Flagstaff, we’re a town that loves the Grand Canyon. So Powell is sort of a patron saint of river runners.”
Powell, like most, was a concoction of good, bad and questionable qualities, but he was forever motivated by science, geology and the environment.
And his journey, which helped map the final portions of the United States, and his legacy, despite his conflicted character, has become an iconic presence in the history of the Southwest.