On May 24, 1902, exactly thirty-three years from the day John Wesley Powell
and Jack Sumner launched their expedition for the great unknown, the Denver
Rocky Mountain News, founded by Sumner’s brother-in-law William
Byers, carried a bulletin:
Captain Jack Sumner Victim Of
Mysterious Stabbing In Utah
Special to The News. Grand Junction, Colo., May 23—Captain Jack
Sumner, who left this city on Tuesday for Utah, was found about noon Wednesday
near the town of Green River in an unconscious condition. He was brought
to this city last night and taken to St. Mary’s hospital. Dr. Hanson
was called and found that Mr. Sumner was in a serious condition from a
wound in the groin. He has since been in a half dazed condition and from
what he says at times he must have been drugged and then stabbed. Word
from the hospital this evening is that the captain is resting easy and
that if no complications set in he will recover.
An accompanying article, headlined “Poor Old Jack,” recalled
Sumner’s life, and concluded: “What motive anyone could have
had for stabbing him, except for purposes of robbery, his friends in this
city are at a loss to understand. While as brave as a lion, he was as
tender-hearted as a child…While he has possessed a rugged constitution,
he has seen much exposure and endured many hardships,…all of which
will render his recovery slow, if not doubtful.”
But there was more to this story, and it offers a deep look into Jack
Sumner’s psyche. Exactly one-third of a century after Sumner set
off on the bold hopeful adventure of his youth, an ailing and defeated
Sumner set off for the Green River again. Upon seeing the Green River,
he needed little imagination to see the ghosts of himself and Powell going
down it. Yet while Powell’s river had carried him to great fame
and power and security, Sumner’s river had led to decades of obscurity
and broken dreams and poverty. Perhaps Sumner had heard that this January
Powell had suffered a stroke, which in September would end Powell’s
life. This third-of-a-century anniversary would seem to offer Sumner a
powerful focus for assessing his own life and passing judgment upon its
value. All we know for sure is that Jack Sumner, standing there quite
alone, took out his knife, and took down his pants, and castrated himself.
He did an effective job of it too, judging from the notes Dr. Hanson made
on his medical examination of Sumner four years later: “Both testicles
have been removed by himself. Operation was very successful. Done at a
time of supposed temporary insanity.” Given the severity of such
a wound, and given Sumner’s apparent isolation, we have to wonder
if this was actually a suicide attempt. Dr. Hanson may have been thinking
so when he said the insanity was “supposed.” In an examination
two years earlier, Dr. Hanson said simply: “He did this while in
state of despondency.” Jack Sumner had good reason to be despondent
about his life. Years of trouble had left him with little to show for
it. At the end of the Powell expedition, Sumner went through ten months
of trouble just to get back to Denver. William Byers had already sent
Powell a scolding letter for leaving Sumner so far from home without any
money, and when Sumner finally got back, Byers published a tribute to
him and a denunciation of Powell:
Brave by nature, inured to hardship, and fearless in the face of all danger,
he was during all that terrible voyage its leading and ruling spirit,
the commander of the signal boat which led the way through canon and rapid
and torrent…The expedition was a success, thanks to the dauntless
man who led it, as much as to him who has clothed a portion of its history
in the elegant diction of the lecture room…we promise our readers
at no distant day a new unwritten chapter in the history of the Powell
expedition which may demonstrate that truth may really be stranger than
Powell historians, eager to defend Powell against Sumner’s complaints
against him and Sumner’s claims for his own importance, have held
that it was only late in life that Sumner became embittered against Powell.
But here in the summer of 1870 the Sumner grievance is already filed,
and not by Sumner, but by a man who had been one of Powell’s most
important backers. Sumner was only one of many who made a consistent complaint
that Powell had no loyalty to historical facts or to those who served
him. Because Sumner’s complaints and claims were often overwrought,
he made it easy for Powell’s defenders to dismiss him, or portray
him as a crank.
Byers never did publish his promised truth about the Powell expedition.
Perhaps Byers, an astute promoter of Colorado who had cultivated friendships
with major shapers of western expansion, recognized that Powell was emerging
as a major shaper. For Sumner, the fact that even his own brother-in-law
was reluctant to challenge Powell’s self-aggrandizing legend must
have made it seem futile to hope for validation for his own leadership
role. For the next thirty years, Sumner must have carried this frustration.
And the next thirty years piled
on many more frustrations, many opportunities for Sumner to measure himself
against the Colorado River hero he had been. Through years of trapping
and prospecting, he seldom did better than survive, yet he remained loyal
to the American frontier myth, with its promise not just of wealth but
of heroism, loyal even after America had relegated the frontiersman to
the nostalgia shows of Buffalo Bill and begun to worship inventors, Wall
Street financiers, and industrialists.
An April 18, 1901 article in the Denver Republican perfectly captured
Sumner’s status as a relic of a vanished era:
J.C. Sumner Hates Trains And Houses
And Is Worried By Changes In Denver
“If I can find my way out of these box canyons I’ll look up
some of my relatives....I ain’t much used to these skyscrapers.
Where is “F” Street?”
It was J. C. Sumner who wanted to know. He had just come out of the Equitable
building when he made the inquiry. “Jack”, as he is known,
has prospected all over the west, but has an aversion for railroads and
towns, and prefers a camp in a snow storm in a muddy arroyo to a parlor
suite in the finest hotel.
Any building higher than a Mexican adobe house reminds him of the treacherous
box canons that are the terror of the old prospector. It is sometimes
necessary to spend days in getting out after entering a box canon.
“A train’s bad enough, but these elevators make a fellow think
he’s drowning and falling over a cliff at the same time....I wouldn’t
get into that cage again if I had to walk to the top of Pike’s Peak.
“But what did they change the names of the streets for?..
“Or, say if you will just take me to W. N. Byers...I’d be
all right... Mr. Sumner is on his way to examine a district in New Mexico,
where rumor has it that rich ore exists in abundance.
“You bet I will go both ways on a burro—it will only take
about four weeks longer than to go by train, and I never ride in the cars
unless I have a broken leg....
The images of canyons and falling over cliffs and drowning are notable
when applied to a man who had mastered the greatest of canyons and rivers.
Wallace Stegner spent years exploring the theme of what happens to a man
who persists trying to live by the American frontier myth long after that
myth has ceased to function. In his most ambitious novel, The Big Rock
Candy Mountain, Stegner portrayed his own father as futilely pursuing
the frontier myth, at great cost to himself and his family, until he despairs
and commits suicide. In Jack Sumner, Stegner had an identical character
and story line and fate, yet ironically, when Stegner turned to writing
Powell history, he too was eager to ignore Sumner.
Sumner’s life was hard on his family too . In 1884, Sumner’s
wife filed for divorce, charging that Sumner “has become an habitual
drunkard,” and had abandoned her and their children for a whole
year to go prospecting when he could be supporting her through “ordinary
industry.” Curiously, eighteen months later they got re-married,
but Jack insisted that instead of signing her name Alcinda J. Sumner,
from now on she had to use the name Jennie N. Sumner, an identity change
that caused much confusion when Alcinda tried to claim an army widow’s
pension. Soon after this re-marriage, Jack’s mother died and left
considerable real estate to Jack and his Denver siblings. Yet years previously,
Jack had signed a note leaving him in serious debt (Jack would claim a
friend had forged his name), and to protect the estate from being seized
for this debt, he signed his share over to his children. But the children
were minors, who could not legally own real estate, so the entire estate
was frozen into legal limbo, potentially for a decade to come. Jack’s
siblings were furious with him, even more so when he disappeared for two
months to go prospecting, and this legal mess dragged on for over a year.
This disaster must have contributed to Jack not returning to Denver until
the 1901 visit that made the newspaper.
Jack Sumner was a lost man in the modern world of technological and legal
complexities. It must have been galling that after remaining true to the
frontier myth, Sumner was forgotten, while John Wesley Powell, who long
ago became a Washington bureaucrat, remained a hero of the frontier myth.
Sumner felt that a promise to him had been broken, and if he didn’t
have the sophistication of a Wallace Stegner to understand how national
myths could break promises of wealth and heroism, he attached that sense
of betrayal wholly upon Powell. Comparing himself to the Powell legend,
Sumner felt, shall we say, emasculated. We are venturing into Freudian
territory here, and perhaps this article is psychologically speculative
enough without wading into the quicksand of psychological theory. But
even if you have no use for Freudian symbolism, consider the value of
literary symbolism. Wallace Stegner could not have invented a more potent
symbolism for the end of the American frontier than a man who traveled
a hundred miles in one day—Sumner must have taken the train!—to
end his life beside the river in whose mirror he was still a hero.