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First Through Grand Canyon: The Secret Journals & Letters of the 1869 Crew Who Explored the Green & Colorado Rivers, revised edition Paperback – April 7, 2010
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If you live in the Southwest, you may think you know all about Maj. John Wesley Powell's historic voyage that began 134 years ago this Saturday down the Green and Colorado rivers into unexplored Grand Canyon. Myths abound about the one-armed Civil War veteran's courage and grit as he led the first expedition into the terra incognita of the canyons and wildlands of the West. But Flagstaff author, veteran river-runner and ecologist Michael P. Ghiglieri has sifted through the tedious and frequently innacurate historic record, much based on Powell's sometimes exaggerated accounts, and breathed new life into this western odyssey. Ghiglieri spent two years researching and writing First through Grand Canyon: The Secret Journals & Letters of the 1869 Crew Who Explored the Green and Colorado Rivers. The result is an armchair time trip into 19th century adventure, most of it told in the own words of Powell; his brother, Walter Henry Powell; George Young Bradley; Andrew Hall; Oramel G. Howland; and John Colton Sumner. Ghiglieri's goal was to provide a vicarious account of the expedition devoid of the scholarly white-wash, dillution and distortion. My idea was to put you there in the minds of the men who are struggling along, sharing their disappointments or agony, their rotting boots. But also sharing their optimism about getting through. You know, that fire in people that burns and pushes them through something that looks impossible, he said. Ghiglieri did some prodigious digging to find the private journals, letters and published accounts of the expeditionaries, whose accounts were forgotten or ignored by historians who considered Powell's record of the thousand-mile journey as the most reliable. First through Grand Canyon is the first book on the expedition to rely on multiple eye-witness accounts to log each day of the trip, from May 24 to Sept. 10, 1869, beginning on the banks of the Green Ruver in Wyoming and ending near Yuma on the Colorado. The result is an armchair trip into the 19th century as each day of the 110-day mission of exploration is recounted by those who starved, sweated, risked death, and worked for Powell like galley-slaves all day. Forget all the hype about roaring rapids, towering canyon walls and death-defying exploits that have dominated Powell's official report of the expedition. The story told in the words of the crew goes deeper and reveals much about the men and their daily fight for survival. Ghiglieri puts flesh and blood into the story by extensive profiles of the 11 crew members. They were so self-reliant. And along with that independence and self-reliance, they could sort of justify doing things any way they wanted because they were responsible for their own consequences. They were very can-do, very will-do. It didn't matter how bad it got, they would joke about it later, Ghiglieri said. The book contains new information, a brutally honest portrait of Powell and pulls a few historical prizes out of its bag of research that will likely spark some controversy among Colorado Plateau historians. --Arizona Daily Sun, May 22, 2003, pages C1-C2.
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However, the overwhelming tone of the book is colored by the author's vendetta against Powell. Every action is interpreted in favor of the "noble boatmen" (like the author). There is much too much jumping to conclusions, for which he criticizes other authors. It became tiresome to read how Powell should have done this, that, or the other. Admittedly, the man had his faults, but the leader will always get the praise or blame. A more measured analysis would have been better.
While visiting the Grand Canyon South Rim in August of 2015, I noticed Michael Ghiglieri’s book First Through Grand Canyon. As I had enjoyed his prior book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, and being a fan of early Colorado River exploration, I read the book. It has a noble goal―to let Major John Wesley’s Powell’s pioneering first trip (1869) down the Colorado be told through accounts written by that trip’s participants as the trip unfolded. Unfortunately, Ghiglieri surrounds this “live” history with his own speculation about the expedition, which comes across with a distinct anti-Powell bias and mars the whole effort.
I am not a professional river runner, as is Ghiglieri, but simply a fan of the Canyon. I have no axe to grind in the historical drama of Powell’s expedition. I fear that is not the case with the author, whose sympathies for his professional river runner colleagues seeps into his analysis of Powell’s crew and his alleged mistreatment of them. No doubt both Powell’s crew and Powell were not perfect, and had many hard edges, but Ghiglieri’s approach, where the crew walk on water and Powell is the devil, is not only overly simplistic, it is not supported by the record. So that this is not perceived simply as one reader’s opinion, I have taken some effort in this review to lay out the evidence on which my opinion rests. It remains for the reader to reach his or her own conclusions.
Ghiglieri’s self-praise of his book is off-putting. He would have been well advised to adopt some of that “…charming modesty rarely displayed today...” that he so admires in John Colton Sumner (p. 3).Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A generous enterprise, this book has
Made available diaries and other texts that would only otherwise be available through a visit to a distant library special collection. Read more
Having hiked all established trails in the Grand Canyon except the Nankoweap and North Bass (and parts of the Tonto Trail), and having kayaked/rafted the length of the Colorado... Read morePublished on October 15, 2008 by A. Pulsipher