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John Wesley Powell: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist and National Geographic Founder

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group.  They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo.  In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories. By Mark Collins Jenkins John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) was once...

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group.  They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo.  In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) was once described as “a somewhat rough and striking figure, with tumultuous hair and beard.” His own sister considered him the homeliest man she had ever seen. Others were reminded of Socrates, save for the tobacco stains in the beard. He was 5’6″ and only had one arm, his empty right sleeve a testimony to bravery in the Civil War. Nonetheless, this dramatic character was a celebrated explorer, made major contributions to the sciences of geomorphology and cultural anthropology, and proclaimed a land ethic so revolutionary in its implications that it was decades ahead of its time.

Powell’s career as a champion of exploration and science began more than two decades before he and his fellow National Geographic founders would form a society that would increase and diffuse geographic knowledge. On May 4, 1869, at the age of 35, with four boats and eleven men, Powell set off on what would become one of his most famous expeditions: the exploration of the Colorado River. Following the twisting, tortuous rivers, negotiating the rough and dangerous waters, the whirlpools and rapids, Powell’s expedition made its way down through the high plateaus of eastern Utah. They were carried through the heart of colossal, soaring rocks; they exploded through canyons and over falls, roaring down the cataracts, or when possible portaging around them. Sometimes they glided around bends that revealed vistas stupendous and sublime; other times they drifted in the deep noontime shadow cast by towering canyon walls. They clambered up the cliffs, measuring and surveying.

They nearly ran out of rations, and a deep foreboding set in among them. As they entered the Grand Canyon part of Powell’s team deserted him, but he pressed on while the walls ascended a mile high around him. Three months and 900 miles later, Powell and his remaining men emerged from the mouth of the Grand Canyon. The trip would make him a national hero, and in 1875 he published Explorations of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries, ensuring that for posterity it would be the most dramatic chapter of his life.

The success of this initial exploration led to nearly a decade of work in the Colorado Plateau region, work dignified in 1870 by being included as one of the great western surveys mounted at this time. It was officially designated the Geographical Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, but was called the “Powell Survey” for short.

Geology was not the Major’s only interest, and as a part of its work, the Powell Survey collected ethnological information on the Indians wresting a living from the plateaus. For a while, Powell himself served as an Indian Commissioner — a another job that demanded bravery, for he went among the tribes unarmed at a time when mutual hostility simmered beneath the surface.

He had both practical and idealistic motives: he wished to improve communication with the tribes; but he also wanted to better understand their world, to classify their languages and delineate their cultures. Most importantly, he believed only a scientifically-based ethnology could displace the misconceptions that were causing so much bitterness and bloodshed on both sides.

Powell had first journeyed into the west on the rivers; he had identified water as one of the agents that had sculpted the breathtaking, fantastic terrain of the Colorado plateau. The next step was obvious: it was water that was the key to the vast, broken, dry, and delicately poised ecology of the American West.

This recognition prompted the most daring and revolutionary of John Wesley Powell’s big ideas, contained in his classic Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878). In it, Powell proposed a radical revision in the way water and land were distributed so that they might be utilized to the best advantage of all concerned. This meant a slow, gradual settlement of the west as opposed to the pell-mell rush; a settlement only following a classification system dividing the land into various irrigation and pasturage districts. The logic of topography should rule, and not that of arbitrary political boundaries.

Photograph courtesy Smithsonian Institution.  Explorer John Wesley Powell talks with a Paiute Indian.

Predictably enough, most of his suggestions were ignored. But Powell had learned to play the Washington game, and one of his recommendations, that the four western surveys be consolidated into one, was acted upon. In 1879, they were finally united in the new U.S. Geological Survey. At the same time, a new Bureau of Ethnology was created, administered by the Smithsonian Institution, and Powell became its first director. In 1881, Powell became chief of the Geological Survey as well. This made him, at the age of 47, the most powerful scientist in the country, in charge of exploring, mapping, and classifying all the lands and native tribesmen of the West. Seven years later, he helped found the National Geographic Society.

Powell was active in the Society’s first meetings, giving lectures and probably persuading many of his employees from the Geological Survey to join the new organization. He was also a close friend of Alexander Graham Bell, the two often going for long horseback rides together, one majestic and imposing, the other one-armed, scraggly, and Socratic.

1888 was a very busy year for Powell, for a series of droughts in the West had thrown the land-use issue back into the forefront of public attention. That year, Congress gave him the opportunity he had long been craving: instructions to prepare an Irrigation Survey of all the public domain lands in the West. Suddenly he had the power to put his proposals into action, and save perhaps half the country from environmental catastrophe.

Powell got down to work. First, there should be a topographic survey. Next, a hydrographic survey. Finally, an engineering survey. In an estimated seven years the Western lands might be permanently classified as to their irrigable potential or other economic use. Powell now had the power to halt settlement over the entire public domain, pending the results of his gigantic survey. Then and only then would lands be gradually released, and only to agencies or groups prepared to undertake the cooperative irrigation projects.

It was as close as the country ever got to sensible Western land planning and management, but it was not to be. Powell had kindled a firestorm of opposition. The economic interests were up in arms. Arrayed against him were all the groups with special interests in the West. Even many in the Geological Survey were opposed. For the best part of five brutal, bruising years, Powell engaged in unceasing combat with his opponents, the one-armed old veteran facing one Congressional inquiry after another. He was nearly through his program of topographic mapping when a Congressman finally found a way to slash Powell’s appropriations. This derailed the Major’s momentum and, in 1894, Powell resigned as chief of the Geological Survey. The Irrigation Survey was ended and the USGS shifted its emphasis back to economic geology.

Powell and members of his staff, known as the “Great Basin Mess.”

Although Powell’s chief reason for resignation was said to be unceasing pain in the stump of his arm, which had never healed properly, it was clear that he had been seriously wounded in the latest fight. He now sought the refuge of the Bureau of Ethnology, where he was still chief.

Throughout his tenure there, he had been supervising a small army of ethnologists working all over the West and South collecting information on the fast-disappearing Indians.

In the late 1890s, his powers began a sharp decline. The man who had once envisioned so many possibilities in so many fields increasingly stared vacantly, his faculties ravaged by arteriosclerosis and minor strokes. On September 23, 1902, in the summer home in Haven, Maine, to which he had retreated with his wife and daughter, John Wesley Powell died in his bed of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 68 years old, and nearly penniless.

What has been the legacy of John Wesley Powell? His tomb in Arlington National Cemetery merely reads, “Soldier. Explorer. Scientist.” No mention that his initial lack of a college degree had been more than made up by a plethora of honorary ones from Illinois Wesleyan, Columbian, Harvard, and even Heidelberg in Germany. No mention of his fundamental contributions to physiography and geomorphology; nor of the fact that today he is widely regarded as the true founder of the U.S. Geological Survey. He himself considered the two great works of his life to be the sympathetic study of the American Indian, and the attempt to establish an ecologically sound dryland democracy in the West. There his legacy has continued to bear fruit.

In the Bureau of Ethnology, he left posterity a major institutional force in Native American studies, one that influenced the growth of anthropology, not to mention housing one of the great collections in the world. Even the failed dryland democracy efforts, obscured and misunderstood for decades, at last seem to be finding adherents. With the rise of ecological sensibilities — and after the West has experienced repeated cycles of environmental disaster, mismanagement, and greed–his voice is increasingly recognized as prophetic. Soldier, explorer, and scientist he may have been, but one historian would state: “No part of Powell’s life is more spectacular than his heroic efforts to preserve the public domain from pillage for private gain.”

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