John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell

Powell as he appears at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Born March 24, 1834 (1834-03-24)
Mount Morris, New York
Died September 23, 1902 (1902-09-24) (age 68)
Nationality American
Known for Traversing Colorado River of the Grand Canyon
Spouse Emma Dean Powell
Powell was the second Director of the United States Geological Survey, having served from 1881-1894. This portrait was taken early in his term of office.

John Wesley Powell (March 24, 1834 – September 23, 1902) was a U.S. soldier, geologist, explorer of the American West, and director of major scientific and cultural institutions. He is famous for the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers that included the first known passage through the Grand Canyon.

Powell served as second director of the US Geological Survey (1881–1894) and proposed policies for development of the arid West which were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. He was director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications.



Early life and education

Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834, the son of Joseph and Mary Powell. His father, a poor itinerant preacher, had emigrated to the U.S. from Shrewsbury, England, in 1830. His family moved westward to Jackson, Ohio, then Walworth County, Wisconsin, before settling in Illinois in rural Boone County.

Powell studied at Illinois College, Wheaton College and Oberlin College, acquiring a knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin. Powell had a restless nature and a deep interest in the natural sciences. As a young man he undertook a series of adventures through the Mississippi River valley. In 1855, he spent four months walking across Wisconsin. During 1856, he rowed the Mississippi from St. Anthony, Minnesota, to the sea. In 1857, he rowed down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to St. Louis; and in 1858 down the Illinois River, then up the Mississippi and the Des Moines River to central Iowa. At age 25 he was elected to the Illinois Natural History Society in 1859.

First camp of the John Wesley Powell expedition, in the willows, Green River, Wyoming, 1871.
John Wesley Powell and his wife, Emma, in Detroit in 1862.

Civil War and aftermath

Due to Powell's deep Protestant beliefs and social commitments, his loyalties remained with the Union and the cause of abolishing slavery. On May 8, 1861, he enlisted at Hennepin, Illinois, as a private in the 20th Illinois Infantry. He was described as "age 27, height 5' 6-1/2" tall, light complected, gray eyes, auburn hair, occupation—teacher." He was elected sergeant-major of the regiment, and when the 20th Illinois was mustered into the Federal service a month later, Powell was commissioned a second lieutenant. He enlisted in the Union Army as a cartographer, topographer and military engineer.[1] During the Civil War he served first with the 20th Illinois Volunteers. While stationed at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, he recruited an artillery company that became Battery "F" of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery with Powell as captain. On November 28, 1861, Powell took a brief leave to marry the former Emma Dean.[2] At the Battle of Shiloh, he lost most of one arm when struck by a minie ball. The raw nerve endings in his arm would continue to cause him pain the rest of his life. Despite the loss of an arm, he returned to the Army and was present at Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge on the Big Black River and in the siege of Vicksburg. Always the geologist he took to studying rocks while in the trenches at Vicksburg.[3] He was made a major and commanded an artillery brigade with the 17th Army Corps during the Atlanta Campaign. After the fall of Atlanta he was transferred to George H. Thomas' army and participated in the battle of Nashville. At the end of the war he was made a brevet lieutenant colonel, but despite this he continued to be referred to as "Major".[3]

After leaving the Army, Powell took the post of professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. He also lectured at Illinois State Normal University for most of his career. Powell helped found the Illinois Museum of Natural History, where he served as the curator. He declined a permanent appointment in favor of exploration of the American West.[4][5]

Adventures and Expeditions


Powell (right) with Tau-gu, a Paiute, 1871-1872.

From 1867 Powell led a series of expeditions into the Rocky Mountains and around the Green and Colorado rivers. In 1869 he set out to explore the Colorado and the Grand Canyon. Gathering nine men, four boats and food for 10 months, he set out from Green River, Wyoming on May 24. Passing through dangerous rapids, the group passed down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado River (then also known as the Grand River upriver from the junction), near present-day Moab, Utah and completed the journey on August 13, 1869.[5] The expedition's route traveled through the Utah canyons of the Colorado River, which Powell described in his published diary as having

". . . wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon."

One man (Goodman) quit after the first month, and another three (Dunn and the Howland brothers) left at Separation Canyon in the third. This was just two days before the group reached the mouth of the Virgin River on August 30, after traversing almost 930 mi (1,500 km). The latter three disappeared; historians have speculated they were killed by the Shivwitz band of the Northern Paiute.[6] How and why they died remains a mystery debated by Powell biographers.

Powell retraced the route in 1871-1872 with another expedition, resulting in photographs (by John K. Hillers), an accurate map and various papers. In planning this expedition, he employed the services of Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon missionary in southern Utah and northern Arizona, who had cultivated excellent relationships with Native Americans. Before setting out, Powell used Hamblin as a negotiator to ensure the safety of his expedition from local Indian groups. Powell believed they had killed the three men lost from his previous expedition. Wallace Stegner states that Powell knew the men had been killed by the Indians in a case of mistaken identity.[6]

Members of the first Powell expedition:

  • John Wesley Powell, trip organizer and leader, major in the Civil War
  • J. C. Sumner, hunter, trapper, soldier in the Civil War
  • William H. Dunn, hunter, trapper from Colorado
  • W. H. Powell, captain in the Civil War
  • G.Y. Bradley, lieutenant in the Civil War, expedition chronicler
  • O. G. Howland, printer, editor, hunter
  • Seneca Howland
  • Frank Goodman, Englishman, adventurer
  • W. R. Hawkins, cook, soldier in Civil War
  • Andrew Hall, Scotsman, the youngest of the expedition
  • F.M. Bishop, cartographer
Sir Archibald Geikie, John Wesley Powell, and Charles Doolittle Walcott on a geological field excursion to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, May 1897.

After the Colorado

In 1874 the intellectual gatherings Powell hosted in his home were formalized as the Cosmos Club. The club has continued, with members elected to the club for their contributions to scholarship and civic activism.

In 1881, Powell was appointed the second director of the US Geological Survey, a post he held until 1894. He was also the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution until his death. Under his leadership, the Smithsonian published an influential classification of North American Indian languages.[7]

In 1875, Powell published a book based on his explorations of the Colorado, originally titled Report of the Exploration of the Columbia River of the West and Its Tributaries. It was revised and reissued in 1895 as The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.

Legacy and honors

Maud Powell, niece of John Wesley Powell, photographed at his monument, Grand Canyon, Arizona, 1918.
  • In recognition of his national service, Powell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
  • Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River, was named in his honor. It straddles the border between Utah and Arizona. It is the second-largest man-made reservoir in the United States behind Lake Mead. It is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a popular summer destination.
  • In Powell's honor, in 1974 the USGS National Center in Reston, Virginia, was dedicated as The John Wesley Powell Federal Building. In addition, the USGS's highest award to persons outside the federal government is named the John Wesley Powell Award.

Beliefs and Ideas

As an ethnologist and early anthropologist, Powell was a student of the pioneering anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. Powell divided human societies into "savagery," "barbarism" and "civilization" based on levels of technology, family and social organization, property relations, and intellectual development. In his view, all societies progressed toward civilization. He was a champion of preservation and conservation. It was his conviction that part of the natural progression of society included a combination of efforts to maximize and make the best use of resources.

Powell is credited with coining the word "acculturation", first using it in an 1880 report by the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnography. In 1883 Powell defined "acculturation" to be the psychological changes induced by cross-cultural imitation.

Powell' s expeditions led to his belief that the arid West was not suitable for agricultural development, except for about 2% of the lands that were near water sources. His Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States proposed irrigation systems and state boundaries based on watershed areas (to avoid squabbles). For the remaining lands, he proposed conservation and low-density, open grazing.

Powell's Profile, a rock formation named for John Wesley Powell in Knowles Canyon, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah.

The railroad companies, who owned vast tracts of lands (183,000,000 acres (740,000 km2)) granted in return for building the lines, did not agree with his opinion. They aggressively lobbied Congress to reject Powell's policy proposals and to encourage farming instead, as they wanted to develop their lands. The politicians agreed and developed policies that encouraged pioneer settlement based on agriculture. They based such policy on a theory developed by Professor Cyrus Thomas and promoted by Horace Greeley. He suggested that agricultural development of land causes arid lands to generate higher amounts of rain ("rain follows the plow"). At an 1883 irrigation conference, Powell would remark: "Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land."[8] Powell's recommendations for development of the West were largely ignored until after the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in untold suffering associated with pioneer subsistence farms that failed due to insufficient rain.


  1. ^ Weiner, Americans Without Law (New York University Press, 2006).
  2. ^ Worster, Donald. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2001.pp. 89.
  3. ^ a b USGS: John Wesley Powell
  4. ^ Kemp, Bill (2009-01-17). "'Conqueror of the Grand Canyon' returned to Bloomington in 1896". The Pantagraph. Retrieved 2009-01-17. 
  5. ^ a b "The Beginnings of the U.S. Geological Survey". National Atlas of the United States. 2010. Retrieved 9 October 2010. 
  6. ^ a b Stegner, Wallace (1954). Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-4133-X (and other reprint editions)
  7. ^ Reprinted in Boas and Powell, infra.
  8. ^ Michael Hiltzik (2010-07-05). "The false promise of Hoover Dam". LA Times.,0,7248085.story. Retrieved 2010-07-06. 


  • Powell, J. W. (1875). The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. New York: Dover Press. ISBN 0-486-20094-9 (and other reprint editions).
  • Aton, James M. (2010). John Wesley Powell: His Life and Legacy. ISBN 978-0-87480-992-3
  • Boas, F.; Powell, J. W. (1991) Introduction to Handbook of American Indian Languages plus Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico, University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 0803250177
  • Darrah, William Culp, Ralph V. Chamberlin, and Charles Kelly. (2009). The Exploration of the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871–1872: Biographical Sketches and Original Documents of the First Powell Expedition of 1869 and the Second Powell Expedition of 1871–1872. University of Utah Press. ISBN 978-0-87480-963-3.
  • Dolnick, Edward (2002). Down the Great Unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon (Paperback). Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-095586-4.
  • Dolnick, Edward (2001). Down the Great Unknown : John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon (Hardcover). HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-019619-X.
  • Ghiglieri, Michael P., Bradley, George Y. (2003). First Through Grand Canyon: The Secret Journals & Letters of the 1869 Crew Who Explored the Green and Colorado Rivers (Paperback). Puma Press . ISBN 0-9700-9732-8.
  • National Geographic Society (1999) Exploring the Great Rivers of North America. ISBN 0-7922-7846-1.
  • Reisner, Marc (1993). Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (Paperback). Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017824-4.
  • Stegner, Wallace (1954). Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-4133-X (and other reprint editions).
  • Weiner, Mark S (2006). Americans Without Law. New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-9364-9.
  • Worster, Donald (2000). A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509991-5.
  • Reisner, Marc (1986). "Cadillac Desert: the American West and its Disappearing Water".
  • Powell, J.W. (1876). A Report on the Arid Regions of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah"

External links

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