“One of the basic documents of Colorado River history”—Farquhar

The First Descent of the Colorado River — A Book that Rewrote the Geological History of the West

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495. POWELL, John Wesley. Canyons of the Colorado by J.W. Powell, Ph.D., LL.D....With Many Illustrations. Meadville, Pa.: Flood & Vincent, The Chautauqua-Century Press, MDCCCXCV. [on verso] Copyright, 1895 By Flood & Vincent, The Chautauqua-Century Press, Pa., U.S.A. Electrotyped, Printed, and Bound by Flood & Vincent. [2], [i-iii] iv-xiv, [2], [17] 18-400, [2, ad for Santa Fe Route to Grand Canyon] pp., title page printed in red and black and with bookish vignette on maize ground, 11 plates (frontispiece portrait of Powell and his facsimile signature + 10 folded panoramic plates of views of the Grand Canyon), numerous text illustrations (geology, archaeology, artifacts, Native Americans, scenes; by William H. Holmes, Thomas Moran, H.H. Nichols, and photographer John Karl Hillers). 4to (30 x 22.5 cm), original ochre cloth, stamped and decorated in black, with gilt letters on spine and upper cover, bevelled edges, t.e.g. Touches of shelfwear at corner tips and spinal extremities; tip of upper right corner of front board bumped with split to cloth; a tiny split to cloth is also starting at base of front hinge. Binding lightly soiled with some faint staining and spotting. The binding shows signs of weakness at page 179, but otherwise is tight and sound. Except for a faint thin dampstain occurring along the edges of the last half of the book, the interior is clean and unmarked. Overall a very good copy of one of the great rarities of Colorado River literature, difficult to find in any condition (the few copies offered in recent years were ex-library copies).

     First complete edition,only an estimated 100 copies printed (Rumsey 740), with an account of the first descent of the Colorado River. Part of the text appeared originally in 1875 in Powell’s Report of the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries (Spamer, Bibliography of the Grand Canyon and the Lower Colorado River lists the government report at p. 73, but not this special edition). As the author explains in his preface, he bowed to outside pressures to produce a popular volume about his explorations, of which this is the result.

     Arizona Hundred 100: A Centennial Gathering of Essential Books on the Grand Canyon State 76n: “Powell’s present-tense...sparkles with the explorer’s love of, and concern for, the landscape and people of the American West.” Eberstadt 133:313: “Of great value as the final and complete record of the first conquest of the mighty chasm.” Flake 6429n. Graff 3335. Howes P527: “First complete narrative; his earlier reports were largely devoted to scientific data.” Munk (Alliot), p. 180. Powell, Southwest Classics, pp. 287-297: “Retirement and recuperation brought the opportunity for Powell to prepare a revised and enlarged version of the 1875 report. It appeared in 1895 as Canyons of the Colorado, and included more text and illustrations. Today both the 1895 and the 1875 volumes are basic for the Powell and Colorado River collector, and they are correspondingly scarce and costly.” Wallace, Arizona History IV:13n. Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West #1261 & Vol. V, Part 2, p. 357(citing the government report): “As a narrative of adventure, this one of the most justly celebrated documents in the literature of exploration of the West.” See also Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1854).

     Farquhar, The Colorado River and the Grand Canyon 43:

One of the basic documents of Colorado River history. This book differs in so many respects from the report of 1875...that it is here given the status of a separate title. Not only has the narrative been revised and augmented, but there are several new chapters and a great many new illustrations. Included in the latter are adaptations from the superb sketches of William H. Holmes which are featured in the Dutton atlas (Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District, with Atlas, Washington: 1882). Altogether, it is a handsome book; also a scarce one.

     Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West, pp. 562-566: summing up this work and Powell’s Report on the Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains (1876) remarks:

Despite dry-sounding academic titles, these are two of the most exciting Western books ever written and form the basis for an altogether new approach to geology.... It is no wonder that, with his maps and colorful diagrams, or even with a blackboard and a piece of chalk, the Major made an irresistible teacher, one who could sway Lyceum audiences and congressional committees alike. He was a scientist of brilliant lucidity with the imagination of a conjurer. When his first major report was published in 1875, it sold out immediately.

     William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann in their chapter “The Grandest Canyon of Them All” in The West of the Imagination (pp. 183-190) discuss the geological aspects of the expedition and accompanying artists Thomas Moran and William H. Holmes:

The Grand Canyon’s walls contained within their mile deep beds of strata the key to the geological history of the American West. To ride down the winding trail into the canyon was to descend into the vaults of time, counting away geological aeons with each careful step of the burro’s hoof.... Moran tried to apply somewhat outworn romantic devices to a scene which defied them. Moran, despite all of his enthusiasm for the effects of the Western landscape did not have the geological vision that could capture the true drama of the Grand Canyon. It took the efforts of a very different artist to ultimately picture it correctly. William H. Holmes, artist, ethnographer, geologist, topographer and museum curator had his own vision of the Grand Canyon, a vision not founded upon the plastic fantasies of the aesthetic imagination, nor upon the application of Turnerian principals to the American continent, but upon the “art of information” and the desire to interpret the topography in geological terms.... The landscape told a grander story than even Moran could visualize. The history of the Grand Canyon had its own sublime character.

It was nature’s own narrative that the artist William H. Holmes took the trouble to render faithfully, as he painstakingly sat in the brilliant Arizona sun, drawing board and pencil in hand, squinting through binoculars at the distant strata. Holmes somehow knew that he was limning out the West at its moment of creation and thus he needed no painterly embellishments. It was dramatic enough in its own right, a story in novelist rank Norris’s words “as big as all outdoors.” Ironically, Holmes realist vision surpassed any photographic attempt to document the same geological features.... Holmes’s pictures, while primarily scientific illustrations had an aesthetic beauty all their own. Perhaps this is because they come as close as possible to representing the complex clarities of the scientific imagination itself.... In addition, Holmes, an artist of information, was one of the few to rival the photographer as a documentary artist.

     In this beautifully printed book, Powell narrates the expeditions he led to the area in 1867 and 1871-1872. The expeditions explored the Green and Colorado rivers, including the Utah canyons described at length here. Powell concentrated not only on geological features, but also on Native Americans he encountered and the wonderful beauty of the area. That he managed at all to successfully descend the dangerous rapids of those rivers without modern boats is a testament to his party’s skills and luck. The first expedition, for example, was not without disasters, however, as Powell lost two of his boats, some scientific instruments, and a portion of his supplies. Three men quit.

     The book contains one of the more touching and poignant passages in all of exploration literature, in which Powell memorializes the first expedition’s members (p. v):

Many years have passed since the exploration, and those who were boys with me in the enterprise are—ah, most of them are dead, and the living are gray with age. Their bronzed, hardy, brave faces come before me as they appeared in the vigor of life; their lithe but powerful forms seem to move around me; and the memory of the men and their heroic deeds, the men and their generous acts, overwhelm me with a joy that seems almost a grief, for it starts a fountain of tears. I was a maimed man; my right arm was gone; and these brave men, those good men, never forgot it. In every danger my safety was their first care, and in every waking hour some kind of service was rendered me, and they transfigured my misfortune into a boon. To noble and generous companions, dead and alive, I dedicate this book.

     Powell (1834-1902), a New York native, grew up in the Midwest and had long shown a tendency to wanderlust. Enlisting in the Civil War, he lost part of his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh, a wound that caused him lifetime pain. After his Western explorations, he became director of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. During his tenure at the latter, the important Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico (1891) was published, reflecting his own interest in linguistics and his support of others working in that field. He was one of the more influential scientists and explorers of his era and correctly predicted the fights over water that would develop in the West because of increasing population pressures on a scarce resource.


Sold. Hammer: $4,500.00; Price Realized: $5,512.50.

Auction 23 Abstracts

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