JOHN WESLEY POWELL SAMPLE
BEFORE THE CURTAIN RISES
What is revealed to us from history’s archives may not always turn out to be what we were taught, told, or assumed to be the case. Sometimes events of history, as undiluted truth, remain obscure or else unknown before we can begin to sort through facts that denote key figures that undergo scrutiny, including the nature of the circumstances that highlight their names. To some, history is a dialectical process where historians attempt to clarify any misunderstanding and move toward integrity. Hence, errors can be eliminated and the truth can be told. Then again, sometimes the process is held up and allows fallacies, distortions, and misconstrued facts to prevail. Nevertheless, if the process is allowed to work the way it can and should, assertions are subjected to rebuttal and inquiry that expose the grievous mistakes or even overstatements that some historical figures are charged with.
The nature of this work is, therefore, about history. Precisely, to reexamine aspects of a stupendous coup in late 19th-century Western history that was pulled off by a remarkable man who some thought could not handle his self-imposed challenge. This fable tells of a man of small stature who was somewhat larger than life, for a time and was admired by most people who knew him. This man had a vision quest greater than most men aspire to, for he dared to do the seemingly impossible. His epic achievements show a resolute character, including his equally resolute crew that rowed into history with him. That being said, only he, as the commander, ended up taking most of the credit for accomplishing the achievement.
However, this touchy subject that irritated some of his men long after the expedition was over doesn’t stop there, for later after the hero and explorer had published his grandiose and inflated text, problems arose. Namely, unabashed errors or omissions of details that most readers of his time didn’t catch. Indeed, even long after his life was over people continued to read the same text, and accepted the narrative’s account as indisputable truth. The reason for their making this assumption is because he reprised his adventures, thereby rounding up another crew to accompany him, yet failing to mention this fact in his writings. Neither did he bother to mention the names of the other crew members.
Obviously, the man referred to is Major John Wesley Powell. He and his men did what no others had done before: conduct the first scientific expedition into the canyons carved by the master streams of the Colorado Plateau Province: the Green and Colorado rivers. Major Powell, as he preferred being addressed, in composing his memoirs, wrote a rousing story about the adventure. As mentioned, his depiction makes it seem to his readers there was one long voyage rather than two different expeditions.
Another contention some people discerned about this former Civil War veteran missing part of his right arm was what happened toward the end of the inaugural expedition. Up until then, the expedition was successful, despite a few mishaps and frustrations about scarce rations along the way. One of the four boats was also destroyed early on. By early July, and not too long after one of the men decided to leave the expedition, there was a definite shift in the temperament that affected some of the crew. A month or so later when the expedition entered the so-called Great Unknown, which later was known as the Grand Canyon, Major Powell’s command essentially started to fall apart. There were a few reasons for the definite change of attitude about the major, but mostly it was his somewhat autocratic command that got on some of the men’s nerves. Closer to the end of the line, as it were, the tenseness the men felt in this last canyon eventually was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Consequently, a few days before the terminus of the canyon was reached, at Grand Wash Cliffs, three of the men decided to hike out on their own, thereby breaking the major’s command. Those three men were never seen again. It was as though they vanished into thin air at a sector now fittingly called Separation Canyon. This singular and tragic incident would eventually become one of the Grand Canyon’s greatest human mysteries, if not the most infamous. Even to this day, this part of the John Wesley Powell story garners a great deal of interest and ongoing historical research to try to solve the baffling outcome. Thus, a mystery that has never fully been satisfied much less solved.
Given Major Powell’s perspective and writings, was it an oversight on his behalf that two stories became telescoped into one? Was it poor judgment or a lack of social etiquette that he composed his text in such a way? That being said did he combines both journeys to economize his printed text? Or did he rush to get his memoirs published because he heard a rumor a crew member on the second expedition intended to publish his manuscript first? Finally, did he fail to include or omit known facts, change names and events, or describe an event he couldn’t remember happening?
These allegations are not mere criticisms easily dismissed. After all, the major was a proven trailblazer in every sense of the word, and he was indeed a Civil War hero, rising from the rank of a lowly private to that of a major. These accolades aside, some latter-day Powell historians and at least one contemporary biographer nail the major to the proverbial cross. Some of these writers even think he could not have accomplished his goal of being the first through the Grand Canyon without his men. Nevertheless, there are other writers who advocate how the major was the right person to get the job done, simply because none of his men could have accomplished the feat without him. Collectively, and in some respects, it was an uneasy relationship that he and his men shared; at least, this is the proven case on the first expedition. Yet it’s clear the men who rowed with their aspiring commander were there because they wanted to be there. Moreover, what happened toward the end of the first expedition wasn’t just a matter of so-called starvation rations, sheer exhaustion, or ennui from being on both rivers for so long. Many historians think the crux of what ultimately took place, this classic High Noon showdown situation came down to a contentious point of conflicting wills and egos.
These previously mentioned issues arise over time, and all deserve answers. Whether Major Powell’s finalized published account in 1875 was riddled with unintentional omissions is one point of contention, but not the whole of it. True, the major may have decided to keep things simple by writing one long event, as well as using only one crew to highlight the story. This way he didn’t have to write two ledgers and cover the same territory twice, so to speak. However, had he made remarks to his readers what really happened when and where (i.e., two entirely different expeditions that ended up as one longer expedition), it would have eased the inherent tension and imperfections in his otherwise sensational report. He would have also fully acknowledged the men of the second expedition.
Patently, that’s not the way things happened. Historical facts relate something different because Major Powell omitted vital and edifying material in his noteworthy text. Those relatively spare words that he scribbled down on paper while on the river had blossomed over the years before the result was published. By the time he got around to changing his articles, which were later printed by the Scribner’s Monthly Magazine prior to his finalized version (in 1875), Powell’s melodramatic text reads more like a gilded fable of vivid prose and imagery, that is compared to what he deciphered from his original river notes on both expeditions. Then again, the man was right-handed but had lost the use of the arm. Consequently, he was compelled to write with his left hand, and deciphering the entries was sketchy, at best. In this instance do we find the distinction between his literary legacy, and that of the two other so-called diarists who also wrote their respective journal entries. In short, these two men, George Bradley and John Sumner, told the story without the blush and inflation by way of word count.
Most assuredly, there are quite a few testy allegations and ideas about all the charges against the major, and most of them are cogent. A literary mistake like Powell’s has left us with confusion about certain facts. For this reason, the historical intrigue and speculation linger. Yet most of his biographers might as well have been looking directly at the sun when they told their version of his story. Actually, they told Major Powell’s version even though they were well aware there were two separate expeditions, including the contribution afforded by the two diarists, George Bradley, and John Sumner. From Wallace Stegner to David Lavender to Donald Worster among other historians and writers who dabbled in Powell’s life and times, the questions remain. So do the fable, distortions, and confusion of names, dates, and places Major Powell has left us to ponder. There is also that bothersome matter of what happened to the three men and what prompted their leader to disband from the main party.
The John Wesley Powell account in two different stages is, therefore, partly mythical. It cannot be understood by using just one-half of the complicated puzzle—which Powell, alone, submitted as a testimony of truth. His story has been told many times before by various authors. Today, his achievements are still considered impressive in view of what he and his men accomplished against all the odds. John Wesley Powell’s name is certainly synonymous with the Grand Canyon, in particular, including the Colorado River that took his expeditions through its mile-deep chasm. It was this canyon above all the other canyons that became his prime objective to map and explore. At that time, The Canyon of the Rio Colorado, as the Spanish conquistadors called it, was widely known as terra incognita. Simply put, it was the Great Unknown, for the entirety of this vast region was little more than a blank spot on the map. So was most of the other canyon country he and his men had explored on their way to this, their final objective.
In addition to the discrepancies found throughout Major Powell’s texts, there is another nagging problem that surfaced later. Namely, the fact that he didn’t fully reimburse some of the men on the first expedition who were paid crew members, and not just stalwart volunteers. In one instance, one of the men claimed he was never compensated for his supplies or horses, not even for serving as the expedition’s cook. These charges came up years after the first expedition was over. Two of the men made this complaint in interviews each had given around the turn of the century. Fortunately, those telling interviews ended up being published as periodicals. However, it would take years for the general public to get their hands on this material. It would also take the time to comprehend the significance of what two of the diarists had reported in their respective journals from that first expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. Specifically, their version of what happened was psychologically insightful in comparison to Major Powell’s version. Actually, the controversy is more inflamed when one of the crew members of the second expedition gets around to publishing an account of his voyage with the major. Only then do we determine there was more to the Powell saga than what he initially let on.
On this note, here is where the proverbial twain surely will not meet. Powell came off and still comes off, as practically a living saint in some people’s minds while his men who served with him didn’t share the same spotlight and glory. His men each had notoriety in their own way. But it wasn’t quite the same for them as that which befell the major. After that first excursion became history, the men who survived went back to their livelihoods and barely got any further recognition for the roles they played. If it weren’t for a couple of men coming forth to tell another side of the story years later, then obscurity would have claimed all of the men while leaving only their names in Powell’s published memoirs. This is not to imply Major Powell enjoyed sitting on a throne of glory while his men, like galley slaves rowing below the decks, remained pretty much anonymous. They are generally featured in Powell’s text in a good light. Then again, it’s what happened after the expedition was over. Major Powell had his new career in order and stepped forward to claim it while the others had no academic background to speak of, nor inclination to get on the same bandwagon with the major. With respect to the appropriated money Powell was later rewarded by the government, he could have been more generous, especially for those who were rightfully owed money though not fully compensated.
As for the crew members of the second expedition, they never even were mentioned in Major Powell’s published works. Of course, that mess was cleared up not too long after the major passed away.
What was thus far presented entails the essence of the upcoming performance. To say any more at this point would be redundant; indeed, the fallout of theatrics, excuses, even the enigma, that has plagued this man and his story since the turn of the 20th-century.
Now let me explain why I composed this saga––indeed, an engaging saga that has been told by many others over many decades. Suffice it to say my fascination with America’s history, particularly covering the Western frontier, stands as a good a reason as any other. Like many others, I first read Major Powell’s 1868 to 1872 canyon country exploration and loved every word he wrote. Although he and his men weren’t the first to explore some of the canyon country, especially the upper Green River sector, they were the first to row through most of the canyon corridors extending from Green River, Wyoming to the last canyon down the line, the so-called Great Unknown (which later earned a more appealing name, the Grand Canyon).
Eventually, I read what his biographers portrayed about the seeming lengthy voyage (i.e., the Rocky Mountain expedition that preceded the inaugural 1869 expedition, then a reprise of same in 1871). I loved reading those accounts, too, mainly because each biographer added a lot of backstory to the man’s life and times. These texts also directed me to two notable works written by Frederick Dellenbaugh, who was a well-liked crewman on the second expedition. The description of that voyage, indeed the prose and imagery Dellenbaugh described in The Romance of the Colorado River and A Canyon Voyage (with a lengthy subtitle) snared my interest even more, specifically, a question that came to mind: Why did Powell’s autobiographical portrayal not include the names of men on the second, and longer, expedition? As it turned out, there were more than just Powell biographers writing about the expeditions, some of whom didn’t particularly care for the way the major omitted the names of the 1871 crew members. Indeed, their beef with the major was why did he not mention to readers there were two expeditions? That being said, it follows how there was no need to mention the second crew. There was more to these writers’ complaint than this paramount issue, which will be discussed in the narrative of the play to follow.
In view of all the above, Major Powell’s epic book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, is, as previously stated, a fascinating account of the canyons incised by the Green and Colorado rivers. That being said, his account is misleading in the sense readers in his time were not aware there were actually two expeditions. In this light, the description he authored in 1875, then later expanded toward the end of the century, has since been clarified by other authors, starting with Frederick Dellenbaugh’s works. With this statement in mind, there are indeed many books are written about Major Powell’s expeditions, some by sympathetic authors (i.e., the so-called Powell biographers), and others who are more open and critical. Doubtless, most writers acknowledge Major Powell’s great achievements as an explorer in the West’s canyon country. Yet the sticky matter of Major Powell’s writings has marred his image over the years. My contribution to the Powell legacy, as it were, is to present, again, the excursion as it happened in 1869 while keeping in mind the major, when he finished his account, telescoped both expeditions.
Thus, in this play such an account is presented, and the following description explains why I decided to write yet another book about Major Powell though in an innovative way that reveals all the facts, yet relies on a day-by-day account of what took place, as told by the so-called three diarists. This is how the following account works, including the method behind the performance.
Major Powell occupies the middle of the stage. To his right is Jack Sumner, the designated lead boatmen, and to his left is George Bradley. These are the three diarists, each of whom wrote their daily river notes describing events. There is a screen behind the stage, and occasionally shows photographs relevant to the exploration.
As a performance, this play is not intended as a forum of contrasting egos meant to banter back and forth opinions and personal challenges. Instead, the story will be told by each performer exactly as they related events in their respective writings that ended up in their published manuscripts or periodicals. However, only Powell authored his memoirs for the sake of publication. Sumner and Bradley merely kept a written record of what happened, each for his own reason later to be discussed in the performance. Each performer is unaware of the others on the stage, so that when one diarist recites a transcript about what happened on a certain day, the two other performers do likewise, reciting their respective versions. What the audience gleans from these respective readings is how the reports may mesh in some ways, yet contrast in others. Moreover, each diarist records his musings, rendering, at times, a more replete or succinct account of events.
For instance, Major Powell’s river notes were the most sparing; that is a word count. Jack Sumner, who was asked to write a backup diary, in case something happened to the major’s river notes, often wrote a similar report, yet the journal entry’s word count was much higher than the major’s. George Bradley, however, is arguably the most notable diarist, and for two main reasons: 1) none of the crew even knew he wrote a diary, and 2) he never minced his words. For now, the inkling behind Bradley’s writings is that he is the diarist who said what he thought, and, therefore, didn’t have anything to hide from the others.
Because plays rely on dialogue, and the actors are meant to interact with their audience, chiefly by a dialogue and how the actor’s lines are expressed, the rendition of this entire narrative would, in effect, be too lengthy to write in the guise of a standard script written for an audience. Moreover, there is no editing, in view of what each performer recites. In fact, their reports are word-for-word transcriptions taken from the Utah Quarterly’s archives. That being said, the performance is as though presented to a supposed live audience. (In this case, a play-like presentation for readers.)
There is one other aspect of the play that needed to be inserted into the performance. Namely, the use of a narrator, expressly to provide requisite background amplifying issues, problems, and historical significance relative to what each diarist narrates; that is if there is a need for such clarification. For this performance, I chose celebrated Grand Canyon prospector and pioneer, William (Bill) Bass, to serve in this role. When needed to apprise the audience about such matters that require further explanation, he comes and goes throughout the performance. To say the least, Bill Bass’ narrations will help make better sense of some of the accounts recited by the performers, especially the historical facts that were later uncovered, and obviously not mentioned in Major Powell’s book and its revision. Indeed, ameliorating some of the confusion and the controversy is helpful though not meant to let the major off the hook, as it were. Once all the facts are out in the open, readers must decide what to think about the troubling affair, as it turned out, centered on one of the West’s most stupendous adventures, and certainly led by one of the greatest explorers of his times.
The intrigue of Major Powell’s fabled life and times vexed him until his death and continues today. This narrative in the semblance of a play will state the facts in an objective manner, thereby relating all the details, including some of the alleged machination that claimed the major knew more than what he wrote. Hence, a reexamination of a troubling depiction that, as the saying goes, provides the framework of a story geared to ‘his’ story, yet demands a cleaner and clearer account of a more factual history. Perhaps the worst of it centers on why three of his men chose to leave Major Powell’s command, which happened a few days before the six others successfully finished the expedition. Since then, there has been no trace of those so-called deserters (according to Dellenbaugh, they were labeled such). There are speculative accounts what may have happened to the three men, but no conclusive evidence. Still, the Grand Canyon’s greatest human history mystery is what it is: a mystery.
Other charges were levied against the major, each accusation based on a personal level. These disputable matters are also discussed in the play. On this note, Bill Bass railed against the major for said charges because he had met John Sumner years after the expedition, heard his account and felt sympathetic, Bass staunchly defended the former boatman. Hence, there was no love lost between Bass and Major Powell. Still, Bass is the ideal narrator because he will relay the facts, as he knows them, to the audience. Again, what the reader decides will be based on both a subjective and objective rendering.
Most assuredly, the incontrovertible evidence against Major Powell is strong. Was it a matter of oversight or forgetfulness some of these instances happened, or farfetched and vindictive as some Powell biographers contend? Perhaps some of the men were upset by the captain’s command, as based on personal irritation. In short, he was said to be autocratic given his command. Then again, both expeditions were launched for the sole purpose of mapping and scientific discovery. While the crew of the 1871 expedition was interested in science, and more than willing to collect the necessary data, the same cannot be said for the 1869 crew. Perhaps therein lies the rub, as to why that first excursion turned into a battle of wills and wits, which, of course, was part of the reason why the three men left the expedition.
Acknowledgment: Transcription source material used in this text (as individual readings by the three main performers) is taken from the archives of the Utah Historical Society. Because all the books are written about the Powell saga pretty much follow the same narrative, and with varying subjective commentary by each author, it is the telling of the story in a personal way that makes each text so unique. That being said, some accounts provide more history and tidbits of information than do others. For this text, I agree with some authors that it’s best to stay with one or the other expedition. In this case, the 1869 saga is really the most telling, and this text’s narrative will follow the chronicles of the diarists, though, at times, it will be necessary to move back in forth in time, merely to clarify key points that come up.
Note that all proceeds from this eBook text will be donated to the Utah Historical Society. Specific texts and translations stem from the following original source material:
William Culp Darrah, Powell of the Colorado (1951); Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954); John Upton Terrell, The Man Who Rediscovered America: A Biography of John Wesley Powell (1969); The Exploration of the Colorado River in 1869, Utah Historical Quarterly 15 (1947); The Exploration of the Colorado River and the High Plateaus of Utah in 1871-1872, Utah Historical Quarterly 16 and 17 (1948-1949), and John Wesley Powell and the Colorado River Centennial Edition, Utah Historical Quarterly 37 (Spring 1969); and First Through Grand Canyon: The Secret Journals & Letters of the 1869 Crew Who Explored the Green & Colorado Rivers, revised edition Paperback – April 7, 2010 by Michael P. Ghiglieri. Moreover, his collection of notes held in common by the Utah Quarterly will account for most of the journal entries appearing in this text. His presentation was also the first to employ a daily account of what the diarists noted in their respective journals. I also favored telling the story in a similar manner though modifying the common information by employing Bill Bass, as the narrator, who relates necessary details about parts of the story that needed to be clarified.
HISTORICAL GHOSTS FROM THE 19TH CENTURY
Scene––When three obscure figures appear on the stage, the stage lights are dim. Two men are standing and the other is sitting in a chair. There are partitions between the three segments and the decor for each is different from the others. A spotlight turns on, illuminating another figure. The man walks onto the stage and takes his place on the left side. Wearing an off-white Henley shirt, a dark leather vest, and dungarees (i.e., early 20th Century attire), he waits to announce himself. With a slightly graying beard, he appears to be in his late 50s or early 60s. There is a quizzical gaze in his eyes that imply this man has traveled many roads and has accomplished many things in his lifetime. When, at last, he speaks to the audience, his voice is sonorous and friendly. Doubtless, there are some people in the audience who recognize the man from a portrait that appears on the screen behind him, and followed by other enlarged photographs, including a backdrop of the Grand Canyon. The pictures illuminate, then fade, on different parts of the screen.
(Bass) “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is William Wallace Bass, but, in my time, most people knew me as Bill––Bill Bass. I am delighted to be here with you, and no, I am not a ghost; at least, I don’t think I am. (laughs) I could be thought of as, say, Deus ex machina, sans the ‘Deus’ namesake, but that’s not why the author of this play brought me back to life, as it were. Besides, I’m not here to provide a contrived solution to some insoluble difficulty. If there’s any difficulty in this upcoming performance, then it has to deal with the entanglement of how Major John Wesley Powell explained himself in his writings. But more about that sticky point later on, I assure you.
“My role in this performance is to act the part of a narrator, and one who provides a more or less backstory to what the play’s three primary performers relate. Realizing the role of, say, the Greek Chorus, which serves to formulate, express, and make comments on a moral issue raised by dramatic action or express an emotion suitable to each stage of a dramatic conflict. . .well, I suppose I could be reinvented a single speaker who personifies such a role. Still, I prefer doing what I was just said: serve in the role of a narrator, by providing essential commentary when needed. Thus, relevant historical information intended to elucidate issues or concerns brought up by the performers writings each will read from their respective diaries.
“Because there are often mitigating circumstances associated with each of their comments, the other purpose in my being here with you is to provide additional commentary. . .personal commentary. . .on a variety of matters that are bound to come up in this performance. I say ‘personal,’ because in my real time, that other corporeal life I used to have, I knew and interviewed one of Major Powell’s men who rowed a boat on the first run down the two rivers in 1869. I believe my acquaintance with Billy Hawkins is why the author decided it was best to add me to the performance, especially to make better sense of certain details that might otherwise be skimmed over or altogether left out. You see, all the books written about this historic adventure pretty much follows a similar narrative; that is who said or did what on this or that day, yet provide little or no backstory, the minutiae as it were, some people prefer when hearing or reading history. Well, let’s just say I’m gabby and will, from time to time, interrupt a performer’s spiel, by filling in those blanks, so to say. In this sense, I may jump ahead of the story, given what they’re reading to you, or go back in time. Ghost-like, I can do that sort of thing you know. (chuckles after making this comment)
“All that to one said, the author has granted me a great deal of latitude to express such views and clarification, and for this, I am truly indebted.”
Bass turns and looks over his shoulder, pointing at the screen, then continues his casual chat with the audience.
“Yes, that’s me, and where I used to make a living, first as a prospector, then later a tour operator who mined gold from tourist pockets. (pauses, then continues in a wistful tone) Where does time go? Seems like only yesterday that I came to the Grand Canyon in search of gold or silver, except there wasn’t any to be found. (laughing) Not in those rocks, at least. (another pause). Anyway, I am what you might call a voice of conscience from the past. I, like my three fellow performers on this stage, namely, Major John Wesley Powell (he turns, points, and salutes the figure on center stage), John Colton Sumner, who preferred to be called Jack (pointing to the figure on the right side of the stage), and George Young Bradley (pointing to the left side of the stage) have all come back in time to tell a story many of you probably already know. I am also fairly sure many of you may not know all the facts of the John Wesley Powell saga. I mean, if you only read his published account of the legendary forays down the Green and Colorado rivers, those bold adventures in the latter part of the nineteenth century, then you only know the story; well, from his perspective this is the case. Assuming you have already read the program notes, let me just say this as graciously as I can: the major didn’t get all of his facts right. Let me also say the subtitle of this play is what this performance will demonstrate, Q.E.D. You see, the proverbial fly in the ointment comes down to a comparison of stories, as told through the chronicles written by the three so-called diarists. Ergo, these three performers. (pointing) Additionally, there are notable post-expedition interviews that warrant our attention, and will be discussed more thoroughly toward the end of the performance.”
The screen changes. An excerpt from the Kolb brothers early 20th Century movie is shown; specifically, men in boats running the rapids. The faded movie is rustic in all respects. Bass walks toward the middle of the stage, turns around and waves at Major Powell, who doesn’t acknowledge the gesture, although he stands up and looks out the window of his salon. Bass resumes his monologue.
“By the way, the major doesn’t even know I’m here. Neither do the other two gentlemen. In fact, they don’t even know any of you out there in the audience. (laughs) Well, the author has his reasons for doing things this way. You see, each man will read from his memoirs without interruption, and thereby avoid any personal conflict that might arise. As for the earlier remark that I made about Major Powell’s flawed (Bass emphasizes this word) legacy, his published writings were just that––flawed. Even his admiring biographers didn’t altogether get their facts straight. Either that or they didn’t want to smudge the major’s shining portraiture, even though they knew there were two other crewmen who wrote journals on that first odyssey. Namely, the two gentlemen on either side of the major. Powell’s most famous biographers, like William Culp Darrah, Wallace Stegner, and Donald Worster, had a tendency to paint the major’s portrait as a hero, a scientist, and the right man to get the job done. In short, Major Powell’s character was unblemished, and these authors did not employ the darker strokes this play is prepared to offer. No one can deny Major Powell was anything but a mythical hero deserving of his many accolades. He also had the right stuff to get the job done. Characteristically, Major Powell was a take charge kind of a person who ran his campaign like a military commander because he had prior military knowledge and experience to do things his way. Thus, a man in charge of his men. We can give him that much. He even preferred this title, “Major,” after he left the Civil War, who, notably, was one of this conflagration’s heroes, and maimed in battle.
“Let it also be established Major Powell, for whatever obscure reasons, wrote about his heroic adventures in a style some might call blind-sided ambition. Some might also call it a vainglorious self-depiction. Well, that characterization is up to readers to decide. There are also other considerations why he wrote what he did, and in the style of writing that, arguably, reveals the man’s penchant for purple prose. Possibly, there was haste to publish his manuscript under threat of another crew member from the second expedition, and who intended to publish his account first. The heart of the matter comes down to the major’s version of the narrative, actually both narratives combined, compared to what later turned up in the published periodicals of Sumner’s and Bradley’s journals; their respective river notes, as it were. Then came the sticky stuff––personal issues and quagmires––that surfaced in the post-expedition interviews with two of the last surviving men of the first expedition. I, myself, was part of that process, in 1919, and Robert Brewster Stanton, who is another legendary Grand Canyon adventurer, also conducted his earlier interviews, in 1907. Again, we’ll delve into such subject matter and details further along in the performance.
“For now, the idea should be clear why these men, including myself, have come back in time to retell an old, familiar story though in a new way. It’s not exactly a meeting of minds per sé since these performers aren’t aware of one another on this stage. The main focus of the performance will also deal only with what chronologically took place in 1869, as revealed to us by what the three men wrote and thought about on a daily basis. Hence, their journal entries. This way, you will hear and know what was going on in that inaugural excursion of 1869, which, of course, was the first of two expeditions the major commanded. The second and longer expedition, which partly reprised the entirety of the first, took place in 1871 and 1872. Shall we say it was the least dramatic of the two? Certainly, the reprised adventure was not as suspenseful, and there were no lingering mysteries and rogue crew members, although two of the men turned out to be a disappointment to the major. (pauses, appears to be thinking of something more to add to this point, then continues)
“Additionally, we will hear quite a few uncloaked facts in this performance from Sumner and Bradley, as well as one other crew member, Billy Hawkins. Although the major didn’t mention most of the subtle and personal intrigue that took place during the 1869 excursion, Sumner and Bradley imparted the nuances of camp psychology almost on a daily basis. Actually, Bradley’s revelations delve into what can be called psychological speculation, strictly as an observer of the men he rowed with.”
The screen changes to still photographs showing pages from three different texts. These are sample writings of all three performers. There are also late-9th Century photographs taken on the second voyage, whereas no photographs were taken of the first voyage. Bass reads to the audience from offstage and resumes where he left off.
“The main complaint historical research leaves us with is the fact Major Powell blended two excursions into one overall journey. In short, he published an account of an amazing adventure that wasn’t one expedition, as most readers in his day assumed. It was really two separate expeditions manned by two different crews. That’s pretty much the way his publication reads, which came out in 1875. This, I think, is the most glaring of his literary blunders. Plainly, what he wrote and published is alluring. Indeed, the rich prose and imagery, the way the narrative flowed and was artistically coherent from start to finish. . . (Bass pauses, as though wanting to say something else) Well, let’s just say the major’s eloquence of depicting what some people would consider a desert wasteland helped change people’s minds about that obscure part of the West he and his men explored and mapped. He loved those canyons and rivers that carved each chasm over millions of years. He also loved the thrill of the run down the river, as it were, and the fact that he and his men were the first to explore most of those canyons from inside their deep interiors. The sheer novelty of the deed was what captured his reader’s hearts and minds. In this light, the major could certainly keep a reader’s interest.”
Bass turns toward the major, nods his head, as though to applaud, or at least recognize the major for his feat, then looks at the audience, pauses before he continues, and when he resumes his monolog, he addresses the audience with a stronger, louder voice.
. . .and the play continues from here in four acts, with two scenes in each act.