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Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon Hardcover – October 23, 2001

4.4 out of 5 stars 109 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Edward Dolnick's Down the Great Unknown depicts the "last epic journey on American soil," John Wesley Powell's exploration of the Grand Canyon and the fulminating, carnivorous Colorado River. The book, a model of precision, clarity, and serene passion, outshines, arguably, its bestselling brother-volume, Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage.

On May 24, 1869, Powell, an ambitious, autocratic, one-armed Civil War veteran and amateur scientist, and a casually recruited crew of nine--without a lick of white water experience--embarked from an obscure railroad stop in the Wyoming Territory to travel through a region "scarcely better known than Atlantis." Ninety-nine days, 1,000 miles and nearly 500 rapids later, six of the men came ashore in Arizona--the first humans to run the waters of the Grand Canyon. Dolnick tells this story of courage, naiveté, hardship, and petty squabbling simply and authoritatively using entries from the men's journals, deft overviews (we always know where we are), and short science, history, and psychology lessons, as well as the prodigious knowledge of present-day river runners and his own first-hand observations. His prose carries the day: Powell looks like a "stick of beef jerky adorned with whiskers," the boats are "walnut shells," which in rapids are little better than "ladybugs caught in a hose's blast" or "drunks trying to negotiate a revolving door," while the river is a "taunting bully," a "colossal mugger," a "sumo wrestler smothering a kitten," and a notable rock formation looks like what might happen if "Edward Gorey had designed the Bat Cave."

Down the Great Unknown brushes against perfection. This is history written as it should be--and too rarely is: enthusiastic, rigorous, painterly, gloriously free of both pedantry and hyperbole. --H. O'Billovitch

From Publishers Weekly

owell led his band of stalwart trappers and ex-soldiers down the Green River in Wyoming Territory, heading for the last bit of terra incognita in the U.S.: the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. The expedition had plenty of supplies, but the wrong type of boats for shooting rapids. Moreover, their inexperience with rapids cost them one of the boats and many provisions. There was little game to supplement their rapidly dwindling food supply. And being the first to chart the river, they didn't know what lay beyond each twist. These handicaps, along with deadly river rocks, soaring canyon walls and one-armed Powell's impressive feat of scaling them to measure their height, make for a remarkable journey. Unfortunately, Dolnick does the story a disservice in overwriting the expedition's slower moments. He frequently overexplains, and he never meets a simile he doesn't like. Every description, no matter how effective, is carried too far, suggesting Dolnick doesn't trust his story or his readers: "rapids... do not murmur. They rumble. They roar. They crash. The sound evokes a thunderstorm just overhead, a jet skimming the ground, a runaway train.... The message is worse than the sound itself the roar of a rapid is a proclamation of danger as clear as a giant's bellowed curse in a fairy tale." After passages like that, readers may want to jump ship, or like Powell's band, they can struggle through and emerge battered but illuminated. Photos and illus. (Oct. 2)Forecast: Will a 15-city NPR campaign, six-city author tour and big-time advertising help the story trump the writing? Yes. The adventure is that good.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 364 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishing; 1st edition (October 23, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 096533418X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060196196
  • ASIN: 006019619X
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #542,948 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There are several epic sagas of exploration in the present-day "lower 48" United States. Chronologically, the first was Cabeza de Vaca's 1527-35 trek from Florida through the American Southwest and into Mexico. Then there was the journey of Lewis and Clark in 1803. Finally, there was that insane one-armed army major who with nine companions floated down the unmapped Green and Colorado rivers.
Having read and enjoyed John Wesley Powell's own book about his 1869 expedition, I was shocked to hear that is was written decades after the events had taken place. Time had added an optimistic, even roseate glow to what was actually one hundred days of hell on earth with a crew that was grumbling and even mutinous at times. Instead of basing his book exclusively on Powell's book, he used the actual diaries written by Powell, Bradley, and others at the time to round out his tale.
No doubt, you know that thousands of people of floated down the Colorado in recent years. But Powell and his men used keeled rowboats in which the men with their oars faced the rapids with their BACKS. In other words, they were facing the wrong direction most of the time. When they undertook the journey, they had no way of knowing whether there were waterfalls that would plunge them to their deaths. (There is one such waterfall on the Little Colorado, which feeds into the Colorado proper south of Lee's Ferry.) As it was, irrespective of how much they grumbled, Powell saw all his men landed safely, except for the three who abandoned the party at Sepration Canyon and were mysteriously murdered by Indians or (possibly) paranoid Mormons who disbelieved their story of running the Colorado.
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Format: Paperback
This was a fantastic book. I read Powell's "Exploration of the Colorado" almost 50 years ago and was so excited about it that I bought a boat, tried to replicate his trip, almost drowned and spent 10 days nearly starving in Cataract Canyon. If I had read Dolnick's book instead of Powell's romanticized, much abbreviated account, I would have been much more cautious. Powell's book is still one of the great books in American history, but until I read Dolnick's book I really didn't know what went on. It was like revisiting the trip all over again, and was, if this is possible, even more exciting. There's only a book or two each year that I recommend to my friends and this is definitely one. Also, to any river runners out there who think this is just a rehash of Powell's trip - it's much, much more.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an exciting adventure story. The book describes the Powell Expedition's journey of exploration of the last unmapped area of the lower 48 -- the Colorado River and it's canyons (including the Grand Canyon).
These century and more ago adventure stories always amaze me as a modern reader. Major Powell and his group knew nothing about the Colorado River or the canyons. They didn't know if game would be available, they didn't know if the river contained just rapids or huge water falls like the Niagra. They didn't know how to run river rapids -- all of the men were hardy outdoors types (some courtesy of the Civil War completed four years before their great adventure). None of the men were boatmen and none had ever run white water.
Nevertheless, the intrepid Powell and his expedition started out on the Green River in present day Wyoming and followed it down through it's merger with the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon over the course of 100 days.
Powell was driven by the adventurer's quest to leave his mark and a love of Geology and natural history. His crew were driven by nothing more than youthful adventurism and wages. Although they lost one boat, had much of their food spoiled, went weeks without killing any game and regularly climbed rocky canyon sides for vantage points, no men were lost as part of the expedition. Several later expeditions following in their wake had men drown, die from falls and exposure and generally suffered for their lack of experience, planning and knowledge.
Powell was an enthusiastic leader -- and lucky. He had also left an arm in Tennessee courtesy of Confederate gunnery during the Battle of Shiloh.
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Format: Paperback
"Down the Great Unknown" is a terrific retelling of John Wesley Powell's 1869 expedition down the Colorado River. The book's author brings to life all of the expedition's more minor (and usually overlooked) characters, and gives the reader a great sense of the danger of the river and the grandeur of the canyons.

The author has an excellent sense of history, and does a wonderful job of tying all his sources together. The book also includes a detailed look at how John Wesley Powell lost his arm, and an examination of all the possibilities of what could have happened to the three men who abandoned the expedition.

If I had any objections to this book, it would be that the author dismisses too quickly the real possibility that a man named James White may have gone down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon alone two years before Powell did. (I hope the author has since read "Hell or High Water," a well-researched book on that subject.)

Overall though, this is a great read, and is much better written and much more interesting than even Powell's account. I would recommend it to any fan of adventure writing, and to any fan of the West.
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