Research Trip Through Time

As I mentioned back in my post about visiting the Grand Canyon earlier this year, I’ve been invited to write a story for a steampunk anthology and the anthology must feature a crow or a raven in some prominent way. As it turns out, there are many ravens in Northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon. They’re all over the place and they talk to each other and they’re frequent visitors to the campground. Also, my novel Owl Dance features Professor Maravilla who retreats to the Grand Canyon in 1877 to study birds flying over the canyon. After some thought, I came up with enough of a story idea to pitch to the editor. Of course, a pitch is not a fully formed story. To make the story work, I needed to know a little more about the history of the Canyon at that period. Fortunately, I found John Wesley Powell’s book about exploring the Grand Canyon in the gift shop. His expeditions happened just about five years before my story was to be set, so it seemed a great resource.

John Wesley Powell was a geologist, who in the years after the Civil War, put together an expedition to study the geology of the Green and Colorado River basins. He assembled a team and they started up near the headwaters of the Green River just above the Gates of Lodore. As it turns out, my wife and I had camped just a few miles south of his starting point in 1993.

Green River in Northern Colorado

Powell and his team proceeded down the Green through the canyon lands of Utah until it met up with the Colorado. Along the way, he describes many adventures climbing up the mountains on either side of the river to measure elevations. At one point, he describes going up one cliff face almost too steep for him. He jumps and tries to pull himself up to the top, but can’t. Eventually, his partner has to climb above him, take off his pants and throw one end to Powell, so he can use them as a rope to pull himself to the top. What Powell didn’t really tell us in his narrative is that he’d lost one arm in the Civil War, making this an even more harrowing episode than I first pictured.

What actually proved very useful in this part of the book is that Powell describes the equipment he used at the time and how he used it. This gave me some nice detail to add to my story, since I imagine Professor Maravilla meeting some geologists in my story. Powell’s journey continued on into Arizona and he passed the Vermilion Cliffs, which I visited a few years ago.

Vermilion Cliffs

Powell’s party ultimately wends its way into the Grand Canyon itself. Of course these are the days before the Grand Canyon was anything like a tourist destination or even a household name. He describes traveling along the river and exploring many of the side canyons along the way. I learned that he named the area called “Indian Gardens” after a literal garden he found near the river. At this point in the expedition, they were running low on supplies and Powell describes helping himself to squash growing there.

The Grand Canyon in 2022

Powell’s views on Native Americans are both interesting to read and challenging. He was invited to hear stories and watch ceremonies that few non-Native Americans get to see today. He offers insights unique to his time period and advocated for the preservation of Native American culture. However, he also saw Native Americans as primitives and advocated for their education. Unfortunately, this would be part of the movement that would lead to the creation of Indian Schools which stripped many Native Americans from their homes, languages, and cultures. While my story doesn’t involve Native Americans living near the Canyon, Powell’s attitudes did help me better form some characters in my story.

John Wesley Powell would go on to become the second director of the United States Geological Survey a few years after his book was published. Lake Powell, an artificial reservoir in the Colorado River created by the Glen Canyon Dam is named for him. I appreciate the research trip through time I took with John Wesley Powell and the view he gave me of geology in the Wild West. Of course, the challenge of this kind of time travel is that while Powell can speak to me, I can’t speak to him and discuss the consequences of his actions and find out what he would do as a result.

You can learn more about my novel Owl Dance at: http://davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

4 comments on “Research Trip Through Time

  1. First off, it’s amazing that someone would be able to do all that even if they had two arms!

    I like that you present Powell’s view on American Indians and the results in a historical context. Too often people criticize those of the past who were legitimately doing what they knew best to help others. I hope people of the future will be accepting of people of our time even though things we do and believe may seem wrong to them!

    As a “white boy,” I spent a lot of time on an American Indian Reservation learning native dance and other aspects of culture. I was one of a group of boys who performed the dances locally. I remember our primary instructor one day saying it was hard getting any of the American Indian boys interested. I admit I was secretly glad of that, because it meant I got to do it. Later, I thought maybe it was good that we were learning more about each other’s traditional culture.

    • I was quite impressed reading about Powell and the journey he took with just a few men and some wooden boats. I also loved that one of his most important staples on the journey was coffee.

      I do think Powell wanted to help Native Americans and I suspect he’d be horrified if he’d known the damage the Indian Schools would do to Native American cultures. His main “sin” was seeing Native Americans as “primitives” or “savages,” an all-too-common bias of his age. It makes me step back and think what unconscious biases I may be harboring about other people today.

  2. As I recently visited the Grand Canyon, I enjoyed this post. One of my purchases there was “I Am the Grand Canyon,” about the Native tribes’ struggle to be recognized when the Park Service wanted to evict them from their ancestral home in the canyon. It’s sad to hear that Powell just helped himself to food they were growing.

    • Thank you and delighted you enjoyed the post. What I appreciated about Powell is that he presented their choice as morally difficult and problematic. Presuming he presented an accurate account, their supplies were down to flour and coffee. They weren’t doing well and no one was around. They suspected the Native Americans would help if they knew the situation, but didn’t feel they could wait around to ask, not sure how far or near they were. It’s not good they stole the vegetables, but if he spun his tale, it’s only minor spin. He seems pretty aware that their actions were not good ones.

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