11. The Lunatic Fringe: Samuel Adams Again

THIS WAS THE continuing job of the Powell Survey — the careful accumulation of fact on many scientific fronts and the interpretation of fact without inordinate subjective distortion. As geography, geology, paleontology, ethnology, drainage, climate, resources of soil and water and timber and minerals, the Plateau Province emerged into the area of knowledge. Of the four Western surveys of the seventies, that of Powell was the most intensive. Hayden and Wheeler wandered hectically all over the West, with results that showed their haste and their lack of system. King, as systematic as Powell, had chosen to survey a hundred-mile cross section along the route of the Pacific Railroad from the Rockies to the Sierra, with reference principally to its mineralogy. Powell devoted himself to a region and attempted to bring it cleanly into focus through a multiple study of its large problems.

Out of the studies of Powell and his collaborators came records: reports, photographs, sketches, geological sections, and the maps that were as essential to geology, Powell said, as a house was to housekeeping. Because the ideal of thoroughness made publication slow, not all the results of the Survey were immediately available, but through the seventies a growing body of accurate and careful information on Powell’s chosen region began to appear. Contained in these maps and reports and in the field notes of the survey parties were not only geological, ethnological, and hydrographic data and the generalizations derivable from them, but the foreshadowings of larger generalizations that would eventually mature as broad proposals of policy. Something like organizing genius went into the Powell Survey. The apparent excitability and tendency to run in many directions at once which so irritated Thompson began to show itself for what it really was: a masterful capacity to keep many knowledges in mind, to group and retain facts by clusters and yet make them all contribute to a larger and more comprehensive whole. It was as if he forced every scrap of knowledge acquired in years of study by himself and his collaborators to contribute ultimately to a purpose so clear that it looks — though it apparently was not — foreseen.

As we shall see, Powell did not impose his view of the West, either his facts or his deductions or his policies, upon a glad and unresisting nation. The powers of darkness ultimately descended on him like disturbed yellow jackets. Those who resisted facts did not give ground without loud cries and protestations. Take their maddest representative, Captain Sam Adams. Powell was hardly on his way home after the successful traverse of the canyons before Adams was belittling his exploit in the press. Within two months he had hurried to submit a long report of his own activities to Secretary of War Belknap (who had not asked for it), listing the resources of the Colorado basin, which in Adams’ version, as in William Gilpin‘s, sounded dimly and wonderfully like a combination of Canaan and Ophir. The report included Adams’ diary of the harebrained plunge down the Blue and Grand, carefully edited and rewritten and with distances, altitudes, and other invented data filled in to make it scientifically accurate. Belknap turned the document over to General Humphreys, Chief of the Corps of Engineers, who found that though “useful to the public,” Adams’ information could not be of material value to the War Department, and hence should not be rewarded.1

A rebuff from the War Department stopped Adams no more than logic or reason had ever stopped him. Within four months he had persuaded Representative George W. Julian to introduce a House resolution granting $20,000 for his services in exploring and opening the Colorado.2

The course of Adams’ various moves for governmental compensation through the houses of Congress is like the course of his boats down the Blue — a succession of rapids and upsets and undaunted renewals. Julian’s resolution was lost in committee for two years, but shortly after Powell had returned to Washington in February, 1872, from Kanab, where he had left Thompson triangulating the area north of the Grand Canyon, he received a letter from Representative R. M. McCormick of Arizona, asking his opinion of Adams’ claims. Somehow the indomitable Captain had blown the breath of life into them again, and got the question reopened before the Committee on Claims. General Humphreys was also questioned again, and replied as before that he did not favor compensation. Powell wrote a letter to McCormick itemizing his contacts with Adams. That letter, documented and incontrovertible, should have sent Adams in splinters to the Gulf.3 But Adams did not splinter readily. He was more like a bag of wind, and now, like a windbag held under water, he kept popping resistantly to the surface. Between 1870 and 1877 his case appears in an even half dozen Senate and House documents, and for a time it even seemed as if his efforts to “bring the true facts to the country” — and be compensated therefore — would be successful. On May 20, 1876, seven years after he had stormed off from Green River to take his “authorization” to the more pliable citizens of Breckenridge, and four years after Powell had completely discredited him, the House Committee on Claims recommended that Captain Adams be given $3750 in compensation. 4

But circumstances were unkind to Adams — as he wrote to Austin Blair of the Claims Committee in 1873, even ten copies of the Sunday Herald containing his last communication on the Colorado had been stolen from him. “It appears as if there was to be no end to the efforts to keep the facts from the country.” Apparently there was not. Now the Claims Committee’s recommendation was not accepted; on January 11,1878, Senator Cockrell of Missouri submitted a report for the Senate Committee on Claims denying Adams compensation on the ground that whatever services he might have rendered had been unauthorized.

That about cooked Adams’ goose. He ebbed away from Washington muttering about “as revolting a system of ingratitude and injustice as has ever been conceived and carried out by corrupt officials, who have singled me out as their marked victim.” Eventually he settled in his home town of Beaver, Pennsylvania, and went , back to the practice of law. When he died at Beaver Falls in 1915 at the age of eighty-seven he was the oldest member of the Pennsylvania bar, and probably the craziest. But he went to his grave protesting and perhaps believing the tale of his wrongs and the fantasy of his discoveries in the West, and his obituary in the Beaver Evening Tribune indicates that to the end he found some who would believe him:

“... he spent a number of years exploring the Colorado River, being sent unofficially by Secretary Stanton, who died before Mr. Adams returned, and his claim from the government was never adjusted.

For a short time he was employed by one of the Government Departments in Washington, resigning to stump the County for Horace Greeley in 1872 [go west, young man, by the Colorado water-level route]. He then engaged in the coal business in Somer set County, Pa., and later devoted much time to the invention and perfection of the Portable Oil Driller, but owing to encroachment upon his patents he failed to reap any reward from his efforts.” 5

Poor Sam Adams was doomed never to reap the rewards, whether for patents or exploration. He was a preposterous, twelve-gauge, hundred-proof, kiln-dried, officially notarized fool, or else he was one of the most wildly incompetent scoundrels who ever lived. But fool or scoundrel, he was a symptom. In his resistance to fact and logic he had many allies who were neither so foolish in their folly nor so witless in their rascality as he, but whose justification and platform was the same incorrigible insistence upon a West that did not exist.

In 1878, just about the time when Adams was turned off by Congress for the last time, Major Powell was just coming to grips with the forces of Gilpin, in and out of Congress. But before we examine the proposals he made and the struggle that grew out of them, there is a year of uncertainty to look at, a year during which Powell and his survey could easily have lost the struggle to survive.

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