Hell Or High Water
James White's Disputed Passage through Grand Canyon, 1867
Publication Year: 2001
Although John Wesley Powell and party are usually given credit for the first river descent through the Grand Canyon, the ghost of James White has haunted those claims. White was a Colorado prospector, who, almost two years before Powell's journey, washed up on a makeshift raft at Callville, Nevada. His claim to have entered the Colorado above the San Juan River with another man (soon drowned) as they fled from Indians was widely disseminated and believed for a time, but Powell and his successors on the river publically discounted it. Colorado River runners and historians have since debated whether White's passage through Grand Canyon even could have happened.
Hell or High Water is the first full account of White's story and how it became distorted and he disparaged over time. It is also a fascinating detective story, recounting how White's granddaughter, Eilean Adams, over decades and with the assistance of a couple of notable Colorado River historians who believed he could have done what he claimed, gradually uncovered the record of James White's adventure and put together a plausible narrative of how and why he ended up floating helplessly down a turbulent river, entrenched in massive cliffs, with nothing but a driftwood raft to carry him through.
Published by: Utah State University Press
List of Illustrations
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When I was in the sixth grade, we had a test on the history of the American West; one of the questions was “Who was the first white man to go through the Grand Canyon?” The textbook answer was “Major John Wesley Powell,” but I wrote “James White.” Naturally the teacher marked this answer incorrect, but her...
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The old buzzard drifts high over the river, riding the thermals of a sun-drenched autumn afternoon. As he makes a shallow banking turn, his eye is drawn to the glittering ribbon of the river. Something is down there, floating on the current. Curious, he moves into a lazy downward spiral.The shape is beyond his...
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When Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 and its diversion tunnels closed forever, the waters of the Colorado River began to rise behind the giant structure. They filled the vast, rugged landscape to the north and east, swallowing the mouth of the Virgin River, drowning the little town of St. Thomas, lapping at the foot of the...
2. Who Was James White?
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Despite the bizarre manner of his arrival, Callville’s unexpected visitor was, in fact, quite an ordinary thirty-year-old prospector, who, less than four months before, had been making his way through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Territory in search of gold. Since leaving home to seek his fortune, he had been through a...
3. White’s War
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The stagecoach conveyed White to the army fort at Sacramento. He was shortly transformed into an infantry private, described for the official records as: “Ht: 5' 7"—Eyes: blue— Complexion: Fair.” Posted to San Francisco, he found his brief stay memorable only because he spent it standing guard at the military...
4. The Road to Gold
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The major trail through New Mexico Territory led past the hated Fort Craig stockade at Las Cruces, along the Rio Grande, and finally to Santa Fe. White continued along the Santa Fe Trail, by way of the mountain leg that runs through Trinidad in Colorado Territory, and returned to Denver. He found nothing to keep him there, and, in...
5. The Rescue
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On that furnace-hot afternoon of September 7, 1867, Callville was the scene of considerable activity.The barge Colorado lay firmly snubbed up against the riverbank, the muddy waves of the Colorado River lapping at its hull. Its owner, Captain L. C.Wilburn, was directing the loading of bags of salt for delivery to the downstream mills; the Mormon men...
6. Downriver Crier
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The next morning, September 8, at first light, the barge Colorado cast off, caught the current smartly, and was soon on her way downriver amid farewells from shore. Captain Wilburn was pleased; last night the entire male population of Callville, plus Tillman, McAllister, and himself, had crowded...
7. The News Spreads East
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Of all the Colorado River towns flourishing in 1867, few were more colorful than Hardyville. Created only three years earlier by an unlikely, but energetic, entrepreneur named William Harrison Hardy and backed by steamboat pioneer George Johnson, it soon grew from a simple trading post into a bustling crossroads community, with a ferry...
8. General Palmer and the Railroad Survey
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Despite White’s success in putting his army experience behind him and burying his court martial and imprisonment, he was fated to have his name and his Colorado River journey forever linked to two prominent army officers.These interconnections would create an indelible question mark over Grand Canyon history. The first was...
9. Dr. Parry’s Report
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Parry’s report was different from the newspaper articles of the time in that it was the result of a firsthand interview and represented the findings of a commercial survey rather than the usual piece of western journalism. It was strongly supported by a natural science society and subsequently published in its official journal. It began:...
10. Major Calhoun’s Version
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An astonishingly detailed account of White’s journey was written by Major A. R. Calhoun and published as “Passage of the Great Canyon of the Colorado River by James White, the Prospector,” the first of a series of stories that appeared in 1868 in a book called...
11. Major Powell
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The second army officer with whom James White’s life would become inextricably linked was Major John Wesley Powell. In a strange series of interwoven coincidences, White and Powell each played a role in the exploration of the American West, but only one of them emerged with glory and made it into the history books. Powell was the son...
12. On the Road Again
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In the spring of 1868,many of the young men of the Colorado River community began to set their sights on new and distant goals. In Callville Jim Ferry was the first; he sold his mail contract to Jim Hinton and headed for California. Hinton lasted only a few months before he, too,wanted out.Rumors of gold strikes up north in Sweetwater, spread...
13. Powell’s Conquest of the Grand Canyon
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The paramount message of James White’s 1867 voyage was that there were no insurmountable obstacles in the Grand Canyon to bar exploration. Did Major Powell believe it? He certainly had no specific knowledge to weigh against it and no evidence to prove it false. Even if he had been skeptical or suspicious, the very nature and scope of the...
14. Enter Robert Brewster Stanton
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White put his Grand Canyon journey behind him when he returned to the West. He was apparently able to reduce his experience to a manageable adventure. For two years, he worked at various Barlow and Sanderson jobs throughout the southeastern corner of Colorado Territory.When he decided to settle down, he took the traditional...
15. Senate Document No. 42
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Once the Stanton visit faded, life in Trinidad went on much as before; some children left home, White grew older, and his drayage work lightened. He spoke less and less of the Colorado River and his raft journey. Nine years later, in 1916,Thomas F. Dawson, a former journalist...
16. Battle of The Trail
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Senate Document No. 42 did not resolve the controversy over White’s journey; indeed, it merely added fuel to the fire of Robert Stanton’s unrelenting opposition to White. In 1919, Thomas Dawson had two articles about White published in The Trail magazine. Stanton’s response appeared in the September issue. Before discussing the substance of the article, it seems relevant to...
17. The White Family and Dock Marston
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Before 1917, the White family knew nothing about the articles and books about White, except for the Kenosha Telegraph account which White had seen when he went home in 1869.They were totally unaware of the fifty-year-old controversy over his voyage. Dawson opened the door on these facts of life during preparation of his Senate...
18. Grand Canyon History: Discoveries and Rediscoveries
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My first step was an attempt to learn more about Grand Canyon history. From Marston’s copious data and my own extracurricular reading, I began to assemble the scattered pieces. The most ancient history of the Grand Canyon and its aboriginal inhabitants lies in the sporadic discoveries of archaeological ruins...
19. Bob Euler and Square One
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It was clear from the start that determining what really happened to White in 1867 required an investigation into a very cold case; all the players were dead and could not be questioned; corroborating eyewitnesses were lacking; even circumstantial evidence was somewhere between thin and nonexistent. Bob Euler started with two undisputed facts: one...
20. In James White’s Footsteps
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By 1975, my husband, Bob, and I had been long and seriously involved with my grandfather and his odyssey.We were ready to attempt a firsthand field trip.This was the best kind of research—neither scientific nor scholarly but certainly the most rewarding. Armed with a decade and a half of Dock-oriented lore, mountains of data, research into stress, survivals, and lunar ephemera, and, best of all, the...
21. Summary and Conclusions: Part A
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Discrediting James White’s journey by attacking his character or denigrating his mental capacity seems particularly egregious. These allegations will be considered first. White was a liar who told his story to make himself important. The nineteenth-century American West was a fertile field for...
22. Summary and Conclusions: Part B
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Araft journey through the Grand Canyon was impossible. In any one of a hundred different instances death awaited a wrong decision, when we had neither the knowledge nor experience for our choice; [it was] partly the marvelous chain of coincidences—or “miracles”—that led us through forty-seven days and nights, into and out of another world...
23. Summary and Conclusions: Part C
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Those parts of White’s story which described the land over which he traveled in 1867 and the Grand Canyon landscape, as well as that suspect fourteen-day timetable of events on the river, were major stumbling blocks to later acceptance of his journey. Rather than outright dismissal of White’s journey based on these apparent inaccuracies...
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In the year 1917, the United States Congress authorized a bronze plaque to be placed at the Grand Canyon to honor Major Powell.The United States Senate, pursuant to Senate Resolution No. 79, also authorized the Government Printing Office to publish the manuscript...
Appendix A: James White’s 1867 Letter
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Appendix B: James White’s 1917 Statement
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References, Sources, and Related Subjects
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From my sixth-grade impersonation of Don Quixote until meeting Dock Marston in 1959, I knew little about the Grand Canyon. From 1959 until 1972, in addition to quizzing my mother for answers to Dock’s questions, I was the recipient of a kaleidoscopic blizzard of disparate letters, newspaper and magazine articles, excerpts from obscure books, government documents, and unpublished manuscripts...
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Publication Year: 2001