Exploring Desert Stone, John N. Macomb's 1859 Expedition to the Canyonlands of the Colorado
Steven K. Madsen
J. Sherman Feher
Utah State University Press, 2010
For most people, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, John Fremont, Zebulon
Pike and John Wesley Powell were the more noted 19th Century explorers
of the Western Territories of the United States. However, there were
many explorers who are virtually unknown to the general public. John N.
Macomb was one such person. Madsen does a masterful job of bringing a
wide variety of materials together to provide more information and
historical context to Macomb's expedition from Santa Fe, New Mexico
Territory to the Canyonlands of southeastern Utah Territory. Madsen
paints descriptive biographies of the primary people involved with
Macomb's expedition. Madsen introduces the biographies as follows: "Just
as Newberry made short jaunts to study the area, I make tangential
journeys to depict more fully the activities and personal lives of
Macomb and his companions. We find an ambitious scientist and physician
possessing great vision and intelligence and a tendency to see the
beauty and potential in nature. We will also learn of the visual
sensitivity of the expedition's homesick topographer, who depicted
wilderness scenes in pencil drawing and romantic word pictures. And we
will discover both a loving family man and a task-oriented commander,
with little imagination or landscape appreciation, who despised the
desert Southwest." (Pg. 6)
I was intrigued to learn that this expedition was a result of the
so-called Utah War. "In 1859, the U.S. War Department charged Captain
John N. Macomb, Jr., with finding a practicable route for military
supplies from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the southern settlements of Utah
Territory--in the event of future conflicts with its inhabitants. In
addition, it directed him to locate the confluence of the Green and
Colorado rivers, fill a great gap in the geographical knowledge of the
American West, survey the region transected by the Old Spanish Trail,
and conduct a scientific study of the Four Corners region, particularly
the canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau." (Pg. xvi)
Madsen did a nice job of documenting and footnoting this book. This
book has 90 illustrations, photographs, and maps as well as a portfolio
of lithographs from the original report. Many of the illustrations are
of Dimmock's sketches and Madsen provided many modern-day photographs of
expedition scenery. A full size facsimile map of Macomb's expedition is
also provided with this book.
Various diaries provide great insights into the expedition's journey.
However, one question that apparently the diaries were unable to answer:
when Macomb's efforts were blocked by Perpendicular Falls to reach the
confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, why didn't he try other
ways to reach the confluence?
One improvement would be to move the photograph on page 97 of
Perpendicular Falls to page 73 so that it would be in sequence with the
other expedition illustrations and photographs. Also having several
modern-day maps near the corresponding text would help the reader better
understand where Macomb traveled and show how a modern traveler could
possibly retrace parts of the journey today.
Part II, which is slightly more that half of the book, contains selected
documents of the expedition including: 1) The Camps of the San Juan
Exploring Expedition, 2) Diary of Charles H. Dimmock, 3) Topographical
Memoir of Charles H. Dimmock, 4) Abridged Diary of John S. Newberry, 5)
1859 Letters of John N. Macomb, Jr., to his Wife, 6) Letters of John S.
Newberry to Spencer F. Baird, and 7) Letters of Frederick W. von
Egloffstein to John N. Macomb, Jr.
This book should be the standard reference for Macomb's expedition for
all people interested in western U.S. history.