Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon Info

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0n May 24, 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran named John
Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the
last great quest in the American West. No one had ever explored the
fabled Grand Canyon; to adventurers of that era it was a region almost
as mysterious as Atlantis - and as perilous.

The ten men set
out down the mighty Colorado River in wooden rowboats. Six survived.
Drawing on rarely examined diaries and journals, Down the Great
Unknown
is the first book to tell the full, true story.


Average Ratings and Reviews
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Reviews for Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon:

1

Jun 03, 2015

I loved the author's newest book, The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853 so I looked for other's he has written. I enjoy history written from journals and thought the topic of being the first to run the rapids through the Grand Canyon would be an excellent topic. Not to be.

The story was all over the place diverting to various places that went beyond supplying the pertinent information for the story to excess detail that need not be part of the book. I did not want a history of I loved the author's newest book, The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853 so I looked for other's he has written. I enjoy history written from journals and thought the topic of being the first to run the rapids through the Grand Canyon would be an excellent topic. Not to be.

The story was all over the place diverting to various places that went beyond supplying the pertinent information for the story to excess detail that need not be part of the book. I did not want a history of the Civil War for example.

I can only imagine the awe of those canyons -- so pristine. The danger, the adventure, the excitement! The story potential. Fizzled. The story dragged on and was continually sided tracked by overwhelming detail of geology, the Civil War, and current rafting techniques. All have their place in the story but the level of detail overwhelmed the purpose of the book, the journey down the river. ...more
5

Apr 21, 2015

I read the book in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. I read it in my methodical style as I do such books constantly referring to maps and googling other references to increase my understanding. It has me super-excited about the trip!

It is a great book about an epic 1000 mile journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon in 1869, led by a man-John Wesley Powell, who had one arm amputated during the Civil War. It is a gripping story with lessons on I read the book in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. I read it in my methodical style as I do such books constantly referring to maps and googling other references to increase my understanding. It has me super-excited about the trip!

It is a great book about an epic 1000 mile journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon in 1869, led by a man-John Wesley Powell, who had one arm amputated during the Civil War. It is a gripping story with lessons on geology, geography, scholarly history, theology, and human psychology. The area was unexplored by Europeans at the time and yet the 10 men bravely headed down the river to explore and map the area. They rowed backwards facing upstream, always worried that the next rapid might be a sheer drop-off that would destroy their boats and drown them, and yet they went on with 6 men in the end finishing the trip. The story is based upon 3 men’s diaries with perspectives on each day’s event that are drastically different. I especially enjoyed the excerpts from John Wesley Powell’s diary and book as he is the consummate romantic marveling about all he sees along the way while the others are consumed by their fears. His writing reminds me of John Muir’s. It is one amazing story!!!

...more
4

Jul 24, 2017

“Down the Great Unknown” by Edward Dolnick, published by Harper Collins.

Category – History/Adventure Publication Date – 2001

If you are looking for a history book that is full of adventure, “Down the Great Unknown” would be an excellent choice.

In 1869 a one armed man, John Wesley Powell, decided to explore the Grand Canyon by way of the Colorado River. He was going to a place no man has been and had no idea of what he was getting himself into. He attempted to get the United States involved in the “Down the Great Unknown” by Edward Dolnick, published by Harper Collins.

Category – History/Adventure Publication Date – 2001

If you are looking for a history book that is full of adventure, “Down the Great Unknown” would be an excellent choice.

In 1869 a one armed man, John Wesley Powell, decided to explore the Grand Canyon by way of the Colorado River. He was going to a place no man has been and had no idea of what he was getting himself into. He attempted to get the United States involved in the project but when they refused he took the project on himself.

He was able to convince nine mountain men to help him, even though they had no experience on a river like the Colorado. They used boats that were not suitable for the rapids they would encounter. Not only would they have to face the rapids but some were so formidable that they had to portage around them. They were also faced with starvation as the food they brought was either lost or became inedible.

When they finally ended their journey only six men had completed the trip, they were exhausted, nearly naked, and in dire need of food.

Where do these men come from? What drives them to do the things they do. Where do they find the courage to complete the task when all seems hopeless?

A great read that combines history with an incredible journey down the Grand Canyon.
...more
4

Jul 06, 2017

This is a really well written account of John Wesley Powell's expedition from Green River Station, Wyoming to a Mormon settlement downstream of the Grand Canyon. Edward Dolnick continuously impressed me with his ability to describe all the features of whitewater with analogies and descriptions that made my arm chair feel like an overburdened vessel at the mercy of titanic waves. The story of the ten fool hardy men who risked it all to chart the unknown is told in such detail that at times you This is a really well written account of John Wesley Powell's expedition from Green River Station, Wyoming to a Mormon settlement downstream of the Grand Canyon. Edward Dolnick continuously impressed me with his ability to describe all the features of whitewater with analogies and descriptions that made my arm chair feel like an overburdened vessel at the mercy of titanic waves. The story of the ten fool hardy men who risked it all to chart the unknown is told in such detail that at times you want to scramble out of the canyons yourself. Thankfully, the author does just that, he whisks us away to the battle of Shiloh where Powell lost his arm, and later we get out of the canyon to hear 1869's version of fake news about the death's of Powell and his crew. The story of the expedition is put into historical context so that we get the proper setting of this insane excursion. Inevitably, we arrive back in the canyons, painstakingly inching through danger after danger while the food runs out and spirits wane.
As a whitewater enthusiast and geologist, I was wary of generic descriptions and inaccurate details. Instead, I found this book to be profoundly accurate and I found myself wondering how I spent so many years paddling white water without making the connections Dolnick put forth to the reader. My only gripe is that he kept referring to the Vishnu Schist as granite, but this is because Powell himself called it granite and the journal entrees of three men where commonly cited.
In the end, this is the ultimate tale of perseverance. Against all odds, these men journeyed into the pits of hell and...well I'll let you find out. Enjoy! ...more
3

Apr 18, 2008

That the author was so present in the telling of this story was both its best and worst feature. He brings context to events and circumstances, but he does so through odd illustrations. For instance, he describes a boatman stuck in a muddy whirlpool as being in the center of a massive glass of chocolate milk as it is stirred by a giant 8-year old. It was consistently distracting, but I think it enhanced my understanding of the challenges the expedition team faced in the process of exploring the That the author was so present in the telling of this story was both its best and worst feature. He brings context to events and circumstances, but he does so through odd illustrations. For instance, he describes a boatman stuck in a muddy whirlpool as being in the center of a massive glass of chocolate milk as it is stirred by a giant 8-year old. It was consistently distracting, but I think it enhanced my understanding of the challenges the expedition team faced in the process of exploring the Grand Canyon for the first time.

In the end, I think it was worth reading, especially for the passages regarding Powell's fascination with geology and for the social context (e.g. national arguments about Manifest Destiny) revealed through the men's experiences with the outside world. ...more
3

Jul 24, 2011

Good book. This is a nicely written account of the the Powell expedition but not a real page turner. I liked the digressions about Powell losing his arm at Shilo. If you want to know about the first trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, this is for you. I think the low draft rubber rafts of today would have made Powells expedition much easier. enjoy.
2

Jan 14, 2019

“I decided to run it,” wrote Sumner, “though there was a queer feeling in my craw, as I could see plainly enough a certain swamping for all the boats. But what was around the curve below out of our sight?” If there was a waterfall lurking just out of range, everyone understood, they were about to speed to their deaths. But, with no options, Sumner announced that he was ready to start. “Who follows?” he cried. Hawkins and Hall, the two youngest members of the expedition, one the none-too-expert “I decided to run it,” wrote Sumner, “though there was a queer feeling in my craw, as I could see plainly enough a certain swamping for all the boats. But what was around the curve below out of our sight?” If there was a waterfall lurking just out of range, everyone understood, they were about to speed to their deaths. But, with no options, Sumner announced that he was ready to start. “Who follows?” he cried. Hawkins and Hall, the two youngest members of the expedition, one the none-too-expert cook and the other the ex-mule driver who had once complained that his boat would neither gee nor haw, answered first. “Pull out!” they yelled. “We’ll follow you to tidewater or hell.” ...more
3

Aug 17, 2016

I picked this book up at the Grand Canyon after watching the IMAX movie that includes a dramatic reenactment of Powell's journey. A one-armed Civil War veteran led the first exploratory trip through the Grand Canyon? And some of the men took a land route right at the end and were never heard from again? Sounds as exciting as the Amazon river & rainforest adventures that I enjoy so much!

Parts of this were really interesting, but Dolnick's focus on including every detail written down by the I picked this book up at the Grand Canyon after watching the IMAX movie that includes a dramatic reenactment of Powell's journey. A one-armed Civil War veteran led the first exploratory trip through the Grand Canyon? And some of the men took a land route right at the end and were never heard from again? Sounds as exciting as the Amazon river & rainforest adventures that I enjoy so much!

Parts of this were really interesting, but Dolnick's focus on including every detail written down by the various group members that kept journals made parts really boring, too. I wanted the big picture, the main adventures, not the mundane details. And while some of the additional background (geological history) was interesting, the civil war battle background was not what I came for.

The men don't even enter the Grand Canyon until over halfway through the book, and while the rest of the journey is important, I think a lot of that could have been condensed. ...more
2

Apr 12, 2007

This is the weakest adventure/exploration-type book I've read so far and I don't recommend it. Most of it is pretty damn boring. It gets a little more interesting towards the end, but only for a little bit. The interesting bit concerns the situation at the end of their trip down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. No one had ever been all the way down it before, on boat or foot, so they had no idea what was in store for them. For most of the trip they had dealt with this by exploring This is the weakest adventure/exploration-type book I've read so far and I don't recommend it. Most of it is pretty damn boring. It gets a little more interesting towards the end, but only for a little bit. The interesting bit concerns the situation at the end of their trip down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. No one had ever been all the way down it before, on boat or foot, so they had no idea what was in store for them. For most of the trip they had dealt with this by exploring the river carefully and pulling to the side whenever they approached dangerous rapids. They would then carry the boats over land around the rapids, a time-consuming and laborious process. But as they went down into the canyon, and the walls towered above them, they quickly realized that they might end up in a situation where there were rapids ahead but no way to get off of the river, because of mile-high cliffs on both sides. This never actually happened. What did happen was that as they ran out of supplies, they realized they just had to make a run for it, and so they just raced through the most terrible rapids. Luckily, they made it. ...more
4

Mar 30, 2018

Fun to read. I do a lot of hiking and backpacking. My adventures are child’s play in comparison. What these guys went through was astonishing.
5

Feb 16, 2017

The story of Powell and his crew making their way through the Grand Canyon in boats in 1869 is beyond fascinating. And Dolnick is the perfect one to tell that story. (This is the second of his books I have read, the other being The Clockwork Universe - about the scientific revolution - also a wonderful book.)
Powell himself wrote eloquently of this adventure, but Dolnick brings an outsider's sensibility to bear on the thing. For example, several of the men kept diaries, so Dolnick can compare The story of Powell and his crew making their way through the Grand Canyon in boats in 1869 is beyond fascinating. And Dolnick is the perfect one to tell that story. (This is the second of his books I have read, the other being The Clockwork Universe - about the scientific revolution - also a wonderful book.)
Powell himself wrote eloquently of this adventure, but Dolnick brings an outsider's sensibility to bear on the thing. For example, several of the men kept diaries, so Dolnick can compare their differing descriptions of specific days' goings-on. Also, Powell's published works were written years after the events and he greatly expanded on his diary entries. His memory had to be as fallible as anyone's and his motivation in later life was to persuade congress of his environmentalist beliefs. None of this diminishes the value of his writings, but it allows Dolnick to contextualize the history.
A gripping read. ...more
3

Jun 20, 2019

This is a fascinating story, with some colorful characters and a lot of relation to the overall mythos of the American Dream and specifically the ideal of Manifest Destiny. Powell is an incredibly interesting figure, whose drive and grit are admirable and honestly inspiring, even as he left a lot to be desired as a leader and an explorer. All this being said, Dolnick's account of Powell's crew and journey is only alright. It tends to get bogged down in the details of the journey rather than the This is a fascinating story, with some colorful characters and a lot of relation to the overall mythos of the American Dream and specifically the ideal of Manifest Destiny. Powell is an incredibly interesting figure, whose drive and grit are admirable and honestly inspiring, even as he left a lot to be desired as a leader and an explorer. All this being said, Dolnick's account of Powell's crew and journey is only alright. It tends to get bogged down in the details of the journey rather than the themes, and often breaks into tangential areas of comment that add some to the primary narrative but not enough to justify their inclusion in many cases. The men that Powell traveled with are compelling enough in their own right, they didn't need extras added on to make the entire story more "interesting." What I wished was a more in-depth character study of each of the men involved, or at least more details about their lives and fame following the expedition.

This is not a bad book, and I wish that Goodreads enabled me to actually give it 3.5 stars. It just wasn't as good as it could have been, or as Powell's story ultimately deserved. ...more
4

Down the Great Unknown is a re-telling of the 1869 John Wesley Powell expedition by boat through the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, the first ever descent. The advantage of Dolnick's modern archival ...Full Review
2

Sep 15, 2019

This book suffered from way too much padding. The sections on the actual expedition are fascinating but too often the author spends time on unnecessary detail. Members of the expedition fought at Shiloh, so he spend over a chapter talking about the battle. He over explained modern white water rafting as well. He also tried way too hard on his metaphors.
4

Aug 14, 2018

Although incredibly dry at times, as well as tedious in the level of detail about the most mundane of topics, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I am amazed at how much Powell and Company were able to complete with so little experience. I have never visited the Grand Canyon, but after reading this I want to take a canoe down the whole thing.
3

Aug 16, 2019

I really enjoyed the accounts of the Powell expedition. Having run the Gates of Ladore and Desolation Canyon legs of the Green River on a modern raft and hiked into the Grand Canyon I could really emphasize with the adventures and challenges portrayed in the book. The author did go off on tangents now and again. I think his conspiracy theory at the end was an unnecessary and confusing tangent. The author should have kept with the Powell expedition.
4

Mar 09, 2019

Read this book in preparation for hiking trip around Lake Powell and because I love the region. I enjoyed his writing, although I grew weary (along with the men) of portaging and lining rapids for the bazillionth time. I enjoyed the diversions to cultural, geological, political and theological issues of the time. Found it easier to digest than Wallace Stegner’s “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” which I did not finish.
3

Jul 17, 2018

Interesting look at early explorer's first trip down the Green River and then Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Interesting to compare his experiences with ours -- what would it have been like to not know what was coming next or how long the trip would be, and doing it in a wooden boat facing backwards?? Also interesting to hear about the interpersonal challenges for a group on such an exploration.
4

Oct 09, 2018

I enjoyed this book. Having grown up in Utah I have visited Lake Powell and Lake Mead several times. As a youth I went white water rafting on the Green River. Crossed Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, visited Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon. I have visited Lee’s Ferry and even camped on both the North Rim and South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but I never truly thought about the trials of those first adventurous souls who were the first to explore and float down the river until I read this book.
4

Aug 19, 2018

Superbly written, fast-moving and so facinating....marred only by a few boring stretches when Dolnick ties to conjure theology (ot rather anti-theology) out of some of Powell's geological journal entries. Powell never makes those connections himself in his journals, so Dolnick's waxing seems unnecessary and agenda-driven in a story already packed full with adventure, history and sociological interest. Those few spots aside, a fantastic read.
4

Oct 18, 2019

I had read Powell’s book exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons. I wanted a different take while on a private Grand kayak trip. The book moves along nicely with just enough side stories to keep it interesting without getting too far afield. On several days I would share information gleaned from the book with my boating group. This isn’t a river mile guide doesn’t pretend to be but it is nice to have the background. This was especially true when we camped at Indian Canyon where the I had read Powell’s book exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons. I wanted a different take while on a private Grand kayak trip. The book moves along nicely with just enough side stories to keep it interesting without getting too far afield. On several days I would share information gleaned from the book with my boating group. This isn’t a river mile guide doesn’t pretend to be but it is nice to have the background. This was especially true when we camped at Indian Canyon where the Powel expedition had stolen squash and other items from the Native Americans. ...more
4

Sep 23, 2019

This second history I've read of Powell's journey through the Grand Canyon was a little more interesting to me than the Stegner version. This focused almost entirely on the journey of exploration, and more on the personalities/foibles of the men. None of the later political life of Powell, which was worthy, but hardly gripping. The author spent time trying to make modern audiences understand the speed and treacherous nature of the river, the awkwardness of the equipment they used, and the almost This second history I've read of Powell's journey through the Grand Canyon was a little more interesting to me than the Stegner version. This focused almost entirely on the journey of exploration, and more on the personalities/foibles of the men. None of the later political life of Powell, which was worthy, but hardly gripping. The author spent time trying to make modern audiences understand the speed and treacherous nature of the river, the awkwardness of the equipment they used, and the almost total lack of knowledge that they started off with. We're heading to the Grand Canyon soon, and I'm excited to see it with fresh perspective. ...more
5

Jan 28, 2017

I really enjoyed this book. I read a lot of history, on varied subjects, and love all of it. I recognize though,that often the writing style is a bit "text bookish-ish" and am hesitant to recommend the book to anyone other than someone who is seeking information on the specific topic.

This book is different. The writing style is very accessible, and does a great job of pulling you into the story. And what a story. John Wesley Powell, floats the previously unexplored region of the Colorado I really enjoyed this book. I read a lot of history, on varied subjects, and love all of it. I recognize though,that often the writing style is a bit "text bookish-ish" and am hesitant to recommend the book to anyone other than someone who is seeking information on the specific topic.

This book is different. The writing style is very accessible, and does a great job of pulling you into the story. And what a story. John Wesley Powell, floats the previously unexplored region of the Colorado River,starting on the Green River in Wyoming and all the way through the Grand Canyon,does so with only one arm, and with a crew of tough but inexperienced men. Oh,and in the wrong type boats. Without sufficient supplies. Before the development of modern river rafting techniques, which equals backwards, literally.

Pretty amazing stuff. ...more
4

Sep 28, 2018

Accurate, with any and all speculation kept to a minimum (and clearly stated as such). I highly appreciate that level of literary integrity.

The author included brief accounts of other explorers at intervals in the text which were interesting in their own right, but were too lengthy for my taste.

The author also wrote sections explaining the level of difficulty the men faced, how others faced similar challenges, and how it compares to today. I found these sections informative and distracting, in Accurate, with any and all speculation kept to a minimum (and clearly stated as such). I highly appreciate that level of literary integrity.

The author included brief accounts of other explorers at intervals in the text which were interesting in their own right, but were too lengthy for my taste.

The author also wrote sections explaining the level of difficulty the men faced, how others faced similar challenges, and how it compares to today. I found these sections informative and distracting, in turn. The additional background aided the illustration of the difficulty, but I found myself wishing the book were about 100 pages shorter.

Overall, a solid book that fills a hole (for me) in American history and does so without dramatic embellishment. Worth reading, at least once.

P.S. The painting on the front cover of the edition I read speaks to me, I want to find a print and put it up in my home. ...more
5

Mar 21, 2017

In 1869 at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, 60 miles from Lee's Ferry the one armed Civil War Veteran and Colorado River expedition leader John Wesley Powell penned the most famous words ever written about the Grand Canyon:

"We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats...ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire (they lost most of their food). We have but a month's rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito nets; the In 1869 at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, 60 miles from Lee's Ferry the one armed Civil War Veteran and Colorado River expedition leader John Wesley Powell penned the most famous words ever written about the Grand Canyon:

"We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats...ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire (they lost most of their food). We have but a month's rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito nets; the spoiled bacon has been dried and the worst of it boiled; the few pounds of dried apples have been spread in the sun..the sugar has all melted and gone down the river..but we have a large sack of coffee. We are 3/4 of a mile in the depths of the earth..the great river dashes its angry waves against the walls and the cliffs. We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are we know not. The men talk as cheerfully as ever; but to me the cheer is somber and the jests are ghastly."

In 4 wooden dory boats Powell and 9 other men were commissioned to explore (what was then a big blank on the US map) the Colorado River (Los Angelas had a population of the time of 5,000 and only a few Mormon settlements existed in the Southwest) The trip was poorly planned from the beginning--the boats were heavy, easy to be tipped, and were rowed facing backwards. The boats were loaded down with excess of geologic and mapping equipment. No experience boatmen were aboard..and nearly all rapids had to be painfully portaged or lined (paying out rope and holding the bucking bronco of a boat slowly through the rapids). Boats were lost, men became demoralized and deserted the trip, food spoiled, leather shoes wore out, and oars were broken...and it all made for a marvelous story.

5 stars. A remarkable story..played out by Dolnick through the diaries of Powell and friends. Powell as mentioned in the book (though not as well known) should be ranked in the likes of Lewis and Clark, Magellan, and Columbus.

Remember as well..when Powell began this adventure there was no Glen Canyon Dam or Hoover Dam--so his trip spanned 900 miles of uncharted river. Truly and exceptional story. Read it and you might want to Raft the Great Unknown.
...more

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