John Wesley Powell

American geologist, anthropologist, and scientific explorer, John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) made the first dramatic descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. His life was dedicated to exploring and conserving the natural resources—scientific, scenic, economic, and human—of the American West.

John Wesley Powell was born on March 24, 1834, on a farm in western New York. During John's childhood the family migrated from Ohio to Wisconsin to Illinois, so his education was sporadic. He attended Wheaton and Oberlin colleges but obtained no degree. Powell early demonstrated interest in botany and traveled extensively, collecting specimens as part of his self-education. He joined the Illinois Society of Natural History at the age of 20 and was soon elected secretary. Prior to the Civil War, he worked as a schoolteacher and lyceum lecturer. Powell joined the Union Army and lost his right arm in the bloody Battle of Shiloh.

Released from service, Powell became professor of natural history at Illinois Wesleyan College. He transferred to the Illinois Normal University as curator of the museum, thereby gaining time and financial support for western exploration. In 1867 he conducted a party of students and amateur scientists to Colorado; he and his wife ascended Pike's Peak and explored the Grand River. The next year he took a party of 21 men to the Rockies. In 1869 Powell and a small party descended the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, a feat never before accomplished.

In 1871-1872 Powell voyaged down the Green and Colorado rivers a second time and for the remainder of the decade, with the financial support of Congress, explored the Colorado Plateau. His reports and lectures on natural history and the Native American tribes made him a national hero. His importance as a scientific explorer was recognized when he became director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1880.

As a geologist, Powell provided detailed explanations of how the erosion of rivers creates gorges during periods when a rocky region is undergoing gradual elevation. His findings were published in Explorations of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries (1875) and revised in Canyons of the Colorado (1895). An early conservationist, Powell was obsessed by the idea that a vast wasteland was being created in the West by farmers who, by breaking the earth's cover, were inviting erosion. He believed that water monopolists and lumbermen were excessively exploitative. Powell urged Congress to modify the land laws in the West in his Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States. His proposal ultimately led to the creation of the Bureau of Reclamation.

While traveling among the tribes of the High Plains, Powell took notes on their languages and customs. In 1879 he organized the Bureau of American Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution; he directed it for 23 years. His classification of American Indian languages is still valuable. He was also responsible for the Irrigation Survey (1889), a systematic appraisal of the land and water resources of the West that became the basis for all irrigation legislation in the United States.

Perhaps Powell's greatest contribution was as an administrator who recognized that government and science should work in partnership. He urged creation of a Federal department to consolidate all government activity in the scientific field. As director of the Geological Survey, he coordinated the scientific efforts of many men and institutions. He also sponsored extensive publication programs by the Federal government, including the bulletins (begun 1883) and monographs (inaugurated 1890) of the Geological Survey. Most important was the series of atlases (from 1894).

Powell's contribution was recognized with honorary degrees from Harvard and Heidelberg universities. He died on Sept. 23, 1902, in Haven, Maine.

Further Reading on John Wesley Powell

The best biography of Powell is William Culp Darrah, Powell of the Colorado (1951). An excellent interpretation of his career is Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954). Elmo Scott Watson tells of Powell's first western venture in The Professor Goes West (1954). Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, A Canyon Voyage (1908), is the most complete published narrative of Powell's second expedition along the Colorado River. His career within the national pattern of exploration and scientific achievement is delineated in Richard A. Bartlett, Great Surveys of the American West (1962), and William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West (1966). Young people will find a colorful account of Powell's first trip down the Colorado in Leonard Wibberly, Wes Powell: Conqueror of the Grand Canyon (1958).

Additional Biography Sources

Aton, James M., John Wesley Powell, Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1994.

Stegner, Wallace Earle, Beyond the hundredth meridian: John Wesley Powell and the second opening of the West, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, 1954.

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