A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell

By Donald Worster | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Westward the Naturalist

The war fought over Southern independence was the young nation's most deadly hour, but exactly how it was deadly varied across the continent. In the states, territories, and unorganized lands lying beyond the Great Plains, where both slave owners and abolitionists were fewer and old political rivalries weaker, the war was a death knell to economic development. It stopped the westward movement. If that movement stopped forever, if the nation permanently broke apart, westerners would become pioneers for nothing. Their achievements would shrink back to a scattering of farms, mines, and dusty towns lying weakly on the fringes of a shattered ideal. They would have no glorious future ahead, no honored place in the vanguard of civilization.

That danger to the West loomed in the mind of William Gilpin and filled him with the rage of a day-dreamer smacking his face into an unanticipated wall. On the eve of war he warned that “the Union itself, incessantly assailed and perpetually menaced, has seemed to approach the twilight of its existence, and … has been in suspense between the infuriated passions of extreme sectional fanatics.” 1 He knew plenty about those passions, for he was then living in Missouri, a state bitterly divided between pro-Northern and pro-Southern factions. For a time Missouri had been the pulpit of one of the greatest advocates of continental expansion, Senator Thomas Hart Benton: father-in-law of John Charles Frémont, ideological father of the concept of Manifest Destiny, and early promoter of the transcontinental railroad. Then the state fell into internecine fighting, and the vision of building the world's dominant nation on the North American continent, supremely prosperous and powerful and dedicated to the cause of liberty, was forgotten.

-109-

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A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Prologue - Green River Station, 1869 ix
  • Part One - Northern Days 1
  • Chapter 1 - A Mission to America 3
  • Chapter 2 - Rising on the Prairie 37
  • Chapter 3 - The Hornets' Nest of War 85
  • Part Two - Canyons of the Colorado 107
  • Chapter 4 - Westward the Naturalist 109
  • Chapter 5 - Down the Great Unknown 155
  • Chapter 6 - Surveying the High Plateaus 203
  • Chapter 7 - Kapurats 261
  • Chapter 8 - The Sublimest Thing on Earth 297
  • Chapter 9 - Democracy Encounters the Desert 337
  • Part Three - Washington, D.C. 381
  • Chapter 10 - Myths and Maps 383
  • Chapter 11 - Redeeming the Earth 437
  • Chapter 12 - The Problem of the West 467
  • Chapter 13 - Journey's End 533
  • Notes 575
  • Bibliography 611
  • Acknowledgments 645
  • Index 647
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