Jack Sumner Looks Back


Less than a year before he died, Jack Sumner received a letter that prompted him to reflect on his life, especially on the Powell expedition. The letter was from Lewis Keplinger, with whom Sumner and Powell had climbed Long’s Peak in 1868. Keplinger had gone on to a distinguished legal career in Kansas City, while Sumner had remained a hardscrabble frontiersman. Now, from across this divide of years and fates, Sumner wrote back to Keplinger. Sumner’s letter has remained unnoticed in the Keplinger collection at the Kansas State Historical Society. Powell historians consulted this collection only for Keplinger’s account of Long’s Peak, and neglected to examine the whole collection. This letter is the first document to surface in decades in which a participant discusses the Powell expedition.
Sumner’s letter is largely consistent with the accounts he gave to Robert Stanton in this same time period, but this consistency is news in itself. Sumner knew that Stanton was writing a book, and Sumner wanted to influence history’s verdict on Powell and himself. Sumner’s private letter to Keplinger had no such motive, and thus offers a sincerity check on his controversial anti-Powell statements. If anything, Sumner is even more blunt with Keplinger, declaring that he overthrew Powell’s abusive leadership and assumed total command of the expedition.
What did Keplinger make of Sumner’s complaints about Powell? In 1919 Keplinger wrote to Stanton: “I know that Jack Sumner felt unkindly to Major Powell. I knew both and some allowances may be made for any derogatory statements Jack may have made.” In 1912, unaware that Sumner was long dead, Keplinger wrote to a friend: “He is a very forceful character...The success of that expedition was largely due to Mr. Sumner. Major Powell himself has told me since that but for Sumner he never would have got through the canyon alive.”What’s new in this letter is Sumner’s account of his wild post-Powell adventures.
A few notes: Sumner always said it was he and Hall who continued on to the Gulf, and Dellenbaugh and Stanton agreed, but most later historians have said it was Hawkins and Hall, a mistake presumably arising from the assumption that since Sumner’s river diary ended at Yuma, so did he. Since Stanton contacted both Sumner and Hawkins in later years, his verdict on this question should have carried the most weight. A. C. Lankin was a member of the 1868 group. When Sumner speculates that Walter Powell suffered from “petticoat dementia”, he presumably means syphilis, perhaps a Powell family secret.
Paradox, Colorado Sept 14, 1906
Mr. L. W. Keplinger
Kansas City, Kansas
Dear Old Friend, It seems that after 38 years you Remember your old Friend “Jack”. Well I am greatly Pleased to get a letter from you and will try to answer it. things have not went as well with me as they have with you. I will try to give you an Idea of the ups and downs since you Parted with us on oak Creek. I Remember the Long’s Peak Episode very well. But I think it was August 4th 1868 that we reached the top. It is of no consequence now. After you left us we proceeded on to White River where we Built cabins and Spent the winter Hunting and Exploring the Country. in March we left that camp and proceeded to old Fort Bridger where we sold our stock and came Back to Green River Wyoming where we took Boats for the great unknown and we had a Hell of a time of it getting through. After you left I had to take charge of the Sextant so it kept me Pretty Busy for 20 hours out of the 24. Must catch a Star as you can for about 800 miles. lost a boat and lots of Supplies in Green River. at the Mouth of uinta river Powell neglected to get Supplies and we were nearly Starved in consequence. we were 111 days from Green River Wyoming to the Mouth of the Virgin River where the Powells left us and went to Salt Lake and I have seen neither of them Since.


I took the two Boats left and with Bradley, Hawkins and Hall proceeded on down the Colorado River. Bradley and Hawkins Stopped at Ehren Burg Arizona. Hall and I went on to the head of the Gulf of California then came back up the River about Old Fort Yuma and Being Level Broke we commenced Killing a few Deer to Sell to the Mexicans and what few whites were there.One day while hunting the Apaches Jumped me and I had to kill two of them. as they appeared to be Government pets I had to walk from the Colorado River to owen’s valley—500 miles—California. as you probably know I am a little too Hot-headed to Submit to an arrest under such trivial pretexts. When I struck Owens valley I found a job and went to work cutting cord wood for a Mining Company. After working two months I wanted my money so I could Start back to the Rocky mts. the Boss Refused to give me my money or a horse he owned. Which of course caused a row. there was nothing left for me to do but adopt drastic measures. So I took Horse saddle and Bridle away from him and his Pet henchman who happen to be the Sheriff at the time. I Rode the Horse alone across that Sink of Hell, Death Valley; across Nevada Desert; Utah and Back to Green River Wyoming. lived on my Gun the entire distance. after that went onto the plains and Hunted Buffalo, Wolves, and occasionally a Damed Sioux to vary the monotony of my life. for the last 25 years I have lived west of the range Engaged most of my time in Mining with various ups and downs. Mostly downs. I have a wife and three grown Sons all Doing for themselves two of them Publishing Newspapers and one a farmer. I am the same old wanderer that I always was and will Probably wind up under a cedar tree fit Subject for Wolf Bait. this is a great Copper Country and I have some pretty fair Prospects and if I have good luck with them I may be able to make you a visit a K. C. when we can smoke a pipe and perhaps Boost a bottle. you ask about the Colorado River party. here is the list as far as I know and Believe Correct. ten started from Green River. J. W. Powell. Walter Powell. O.G. Howland. Seneca Howland. George Bradley. Frank Goodman. and Jack Sumner. Andrew Hall. Bill Dunn. Goodman quit us at uinta river. the two howlands and Dunn were killed. Powell states by Indians & I Say Killed by the Mormons, Part of the Same old “Mountain Meadows” massacre gang. Of course you know J. W. Powell is Dead. Walter Powell is in the Bug House Bradley Killed accidently at San Diego California. Hall Killed by Road agents in Arizona. all that are left are Wm R Hawkins and myself. Hawkins Joined the Mormons and has two or more women and had when I saw down on the Gila River three years ago a good sized Kindergarten of his own which he has doubtless increased since.
I Presume you remember A.C. Lankin, the fellow that stole the mule and grub on your first trip to Bear River. Well he Scrimped and Saved until he had accumulated $30,000 then went into his room in Rawlins Wyoming, whrote on a card “life is not worth living” and Sent a Bullet through his head.
So J.W. Powell Says I Saved his Bacon a time or two did he? Well from Reading his Report one would think there was no one in the Party but Capt Powell and himself. he Evidently didn’t tell you of the row in Cataract Canon when I got so damed mad at his abuse of howland and Dunn that I had to “Speak out in meeting”, which culminated in my taking full command of the Expedition and Keep it to the end. Poor Walter was crazy when he was in the Park and got worse. Petticoat Dementia or a plain case of rats in the Garret I don’t Know which.
Well I Guess I have written enough to tire you, so I will close. hoping to hear from you again soon. If you know of any one wanting Copper prospects tell them to drop me a line. If you want some Specimens of the copper will send them.
Yours most truly Jack Sumner
Paradox Montrose Co. Colorado
Don Lago