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Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  1,348 ratings  ·  158 reviews
Drawing on rarely examined diaries and journals, Down the Great Unknown is the first book to tell the full, dramatic story of the Powell expedition.

On May 24, 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran, John Wesley Powell and a ragtag band of nine mountain men embarked on the last great quest in the American West. The Grand Canyon, not explored before, was as mysterious as Atlant
Paperback, 400 pages
Published September 17th 2002 by Harper Perennial (first published September 30th 2001)
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3.95  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,348 ratings  ·  158 reviews

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Jun 03, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I loved the author's newest book, The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853 so I looked for other's he has written. I enjoy history written from journals and thought the topic of being the first to run the rapids through the Grand Canyon would be an excellent topic. Not to be.

The story was all over the place diverting to various places that went beyond supplying the pertinent information for the story to excess detail that need not be part of the book. I did not want a history of
Paul Pessolano
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
“Down the Great Unknown” by Edward Dolnick, published by Harper Collins.

Category – History/Adventure Publication Date – 2001

If you are looking for a history book that is full of adventure, “Down the Great Unknown” would be an excellent choice.

In 1869 a one armed man, John Wesley Powell, decided to explore the Grand Canyon by way of the Colorado River. He was going to a place no man has been and had no idea of what he was getting himself into. He attempted to get the United States involved in the
Apr 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I read the book in preparation for an upcoming trip to the Grand Canyon. I read it in my methodical style as I do such books constantly referring to maps and googling other references to increase my understanding. It has me super-excited about the trip!

It is a great book about an epic 1000 mile journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon in 1869, led by a man-John Wesley Powell, who had one arm amputated during the Civil War. It is a gripping story with lessons on geology
Ben Crandell
Jul 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a really well written account of John Wesley Powell's expedition from Green River Station, Wyoming to a Mormon settlement downstream of the Grand Canyon. Edward Dolnick continuously impressed me with his ability to describe all the features of whitewater with analogies and descriptions that made my arm chair feel like an overburdened vessel at the mercy of titanic waves. The story of the ten fool hardy men who risked it all to chart the unknown is told in such detail that at times you wa ...more
Feb 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The story of Powell and his crew making their way through the Grand Canyon in boats in 1869 is beyond fascinating. And Dolnick is the perfect one to tell that story. (This is the second of his books I have read, the other being The Clockwork Universe - about the scientific revolution - also a wonderful book.)
Powell himself wrote eloquently of this adventure, but Dolnick brings an outsider's sensibility to bear on the thing. For example, several of the men kept diaries, so Dolnick can compare the
Kyle Garner
Mar 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fun to read. I do a lot of hiking and backpacking. My adventures are child’s play in comparison. What these guys went through was astonishing.
Apr 12, 2007 rated it it was ok
This is the weakest adventure/exploration-type book I've read so far and I don't recommend it. Most of it is pretty damn boring. It gets a little more interesting towards the end, but only for a little bit. The interesting bit concerns the situation at the end of their trip down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. No one had ever been all the way down it before, on boat or foot, so they had no idea what was in store for them. For most of the trip they had dealt with this by exploring th ...more
I picked this book up at the Grand Canyon after watching the IMAX movie that includes a dramatic reenactment of Powell's journey. A one-armed Civil War veteran led the first exploratory trip through the Grand Canyon? And some of the men took a land route right at the end and were never heard from again? Sounds as exciting as the Amazon river & rainforest adventures that I enjoy so much!

Parts of this were really interesting, but Dolnick's focus on including every detail written down by the va
Apr 18, 2008 rated it liked it
That the author was so present in the telling of this story was both its best and worst feature. He brings context to events and circumstances, but he does so through odd illustrations. For instance, he describes a boatman stuck in a muddy whirlpool as being in the center of a massive glass of chocolate milk as it is stirred by a giant 8-year old. It was consistently distracting, but I think it enhanced my understanding of the challenges the expedition team faced in the process of exploring the ...more
Jul 24, 2011 rated it liked it
Good book. This is a nicely written account of the the Powell expedition but not a real page turner. I liked the digressions about Powell losing his arm at Shilo. If you want to know about the first trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, this is for you. I think the low draft rubber rafts of today would have made Powells expedition much easier. enjoy.
May 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I visited the Grand Canyon last summer and drove through parts of the region discussed in "Down the Great Unknown," such as Glen Canyon. I'm glad that I read this book after visiting because I could use my memories of the landscape to picture some of the scenes on Powell's journey and I could better appreciate the changes to the Colorado River and its canyons that author Edward Dolnick describes. For instance, we stopped to have lunch in Glen Canyon, near the Glen Canyon dam, and I remember thin ...more
Malin Friess
Mar 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
In 1869 at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, 60 miles from Lee's Ferry the one armed Civil War Veteran and Colorado River expedition leader John Wesley Powell penned the most famous words ever written about the Grand Canyon:

"We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats...ride high and buoyant, for their loads are lighter than we could desire (they lost most of their food). We have but a month's rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito nets; the s
Accurate, with any and all speculation kept to a minimum (and clearly stated as such). I highly appreciate that level of literary integrity.

The author included brief accounts of other explorers at intervals in the text which were interesting in their own right, but were too lengthy for my taste.

The author also wrote sections explaining the level of difficulty the men faced, how others faced similar challenges, and how it compares to today. I found these sections informative and distracting, in
Wade Williams
Jan 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book. I read a lot of history, on varied subjects, and love all of it. I recognize though,that often the writing style is a bit "text bookish-ish" and am hesitant to recommend the book to anyone other than someone who is seeking information on the specific topic.

This book is different. The writing style is very accessible, and does a great job of pulling you into the story. And what a story. John Wesley Powell, floats the previously unexplored region of the Colorado River,s
Kasey Lawson
Jan 14, 2019 rated it it was ok
“I decided to run it,” wrote Sumner, “though there was a queer feeling in my craw, as I could see plainly enough a certain swamping for all the boats. But what was around the curve below out of our sight?” If there was a waterfall lurking just out of range, everyone understood, they were about to speed to their deaths. But, with no options, Sumner announced that he was ready to start. “Who follows?” he cried. Hawkins and Hall, the two youngest members of the expedition, one the none-too-expert c ...more
Lee Ann
Mar 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Read this book in preparation for hiking trip around Lake Powell and because I love the region. I enjoyed his writing, although I grew weary (along with the men) of portaging and lining rapids for the bazillionth time. I enjoyed the diversions to cultural, geological, political and theological issues of the time. Found it easier to digest than Wallace Stegner’s “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” which I did not finish.
Jul 17, 2018 rated it liked it
Interesting look at early explorer's first trip down the Green River and then Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Interesting to compare his experiences with ours -- what would it have been like to not know what was coming next or how long the trip would be, and doing it in a wooden boat facing backwards?? Also interesting to hear about the interpersonal challenges for a group on such an exploration.
Oct 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book. Having grown up in Utah I have visited Lake Powell and Lake Mead several times. As a youth I went white water rafting on the Green River. Crossed Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams, visited Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon. I have visited Lee’s Ferry and even camped on both the North Rim and South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but I never truly thought about the trials of those first adventurous souls who were the first to explore and float down the river until I read this book.
Aug 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Superbly written, fast-moving and so facinating....marred only by a few boring stretches when Dolnick ties to conjure theology (ot rather anti-theology) out of some of Powell's geological journal entries. Powell never makes those connections himself in his journals, so Dolnick's waxing seems unnecessary and agenda-driven in a story already packed full with adventure, history and sociological interest. Those few spots aside, a fantastic read.
Adam Smith
Aug 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Although incredibly dry at times, as well as tedious in the level of detail about the most mundane of topics, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I am amazed at how much Powell and Company were able to complete with so little experience. I have never visited the Grand Canyon, but after reading this I want to take a canoe down the whole thing.
Peter Boody
Sep 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well done

There is only so much primary material on which to base this story and the author has done a fine job spinning it into a dramatic tale. It may be a little repetitive at times: after all, how many ways can the perilous passage through one rapids after another be described? But I enjoyed going along for the ride without having to suffer the awful perils of the trip.
JB Haglund
Jul 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Great story of the first documented trip down the Colorado. Dolnick tells the story well and captures some of the excitement and terror the men must have felt as they descended into the deep canyons with no way out but to run, portage or somehow get through the rapids they found.
Kris Johnson
Dec 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Great report of Powell's trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. They should not have been successful for many reasons but they succeeded.
Book included complimentary information and photos.

Aug 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interessant boek over een Amerikaanse held waar ik nog nooit van gehoord had. Geen hagiografie. Gelezen terwijl ik op reis was in de regio waar het zich afspeelt. Alleen het aantal passages over alle ins & outs van het huidige wildwatervaren had wat minder gemogen.
Jun 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
I bought this book in a gift shop at the end of a 4 day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. It's an interesting mix of history, geology, and adventure. What courage those men had! A fascinating read.
Daniel Riley
Aug 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Jeff Bradbury
Jun 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very good and satisfying. Well written. Hard to put down. This book was what I hoped it would be.
Janet Sketchley
Nov 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Meticulously researched and arranged, written in an engaging style. Definitely a good, and informative, read.
Aug 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Outstanding book, communicating the amazing accomplishment of the Powell Expedition. Dolnick paints the picture well, with smart tangents that provide context.
Brock Willemin
Mar 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Appreciated how the author stuck to the historical facts
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Edward Dolnick is an American writer, formerly a science writer at the Boston Globe. He has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post, among other publications. His books include Madness on the Couch : Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis (1998) and Down the Great Unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy T ...more
“The men had two favorite modes of speech, wild exaggeration and ludicrous understatement. Ideally, both were delivered deadpan. Time and again, the accounts overflow with an offhand vitality that reminds us that we are listening to Mark Twain's contemporaries.” 2 likes
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