A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell

By Donald Worster | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
The Sublimest Thing
on Earth

Following a tumultuous river into the unknown, Major Powell discovered a cause and a mission. He wanted to lead his countrymen toward a deeper understanding of the natural world and of the human cultures it supported. He hoped to uncover new facts and better ways to settle and inhabit the land. A strong conviction told him that the public needed that understanding, that it came into the country ignorant and unprepared. The survey was his instrument of education. Through it he wanted to explain and interpret a West that Americans did not know, one that lay well outside their expectation and experience.

The particular landscape he chose for deep mapping he called the Plateau Province, stretching from the Uinta Mountains and the Great Salt Lake down to Arizona's San Francisco Mountains, from the western slope of the Rockies to the Great Basin. (Today this area is usually designated the Colorado Plateau.) In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it was still the least known part of the country. The other surveys were likewise trying to bring unknown places into public consciousness, but their boundaries were less clearly set by nature; King's survey, for example, was defined by the transcontinental railroad and the fortieth parallel, purely man-made determinants. Powell's, in contrast, was a single watershed defined by the Colorado and its tributaries.

The dominant natural feature of the Plateau Province, after the river, was the Grand Canyon, but there were other canyons, plateaus, and even mountain ranges. A thorough survey must also include the flora and fauna that had evolved across the province, from chuckwallas and junipers to bighorn sheep; and it must reveal the origins of

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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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