Exploring Desert Stone: John N. Macomb’s 1859 Expedition to the Canyonlands of the Colorado

Exploring Desert Stone by Steven K. Madsen
Steven K. Madsen

Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2010. viii + 273 pages. Black and white photos, color photos, footnotes, bibliography, index. 6-1/2” x 10”. $34.95 hardcover.

Christopher J. J. Thiry
Reviewer Affiliation: 
Colorado School of Mines

Steven Madsen, author of many books about Utah history, has written a definitive and exhaustively researched account of Captain John Macomb’s 1859 expedition into the Four Corners area of the United States. The U.S. Army charged Macomb with finding a route through the area that could be used by troops to gain access to the southern Utah Territory. Predating the more famous John Wesley Powell expeditions of the late 1860s and early 1870s, Macomb’s group was the first great scientific expedition to enter, document, and map the area.

Madsen concentrates the majority of the book on John Macomb (the group’s leader and topographer), Charles Dimmock (the group’s artist), and John Newberry (the group’s geologist/scientist). The author focuses on these three men because of their prominent work during the journey, and the fact that all three men’s papers still exist.

While the book is 273 pages plus an introduction, only the first 126 are narrative. Madsen uses the rest of the book (seven appendices) to include transcriptions of original documents including Dimmock’s diary, an unpublished manuscript about the expedition by Dimmock, Newberry’s diary, and letters of Macomb. The book contains many illustrations including color reproductions from the finished report (not published until 1874), and a copy of Baron F. W. Von Egloffstein’s 1864 map (folded in back pocket) of the region which was created under Macomb’s direction. While most of the illustrations are illuminating (especially the ones showing Dimmock’s original sketches and pictures taken recently of the same area), some are either irrelevant (“High Bridge near Farmville, Virginia,” p. 107) or out of focus (most reproductions of maps). While a copy of Von Egloffstein’s map is much appreciated, it is difficult to use as a method of following along with the text. Also, the map is printed on poor quality paper; it began to tear at the folds after being used by only one reader. Finally, the map has, in no way, been enhanced to emphasize the journey or show modern features. Similarly, the text contains no contemporary, detailed maps showing the route of the expedition. Good maps detailing the route enhance and make any book involving exploration easier to use.

Madsen’s writing style is rather academic. Rarely does he make his subject matter exciting. His introduction does not pull the reader in as it should. Macomb’s expedition, while not fraught with the thrilling dangers of John Wesley Powell or Lewis and Clark, does cover areas hitherto scientifically unexplored. It is obvious that Madsen loves the geography of this part of the world, but he rarely offers the thrills that one imagines great explorers have when thinking they are the first to look upon some fantastic landscape. Madsen’s awkward transitions between topics in the opening chapter made this reader pause and wonder how the subject got changed. The chapter regarding the expedition itself flows nicely, but then it is linear storyline. Madsen fails to elevate the climax of the expedition—the locating of the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Overall, this book is recommended for people interested in this topic and for libraries which collect in this subject. Madsen has clearly done thorough research for this work and the large appendices are very welcome. However, this book is not for the general reader.

Reviewer Info: 

Christopher J. J. Thiry is the map librarian at the Arthur Lakes Library at the Colorado School of Mines. He holds a BA in history and an MA in information and library science from the University of Michigan. He is the editor of Guide to U.S. Map Resources and is the former president of the Western Association of Map Libraries.