Book Review: A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell Donald Worster

By on January 30, 2013
A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell
A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell

A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell


Book Review: A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell Donald Worster

Historians of the American West regularly pull their classics off the shelf. Bibles of a bygone era like Wallace Stegner’s “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” and the original “Journals of Lewis and Clark” (not “Undaunted Courage”) bring to life a time we can never get back.

The diary of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Purchase and unknown lands beyond that were still claimed by France, Spain, and Great Britain is a fascinating read. Some 50 years later, map makers still had trouble filling in many remote areas of the Western United States. Most of Utah, in particular, was largely unexplored even after the Civil War.

Cartographers simply left the region blank rather than even guess what rivers and valleys might lie therein.

And that enthralled a man like John Wesley Powell. The famous explorer is known mostly for his fearless river run down the Green and Colorado rivers to the mouth of the Virgin River – the first known passage through the Grand Canyon since Coronado’s search for the Seven Cities of Gold. Even Coronado had the good sense to take in the view from the south rim. He certainly never considered rafting his way through the canyon like Powell did.

I had read “Exploring the Colorado River: Firsthand Accounts by Powell and His Crew” edited by John Cooley. The book details Powell’s expedition of 1869 through Utah’s canyonlands and the hardships he and his men endured. Four of the ten men that began the trek deserted. Of those, only one survived. Nearly every feature along the Colorado River still bears the names Powell and company gave them 143 years ago.

Still, until I read “A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell,” I did not have a good sense of who Powell was and what drove the man to take such risks of adventure. In “A River Running West,” author/historian Donald Worster captures the man so completely – from his parents’ upbringing in England to his Civil War heroics – I finally began to understand where Powell got his energy and appetite for exploration.

Worster does a masterful job of researching Powell’s life story to the nth degree yet manages to let the narrative flow naturally without tripping the reader up on endless footnotes and historical tidbits. The early chapters not only set the framework for Powell and his character development, but Worster does such a thorough job here the reader will feel like he or she is actually present during the expansion of America.

What was the country going through during the Civil War era? Why the push westward? And how did Powell ever lose his right arm? These questions and more are answered by Worster in a delightful and insightful 600-plus-page read.

I had no idea, for instance, that Powell met and knew fellow pathfinder John C. Fremont. In fact, General Fremont was Powell’s first commanding officer at Cape Girardeau, Missouri where Powell designed and built Fort D. Powell would later command an artillery unit (Battery F of the 2nd Illinois Artillery) as a cannoneer under Gen. Ulysses Grant himself.

And the arm? During the infamous Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, Powell was instructing his men on the positioning of one of the cannons when he raised his right arm to indicate everyone should get clear of the recoil. The instruction was misunderstood as “fire” and the fuse was lit. The Minié ball tore through his arm at point blank range.

Worster fleshes out a three-dimensional character in Powell, and meticulously describes the world in which he came from – a world that is our history as a nation.

“A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell” (Oxford University Press). Available in paperback at $19.58.

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