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Through the Grand Canyon before Major Powell?

This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Major John Wesley Powell’s daring expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. But was he the first? Another story exists with defenders and detractors and links to Silverton and canyons in Bears Ears country.

Two years before Powell and his men emerged from the Grand Canyon’s depths, a sunburnt, blistered, starved, half-clothed and half-dead bearded man, leashed to a log raft, arrived at Callville, Nevada, on Sept. 7, 1867. Barely alive, with bruises, welts and recent scars, he was incoherent. His skin was dark brown like mahogany, his hair matted and bleached. Slowly, he recovered from dehydration. His mind cleared. He called himself James White.


His story begins high in the San Juan Mountains where a party of drifters and gold-seekers under the leadership of Capt. Charles Baker had returned to Baker’s Park, now the site of Silverton.

Baker’s first venture into the high country in the winter of 1860-61 had proved disastrous, with men living in brush huts working gold placer claims.

The Baker Expedition had retreated south toward Santa Fe, but now the captain was back with two other men – George Strole and James White. A fourth man had been included, but White shot him in the foot after a “provocation.” Who were these men?

“Baker and companions were merely examples of hordes of drifters, the flotsam and jetsam of westward migration,” writes Colorado historian Virginia McConnell Simmons in “Drifting West: The Calamities of James White and Charles Baker.” Baker himself “did what he did better than anything else – promoting an enterprise for others to subsidize with provisions and labor.”

Finding no new opportunities in Baker’s Park, because placer mining had yet to become the hardrock, deep-shaft mining that would make Silverton boom, after a month, the small band rode south. Near what would become Durango, they drifted west to follow the Mancos River, where they saw small cliff dwellings or “houses built of cobblestones.” Baker’s party paralleled the Mancos River to the San Juan River, hoping to prospect for gold in the softer sandstone. They were some of the first white men to see ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings near Mesa Verde and to venture west into Bears Ears country.


In later years, White became confused, stating that the three men went south of the river, when instead, they probably crossed it to the north near the Rincon or where Comb Ridge comes to the water’s edge and a natural, shallow ford exists. They rode up either Butler Wash or Comb Wash and then turned west to be caught in a maze of canyons coming off Cedar Mesa toward what is now Lake Powell. White claimed to have two revolvers. He would need them both.

They camped two days after leaving the San Juan, and while the other men were exploring, White saw a Native American. His partners thought he was imagining things. Riding out the next morning with Capt. Baker in the lead, a rifle shot rang out. Baker fell off his horse and either died immediately or shouted to his companions, “I am killed.” Another version of the story has Baker whispering, “Save yourselves.” Either way, the founder of Silverton and the mineral riches of the San Juan Triangle died in the dust in Utah while his two companions fled down canyon for safety. They were stopped at the water’s edge.

Fearful of being trapped in a narrow canyon, they used their lariats to make a raft of four cottonwood logs, perhaps 8-inches thick and up to 10-feet long. White described the raft years later to engineer Robert Brewster Stanton, whose manuscript would be published in 1932 under the title, “Colorado River Controversies.”

On their makeshift raft, White and Strole drifted off down Glen Canyon, named two years later by Major Powell. There are no rapids in Glen Canyon, and after a few hours or days, they could have abandoned their raft and begun to hike out. They also could have left the Colorado River near what became Lees Ferry. Instead, they stayed on their flimsy raft until at the first Grand Canyon rapid, Strole fell off never to be seen again. He probably drowned in Badger Creek Rapid.

One writer explained, “White still clung to the logs, and it was only when the raft seemed to be floating smoothly, and the sound of the rapids was behind, that he dared to look up; then it was to find himself alone, the provisions lost, and the shadows of the black canyon warning him of the approaching night.”

White drifted, making 10 hours a day. Starving, he met Native Americans, possibly Yavapais, who gave him a few roasted mesquite beans near Grand Wash. He floated off, forced to chew on the leather scabbard of his knife, and finally, semi-conscious, he arrived at Callville, now under the waters of Lake Mead.


Two years later, Powell made his epic journey. His men, aware of White’s claims, thought it impossible as did subsequent river runners. Still, the story endured, and White lived out his days as a drayman at Trinidad, Colorado, moving dry goods with a small wagon. Writers came to interview him and gained different versions of his tale. Even Gen. William Jackson Palmer had White interviewed, and Palmer believed the story of the water-logged raft.

A granddaughter, Eilean Adams, wrote “Hell or High Water: James White’s Disputed Passage through Grand Canyon, 1867.” I set out to find where White and Strole may have entered Glen Canyon. Adams thought it was Moki Canyon, so with a friend, we camped nearby and tried to four-wheel-drive into Moki Canyon from the top.

I thought we were in trouble when I drove over a small sand dune wondering if we could get up it on the way out. I should have known better. Farther along we were blocked by a huge dune. Turning around, sure enough, I buried my truck to the axles. Luckily, it was still mid-morning. I’ve learned through the years that if you are going to make a mistake, always do it when there is plenty of daylight.

I got out the shovel. My friend found flat rocks. Slowly, a few feet at a time, we drove in low gear back up to what passes for rural roads in San Juan County. Did James White and his companion launch a log raft at Moki Canyon and did White survive huge rapids in Grand Canyon?

That’s hard to say. I’ve been down the canyon three times in rafts. At Hance Rapid, I ejected sideways across a paddle raft, wondered what my paddle was doing in my teeth and would have had a terrific swim if my buddy hadn’t slammed his outstretched hand into my shoulder to stop my lateral movement. I crumpled to the bottom of the raft delighted not to be flushed down current.

Did White survive alone? His descendants think so and want recognition for their ancestor. Greg Adams wrote me that James White’s river tale is “a controversy that never ends and never will.” He explained that, “White was honest in his story,” but that other writers did not want to believe that “a simple miner might have done what they couldn’t ... namely run all the rapids in Grand Canyon, which they themselves found impossible to achieve.”

Major Powell gets the credit. After all, he documented his trip and ran the river twice – once in 1869 and again in 1871. But did James White survive solo on a tippy log raft? We’ll never know, just like we’ll never know what happened to the bones of Capt. Charles Baker, the founder of Silverton and a drifter who took one trail too many in the American Southwest.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.