GJ resident was Powell’s fellow river runner, later vocal critic
Editor’s note: This is the first of three columns about Jack Sumner, who accompanied John Wesley Powell on one of his famous trips down the Colorado River.
In 1904, author and adventurer Frederick Dellenbaugh urged Grand Junction resident “Captain” Jack Sumner to publish a book of his own to set the record straight, The Daily Sentinel reported in February of that year.
Dellenbaugh and Sumner shared experiences that few other mortals could claim. Both had accompanied John Wesley Powell on one of his famous trips down the Colorado River — Dellenbaugh in 1871 and Sumner on Powell’s 1869 original trip through the Grand Canyon.
Dellenbaugh was a teenager when he joined Powell’s second expedition. Sumner had been 29 and second-in-command on that all-important first canyon trip.
By 1904 Sumner and his family had been residents of Grand Junction intermittently for nearly 20 years, and he and his wife, Jenny, owned a block of property where the Grand Junction Police Department now stands.
But Sumner had also become a vocal critic of Powell, who had died 18 months earlier. In a letter to a Denver newspaper in 1902, and in other public statements, he accused Powell of mismanagement of the 1869 trip, of nearly causing the starvation of the 10 men on the journey, of hiding the truth about what occurred to three men who disappeared during the expedition, of refusing to share money he received with the other participants and of eagerly accepting all of the glory and publicity about the trip while ignoring the involvement of his comrades.
Those criticisms would echo for decades, long after Sumner was also dead, and would be the subject of books and magazine articles — including a spirited defense of Powell by Wallace Stegner.
Sumner also was the subject of his own mysterious drama. He was found in Green River, Utah, in May 1902, stabbed in the groin, the Sentinel reported. He was rushed by train to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, where he received needed medical attention and apparently recovered. The paper reported that Sumner didn’t remember who had attacked him. Later, there would be speculation that it had been a case of self-mutilation, along a river where he had enjoyed so much adventure and success 35 years earlier.
John “Jack” Sumner was born in Newton, Indiana, in 1840, but was raised mostly in Iowa, where his parents moved to farm. His family roots traced back to Massachusetts, and one of his ancestors had been governor of that state in the late 1700s. His maternal grandfather, Robert Lucas, served as governor of Ohio and first territorial governor of Iowa.
Sumner was 22 years old when he enlisted in the 32nd Regiment of the Iowa Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. He mustered out as a corporal and apparently survived the war without serious injury. He certainly didn’t lose an arm, as Powell had.
After the war, with a familial connection to Colorado, he moved west. His sister had married William Byers in Iowa, who later became editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Likely with Byers’ backing, Sumner established a trading post at Hot Sulphur Springs, in the mountains northwest of Denver. There he met mountain men like Jim Bridger and Jim Baker, traded regularly with Ute Indians and became a sometime trapper and guide himself.
It was there, in the summer of 1867, that he met John Wesley Powell through Byers and others. Powell was looking for someone to guide him and his small party around the region to study its geology, flora, fauna and human inhabitants.
Sumner would later claim it was he who suggested to Powell that they mount an expedition through the great canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. (The river that drained most of western Colorado was then known as the Grand River. But below its confluence with the Green River, it was known as the Colorado). Powell certainly didn’t give Sumner credit for the idea, and there’s evidence he was considering the idea before he met Sumner. But it’s clear from his writing that he worked closely with Sumner while camped on the White River during the winter of 1868-69, planning the expedition for that summer.
After that famous river trip, Sumner moved around a lot. He married Alcinda Jane Norton in Iowa in 1873, and they had three sons. They also divorced and later remarried, this time in Grand Junction. Sumner lived in Rawlins, Wyoming, Julesburg, Colorado, and Denver.
By 1886, Sumner and his family were listed as residents of the young town of Grand Junction. They began accumulating property, including the block between Sixth and Seventh Street.
He died in Vernal, Utah in 1907.
Although friends and family members reported him working on it, Sumner never completed the book about his experiences with Powell.
Next: Down the river with Powell