Hell Or High Water

Hell Or High Water: James White's Disputed Passage through Grand Canyon, 1867

Eilean Adams
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 236
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  • Book Info
    Hell Or High Water
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-465-9
    Subjects: History, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    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 curiosity was aroused, for she asked me, “Who, pray tell, is James White?”

    “He went through the Grand Canyon in 1867,” I said, “two years before Major Powell.” Then I added, “He was my grandfather.”

    She replied that family loyalty was commendable, but...

  5. Prologue
    (pp. 8-10)

    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 experience: long, sturdy, tree branches bunched together, supporting a lumpy, roundish creature with odd-looking limbs. One half of the creature is pale and smooth; the other half is very dark and rough and ends in a mass of long, matted, yellow-white fur. It lies as...

  6. Chapter 1 Callville
    (pp. 11-14)

    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 Grand Canyon at Grand Wash Cliffs, and creating Lake Mead, a twentieth-century wonderland of recreational tourism. A few miles upstream from the dam and roughly twenty-five miles east of Las Vegas lie a resort and marina known as Callville Bay, home to cruising...

  7. Chapter 2 Who Was James White?
    (pp. 15-18)

    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 number of adventures not uncommon in the American West, the last of which had consigned him to the silty Colorado.

    James White was born on November 19, 1837, in the small town of Rome, New York. Neither his fair complexion, light hair, blue eyes, and sturdy build, nor...

  8. Chapter 3 White’s War
    (pp. 19-23)

    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 stockade on Alcatraz Island. In February 1862, his outfit sailed down the coast to San Diego and Camp Wright, his first and only voyage on the Pacific Ocean. In May the unit marched over the mountains and through the sand dunes to Fort Yuma.

    As a teamster in the...

  9. Chapter 4 The Road to Gold
    (pp. 24-31)

    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 the fall, he went east to Atchison, Kansas, in the company of a Captain Turnley and his family. Either that winter or the following spring, White went on to Fort Dodge, where he hired on to drive stage on the Santa...

  10. Chapter 5 The Rescue
    (pp. 32-34)

    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 and Paiute Indians formed a human chain from the big stone warehouse to the barge, heaving the bags hand over hand. They were sweating in the heat and tired, but the work went doggedly on.

    Suddenly, one of the Paiutes dropped a...

  11. Chapter 6 Downriver Crier
    (pp. 35-41)

    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 into Ferry’s little house and listened to White’s account of his raft voyage. Curiosity overwhelmed their natural concern for an injured man, and they were eager to hear his story.

    Ferry had spruced White up, helped him into a clean shirt, and propped him up on his cot. What the men saw now...

  12. Chapter 7 The News Spreads East
    (pp. 42-52)

    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 that linked the state of California to Arizona Territory and points east.

    The steamboats and barges that opened the mines and settlements along the Colorado River included such wonderful ladies as the old Colorado, Mohave, Esmerelda, Nina Tilden, and Cocopah I and had recently been joined by...

  13. Chapter 8 General Palmer and the Railroad Survey
    (pp. 53-58)

    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 General William Jackson Palmer. Despite his considerable accomplishments, he is not widely known. He was born in September 1836 in Pennsylvania, the eldest son of well-educated Quaker parents. He was a precocious child and had the advantage of an excellent early education; his parents were not considered well-to-do, but...

  14. Chapter 9 Dr. Parry’s Report
    (pp. 59-67)

    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:

    Account of the passage through the Great Cañon of the Colorado of the west, from above the mouth of Green River to the head of steamboat navigation at Callville, in the months of August and September, 1867, by James White, now living at Callville. Reported...

  15. Chapter 10 Major Calhoun’s Version
    (pp. 68-76)

    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 Wonderful Adventures. As a journalist, Calhoun would certainly have viewed the journey as good copy, but it was entirely as a “wonderful adventure” that it was presented here.

    Calhoun begins with a vague description of the general region around the Colorado River and Grand Canyon as a romantic prologue for the story of James...

  16. Chapter 11 Major Powell
    (pp. 77-83)

    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 of a well-educated English emigrant, a Methodist-Episcopal preacher who named his firstborn John Wesley as a rather broad hint that he was expected to walk in his father’s footsteps. He received a good education at home and at whatever frontier schools presented...

  17. Chapter 12 On the Road Again
    (pp. 84-90)

    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 by Adam Simon’s ex-army friend, Jeff Stanford, lured Simon and Hinton into the search for the yellow metal. Even James White was willing to give it another try. There were placer diggings nearby, but plenty of...

  18. Chapter 13 Powell’s Conquest of the Grand Canyon
    (pp. 91-100)

    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 publicity given to White’s journey meant that it was perceived as fact, which in itself was powerful enough to make another attempt at the canyon inevitable. It was, after all, the age of exploration and adventure, and there were undoubtedly many...

  19. Chapter 14 Enter Robert Brewster Stanton
    (pp. 101-110)

    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 and practical first step.

    In 1871, he married a sixteen-year-old girl fresh out of a convent school, Octaviana (Tavvy) Johnson; she was tiny, dark haired, dark eyed, and part Mexican. The marriage took place in Red Rock (Colorado Territory) on November 6, 1871, and Antonio Johnson’s...

  20. Chapter 15 Senate Document No. 42
    (pp. 111-121)

    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 and now an executive clerk in the United States Senate, entered White’s life and opened one last chapter on the Grand Canyon of 1867. Dawson wrote to the Honorable Dan Taylor, mayor of Trinidad, inquiring about the possibility of investigating the story of James White. He wished, he said, to refute...

  21. Chapter 16 Battle of The Trail
    (pp. 123-126)

    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 examine Stanton’s somewhat petulant attitude toward what the magazine’s space limitations forced upon his evidentiary references. He complains that: “a hundred or so other reports, diaries, notes, letters and facts considered as one, analyzed and tried by the rules of evidence...

  22. Chapter 17 The White Family and Dock Marston
    (pp. 127-132)

    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 document, and the discovery was a mixed blessing. When Dawson’s pamphlet was finally published, the family gave a collective sigh of relief and closed the Grand Canyon door that he had opened.

    The post-1917 explorations of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon held no...

  23. Chapter 18 Grand Canyon History: Discoveries and Rediscoveries
    (pp. 133-140)

    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 and resultant speculations. The old legends impart an aura of mystery and myth, but they are not part of this discussion. I have great regard for the American Indian tribes, and I do not doubt that these people, especially the Anasazi, long ago preceded the white man onto the Colorado River...

  24. Chapter 19 Bob Euler and Square One
    (pp. 141-148)

    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, White, Baker, and Strole were prospecting for gold in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado Territory in the summer of 1867, and, two, White was rescued from a makeshift log raft on the Colorado River at Callville, Nevada, on September 7 of the same year. A...

  25. Chapter 20 In James White’s Footsteps
    (pp. 149-153)

    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 possibilities of Bob Euler’s Moqui Canyon, we planned a “JW vacation.” Our intention was to get as close as possible by airplane and car to the land of White’s preriver prospecting...

  26. Chapter 21 Summary and Conclusions: Part A
    (pp. 154-159)

    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 storytellers. They included novelists, journalists, painters, Wild West show entrepreneurs, explorers, prospectors, engineers, and just plain adventurers. The symptoms included high levels of exaggeration and pure hyperbole. They thought fast, possessed glib tongues, and shared a threadbare partnership with the truth.

    Evidence is lacking to cast James White in this role. He was, in fact, self-effacing, taciturn,...

  27. Chapter 22 Summary and Conclusions: Part B
    (pp. 160-168)

    A raft 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 and back to civilization again.

    These are the words of a pilot forced down over the notorious Hump in the Himalayas during World War II. He and his copilot, both with broken ankles, walked through an uncharted and formidable wilderness after their plane...

  28. Chapter 23 Summary and Conclusions: Part C
    (pp. 169-180)

    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, however, some alternative factors should be considered.

    White’s descriptions of the Grand Canyon and the river were inaccurate.

    In their 1959 review of Lingenfelter’s book, Euler and Dobyns observed,

    the psychological state [White] was in, after one of his companions was killed by Indians and the...

  29. Chapter 24 Resolution
    (pp. 181-182)

    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 entitled The Grand Canyon, written by Thomas F. Dawson and sponsored by Senator Shafroth of Colorado. The prestigious approval of Senate Document No. 42 gave hope to James White’s small band of supporters that such official recognition of his journey might effectively counter the negative rhetoric which had, for fifty years, denied him any place in Grand...

  30. Appendix A: James White’s 1867 Letter
    (pp. 184-185)
  31. Appendix B: James White’s 1917 Statement
    (pp. 186-191)
  32. Chapter Notes
    (pp. 192-208)
  33. References, Sources, and Related Subjects
    (pp. 209-217)
  34. Author’s Note
    (pp. 218-220)