The James White Conspiracy


For 130 years we have debated whether James White preceded John Wesley Powell through the Grand Canyon. This debate should have started with a careful scrutiny of the personalities and historical circumstances behind the James White legend. A strong case can be made that the James White legend was contrived to serve as a political weapon.
This story begins with two men whose lives ran so parallel it seems they were destined to end up in an angry competition for the job of America's top botanist. Their names were Charles Parry and George Vasey. Parry and Vasey were both born in England within a year of one another. Their parents soon moved them to New York state, where they grew up a few dozen miles apart. Both obtained medical degrees in 1846, Parry at Columbia, Vasey elsewhere but finishing up at Columbia. At Columbia they connected with one of America's foremost botanists, John Torrey. Both soon moved to the Midwest, where they lived a few dozen miles apart. While Vasey was stuck studying prairie grasses, Parry made his medical training a ticket for traveling the west with government and railroad surveys. In three years with the Mexican Boundary Survey he became the first botanist to extensively study southwestern plants. Parry's favorite realm was the Colorado Rockies. Parry's collections won him great respect from fellow botanists, yet he lacked a scholarly bent and published primarily popular articles in newspapers. The more scholarly Vasey eventually won himself a botany professorship. Since Parry and Vasey were both amateurs seeking respect and rare opportunities in the small world of professional botany, it would have been human nature for them to eye one another jealously. It must have rankled Parry, who had financed all his Rockies trips out of his own pocket, when Vasey attached himself to an upstart Professor, himself a formidable botanist, who got sponsorship from Washington, universities, and the Union Pacific Railroad, to go explore the Rockies and Southwest, poaching on Parry's turf. Parry must have been aware of Professor Powell and his plans, for Parry had spent twenty years searching for surveys to join, and he and Powell had a link in the person of William Byers, the editor of The Rocky Mountain News and the brother-in-law of Jack Sumner and employer of Oramel Howland. In 1863, Byers published a Parry article on mountains. In 1864 Parry and Byers had attempted to scale Logan's Peak. Four years later, Byers, Powell, and Sumner became the first to scale it. That Powell and Sumner had stolen Parry's mountain glory didn't subtract from Parry's motive to discredit Powell.
The rivalry between Parry and Vasey exploded in 1871 when Parry was fired from his job as the first official botanist for the Smithsonian and Department of Agriculture. He was replaced by George Vasey. The events behind this remain obscure, but the battle over it involved the scientific giants of the day and left the job unfilled for half a year. At first, Parry's scientific friends, including Asa Gray and Smithsonian director Joseph Henry, rallied around him and demanded his reinstatement. They were solidly opposed to Vasey's nomination, and Torrey even vowed to sabotage Vasey's career. It didn't hurt Parry that he had named mountains for Gray and Torrey. Vasey's advocates asserted that the unscholarly Parry had mismanaged the botanical collection. Gray refused to concede this, but slowly opinions swung to Vasey, and Gray and Henry ended up supporting him. Behind the scenes someone powerful must have been pushing for Vasey, and it was probably America's newest scientific hero, John Wesley Powell. Long after being fired, Parry still despised Vasey, writing to Engelmann, for whom Parry had named a spruce, that Vasey was so slow and incompetent that he'd take a whole generation to produce one botanical catalogue.
Yet all of this was in the future in September of 1867, when Parry was the doctor/naturalist for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, which was surveying the lower Colorado River region to find a 35th parallel route to the Pacific.
The Kansas Pacific Railroad was facing a crisis in September of 1867. In hopes of winning Congressional support to become the national railroad to the Pacific, the Kansas Pacific went deeply into debt to race the Union Pacific westward, but when the Union Pacific reached the 100th Meridian first, Congress backed the Union Pacific, which was now building its line through the northern Rockies. The Kansas Pacific's only hope of avoiding bankruptcy was to find a southern route to the Pacific and quickly win federal funding for it. In June the Kansas Pacific tried a public relations blitz to win Congressional support, but Congress, well bribed by the Union Pacific, wasn't impressed. Soon an Indian uprising shut down construction on the Kansas Pacific.
The heart of the Kansas Pacific's political problem was a decades-long prejudice against a southern route. The long debate over routes to the Pacific had become hopelessly entangled in pre-Civil War politics, with the North fearing that a southern route would foster the Southern economy and the expansion of slavery. Only when the South seceded was the North free to pursue its northern choice. This long debate produced many surveys of varying credibility, which touted the advantages of their own route and exaggerated the difficulties of rival routes.

Southerners bemoaned impassable northern mountains and blizzards. Northerners bemoaned impassable southwestern canyons and unfarmable deserts. The most damning report against Colorado River country was that of Joseph Christmas Ives. Ives' famous quote about whites never again visiting this impassable and useless region has long been treated as an amusing naiveté. Yet Ives' comment was typical of the geographical slanders of the railroad debate. Ives slandered northern Arizona because he was a protegee of Jefferson Davis, director of western surveys, who strongly favored a 32nd parallel route, and who had done everything to discredit a 35th parallel route, even fudging data in his report to Congress. For the Kansas Pacific, the fact that even southerners had denounced northern Arizona was a serious problem. The Kansas Pacific desperately needed a way to discredit Ives, Davis, and the whole idea that Colorado River country was impassable.

Then, into the hands of Charles Parry and the Kansas Pacific, fate dropped an unbelievable gift.
Ives had insisted that the Colorado River upstream from Callville was unnavigable. But now Callville reported that a man had just come down the whole Colorado on a simple raft.
The Kansas Pacific's chief surveyor and builder was General William Palmer, the perfect man for launching an attack on the reputation of Joseph Ives, and through him, Jefferson Davis. In the Civil War Palmer had commanded a cavalry unit that helped capture Jefferson Davis. Ives had become a top war aide to Davis. Palmer would love to associate the very name of Ives with cartographic incompetence, for the chief surveyor for the northern railroad route was named Butler Ives. And Palmer probably knew that this summer the Union Pacific, eager to promote the lands it was opening up, had begun sponsoring an upstart explorer, who even planned the first expedition down the Colorado. But now, with one shot, Palmer could make fools of both Ives and the Union Pacific. He sent Parry to see White.
After twenty years of pioneering explorations, Parry must have choked at the idea that Professor Upstart and Professor Prairie Grass might beat him to America's last great unknown wilderness, the canyons of the Colorado. If Parry could prove that the Colorado had already been explored, then Powell and Vasey would get no glory, and perhaps wouldn't get funding to begin with. When Parry met James White, it must have seemed an omen from the Gods of Revenge that White was born only ten miles from where Vasey grew up.
In his study of the James White legend, Robert Stanton decided that White himself didn't start the claim that he went down the whole Colorado. Stanton was convinced that Parry had coached this idea into White. Yet Stanton was baffled by why Parry, in his official survey report, insisted that White's accounts of canyon and river topography disproved Ives' accounts on one point after another. To Stanton it seemed crazy to trust a starving delirious castaway over a professional surveyor. Stanton dismissed Parry as an idiotic geologist with reckless enthusiasm for a dramatic story.
To publicize White's conquest of the Colorado, Parry turned to William Byers, former railroad surveyor, and a key backer of the Kansas Pacific. The Union Pacific was bypassing Denver, but the Kansas Pacific would make Denver an important hub. In November of 1867 the Kansas Pacific was facing bankruptcy and pleaded with Byers for Denver's help, and Byers raised two million dollars to build one leg of the Kansas Pacific's chartered route. Byers gave White national publicity. The printer who set White's story into type may have been Oramel Howland. If Howland now believed that boating the Colorado was easy, he was in for a shock. If Howland started the trip disbelieving in Powell and his mission, this left him readier to walk out. If Howland's secret mission was to confirm White's story, then after awhile, Howland had no reason to go further.
Palmer was soon personally handing a published White article to U. S. Senators. When Powell's request for funds came up before the Senate, one Senator opposed Powell on the grounds that this river and region had already been explored by James White and “a very competent man, General Palmer”.
After the Kansas Pacific abandoned its Pacific dreams, Palmer became the President of a Denver railroad company. He always defended the White legend, and perhaps he was taken too seriously by two other Denver railroad men, Frank Brown and Robert Stanton, for when they rode Palmer's railroad to begin their own Colorado River expedition, they seriously underestimated the Colorado. Frank Brown drowned, and Stanton became the fiercest critic of the James White legend.
John Wesley Powell was politically astute enough to realize the motives behind the James White legend. When Powell helped drive Parry out of Washington, when Powell named Grand Canyon's botanical jewel Vasey's Paradise (consider this pronunciation: Vasey's Parry Dies), John Wesley Powell got even.
Don Lago