Cover image for A river running west : the life of John Wesley Powell
A river running west : the life of John Wesley Powell
Worster, Donald, 1941-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
xiii, 673 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F788.P88 W67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
F788.P88 W67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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If the word "hero" still belonged in the historian's lexicon, it would certainly be applied to John Wesley Powell. Intrepid explorer, careful scientist, talented writer, and dedicated conservationist, Powell led the expedition that put the Colorado River on American maps and revealed the Grand Canyon to the world. Now comes the first biography of this towering figure in almost fifty years--a book that captures his life in all its heroism, idealism, and ambivalent, ambiguous humanity.
In A River Running West, Donald Worster, one of our leading Western historians, tells the story of Powell's great adventures and describes his historical significance with compelling clarity and skill. Worster paints a vivid portrait of how this man emerged from the early nineteenth-century world of immigrants, fervent religion, and rough-and-tumble rural culture, and barely survived the Civil War battle at Shiloh. The heart of Worster's biography is Powell's epic journey down the Colorado in 1869, a tale of harrowing experiences, lethal accidents, and breathtaking discoveries. After years in the region collecting rocks and fossils and learning to speak the local Native American languages, Powell returned to Washington as an eloquent advocate for the West, one of America's first and most influential conservationists. But in the end, he fell victim to a clique of Western politicians who pushed for unfettered economic development, relegating the aging explorer to a quiet life of anthropological contemplation.
John Wesley Powell embodied the energy, optimism, and westward impulse of the young United States. A River Running West is a gorgeously written, magisterial account of this great American explorer and environmental pioneer, a true story of undaunted courage in the American West.

Author Notes

Donald Worster is Hall Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas. His books include The Wealth of Nature, Under Western Skies, and the Bancroft Prize-winning Dust Bowl. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Worster's life-of covers every detail of Powell's peregrinations and writings, fitting them into the great matters that occupied his life. A fascination with nature inspired Powell's self-education in geology and archaeology; as a young man, he lost an arm in the Battle of Shiloh, and following the Civil War, he gained fame as the explorer of the final unmapped stretches of the Colorado River. Thus wearing the laurels as the contemporary authority on all things western, including water rights and the regulation of relations with Native Americans, Powell, boosted by the political patronage of James Garfield, reached the top of the then-tiny federal bureaucracy of the 1880s, as chief of both the U.S. Geological Survey and the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology. In all, an event-crowded and courageous career, yet Powell the personality is much the fainter element here, through no fault of Worster's, whose subject was disinclined toward self-reflection. The dangerous adventure of Powell's Colorado River runs of 1869 and 1871^-72 carries most of the water here and parlays Worster's opus into a stalwart position in western historiography. Gilbert Taylor

Library Journal Review

John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) is best remembered for leading the first expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869. However, he should more accurately be recalled for directing the survey that mapped the region around the canyon and for establishing and directing the Bureau of American Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution, which put the study of Native Americans on a scientific footing. Drawing on a large number of archival and published sources, Worster (history, Univ. of Kansas; Dust Bowl) traces Powell's life from his frontier childhood through his years in Washington directing both the Bureau and the Geological Survey. The author delineates the influences that led Powell to the West in the first place and shows how he fit into the intellectual milieu of the late 19th century. This thorough and detailed biography is highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.DStephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

John Wesley Powell was one of the great figures of American science, although his contributions to science were often obscured by the many hats he wore and controversies he fueled. Variously a high school teacher, museum curator, artilleryman (he lost an arm at Shiloh), Colorado Plateau survey leader, explorer of the Grand Canyon, Indian commissioner and ethnologist, conservationist, scientific entrepreneur, government bureaucrat, policy wonk, and politician--and often several of these at once--he almost single-handedly shaped the infrastructure of scientific research and science policy in the late 19th century, especially as related to the American West. He published very little other than the remarkable but largely ignored Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States (1878), but in general his influence, especially on the rise of empirical science stemming from his great ability to synthesize vast quantities of data, was immeasurable. Worster (environmental history, Kansas) notes that Powell followed his own manifest destiny. In doing so, he articulated a sophisticated understanding of the natural world as habitat and of the human cultures that employed that world. This thorough and engaging biography is suitable for all levels. J. S. Wood University of Southern Maine