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John Wesley Powell

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John Wesley Powell
Powell as he appears at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
2nd Director of the United States Geological Survey
In office
1881 (1881)–1894 (1894)
Preceded byClarence King
Succeeded byCharles Doolittle Walcott
Personal details
BornMarch 24, 1834[1]
Mount Morris, New York, U.S.
DiedSeptember 23, 1902(1902-09-23) (aged 68)[1]
Haven Colony, Brooklin, Maine, U.S.
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery, Section 1
SpouseEmma Dean Powell
RelativesWilliam B Powell, brother
Known forTraversing Colorado River of the Grand Canyon
Scientific career
FieldsNatural sciences
Military career
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnited States Army
Years of service1861–1865
Powell served as the second Director of the United States Geological Survey, a post he held from 1881 to 1894. This photograph dates from early in his term of office.

John Wesley Powell (March 24, 1834 – September 23, 1902)[1] was an American geologist, U.S. Army soldier, explorer of the American West, professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and director of major scientific and cultural institutions. He is famous for his 1869 geographic expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers, including the first official U.S. government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon.

Powell was appointed by US President James A. Garfield to serve as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey (1881–1894) and proposed, for development of the arid West, policies that were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. Two years prior to his service as director of the U.S. Geological Survey,[2] Major Powell had become the first director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications.


Early life[edit]

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 1831. His family moved westward to Jackson, Ohio, then to Walworth County, Wisconsin, before settling in rural Boone County, Illinois.[3]: 3–51 

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 the Mississippi River, traveling north to reach St. Louis. In 1858, he rowed down the Illinois River, then up the Mississippi and the Des Moines River to central Iowa. In 1859, at age 25, he was elected to the Illinois Natural History Society.

John Wesley Powell and his wife, Emma, in Detroit in 1863.


Powell studied at Illinois College, Illinois Institute (which would later become Wheaton College), and Oberlin College, over a period of seven years while teaching, but was unable to attain his degree.[4] During his studies Powell acquired a knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin. Powell had a restless nature and a deep interest in the natural sciences. This desire to learn about natural sciences was against the wishes of his father, yet Powell was still determined to do so.[4] In 1861 when Powell was on a lecture tour he decided that a civil war was inevitable; he decided to study military science and engineering to prepare himself for the imminent conflict.[4]

Civil War and aftermath[edit]

Powell's 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 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.[5]

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 Emma Dean.[3]: 89  At the Battle of Shiloh, he lost most of his right arm when struck by a Minié ball while in the process of giving the order to fire.[6] The raw nerve endings in his arm caused him pain for the rest of his life.

Despite the loss of an arm, he returned to the Army and was present at the battles of Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge, and in the siege of Vicksburg. Always the geologist, he took to studying rocks while in the trenches at Vicksburg.[6] 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 preferred to use the title of "major".[6]

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 expand the collections of the Museum of the Illinois State Natural History Society, where he served as curator. He declined a permanent appointment in favor of exploration of the American West.[7][8]

Geologic research[edit]


First camp of the John Wesley Powell expedition, in the willows, Green River, Wyoming, 1871.
Powell (right) with Tau-gu, a Southern Paiute, 1871–1872.

After 1867, Powell led a series of expeditions into the Rocky Mountains and around the Green and Colorado rivers. One of these expeditions was with his students and his wife, to collect specimens all over Colorado.[6] Powell, William Byers, and five other men were the first white men to climb Longs Peak in 1868.[9]

In 1869, he set out to explore the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.[10] Gathering ten 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 30, 1869.[8]

The members of the first Powell expedition were:

  • John Wesley Powell, trip organizer and leader, major in the Civil War
  • John Colton "Jack" Sumner, hunter, trapper, soldier in the Civil War
  • William H. Dunn, hunter, trapper from Colorado
  • Walter H. Powell, captain in the Civil War, John's brother
  • George Y. Bradley, lieutenant in the Civil War, expedition chronicler
  • Oramel G. Howland, printer, editor, hunter
  • Seneca Howland, soldier who was wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg
  • Frank Goodman, Englishman, adventurer
  • W.R. Hawkins, cook, soldier in Civil War
  • Andrew Hall, Scotsman, the youngest of the expedition
Charles Doolittle Walcott, John Wesley Powell, and Sir Archibald Geikie on a geological field excursion to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, May 1897.

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.

Frank Goodman quit after the first month, and Dunn and the Howland brothers left at Separation Canyon in the third month. 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 three disappeared; some historians have speculated they were killed by the Shivwits Band of Paiutes or by Mormons in the town of Toquerville.[11][12][13][14]

Powell retraced part of the 1869 route in 1871–72 with another expedition that traveled the Colorado River from Green River, Wyoming to Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon.[15]: 111–114  Powell used three photographers on this expedition; Elias Olcott Beaman, James Fennemore, and John K. Hillers.[16] This trip resulted in photographs (by John K. Hillers), an accurate map and various papers. At least one Powell scholar, Otis R. Marston, noted the maps produced from the survey were impressionistic rather than precise.[15] In planning this expedition, he employed the services of Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon missionary in southern Utah who had cultivated relationships with Native Americans. Before setting out, Powell used Hamblin as a negotiator to ensure the safety of his expedition from local Indian groups.

After the Colorado[edit]

In 1881, Powell was appointed the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, a post he held until his resignation in 1894,[3]: 394, 534  being replaced by Charles Walcott. In 1875, Powell published a book based on his explorations of the Colorado, originally titled Report of the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries. It was revised and reissued in 1895 as The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. In 1889, the intellectual gatherings Powell hosted in his home were formalized as the Cosmos Club.[3]: 437–439  The club has continued, with members elected to the club for their contributions to scholarship and civic activism.

In the early 1900s the journals of the expedition crew began to be published starting with Dellenbaugh's A Canyon Voyage in 1908, followed in 1939 by the diary of Almon Harris Thompson, who was married to Powell's sister, Ellen Powell Thompson.[6] Bishop, Steward, W.C. Powell, and Jones' diaries were all published in 1947.[6] These diaries made it clear Powell's writings contained some exaggerations and recounted activities that occurred on the second river trip as if they occurred on the first. They also revealed that Powell, who had only one arm, wore a life jacket, though the other men did not have them.[15]: 48, 50–51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 63, 93, 107 

Anthropological research[edit]

Hopi basketry bread tray, donated to the U.S. National Museum of Natural History by J.W. Powell in 1876.

Powell became the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution in 1879 and remained so until his death.[11] Under his leadership, the Smithsonian published an influential classification of North American Indian languages.[17] In 1898, Powell was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.

As an ethnologist and early anthropologist, Powell was a follower of Lewis Henry Morgan.[3] He classified human societies into 'savagery', 'barbarism', and 'civilization'.[18] Powell's criteria were based on consideration of adoption of technology, family and social organization, property relations, and intellectual development. In his view, all societies were to progress toward civilization. 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" as psychological changes induced by cross-cultural imitation.

Powell published extensive anthropological studies on the Ute people inhabiting the canyon lands around the Colorado River. His views towards these populations, along with his scientific approach, was built on social Darwinist thought; he focused on defining what features distinguished Native Americans as 'barbaric', placing them above 'savagery' but below 'civilized' white Europeans.[19] Indeed, the study of ethnology was a way for scientists to demarcate social categories in order to justify government-sponsored programs that exploited newly appropriated land and its inhabitants.[20][19][21] Powell advocated for government funding to be used to 'civilize' Native American populations, pushing for the teaching of English, Christianity, and Western methods of farming and manufacture.[22][23]

In his book The Exploration of the Canyons of the Colorado, Powell is motivated to conduct ethnologic studies because "these Indians are more nearly in their primate condition than any others on the continent with whom I am acquainted."[22] As Wallace Stegner posits in Beyond the 100th Meridian, by 1869, many Native American tribes had been pushed to extinction, and those that were known were considered corrupted by intercultural exchange.[11] Even in 1939, Julian Steward, an anthropologist compiling photographs from Powell's 1873 expedition suggested that: "Fascinated at finding [Native Americans] nearly untouched by civilization, he developed a deep interest in ethnology ... Few explorers in the United States have had a comparable opportunity to study and photograph Indians so nearly in their aboriginal state."[24]

Powell created Illinois State University's first Museum of Anthropology which at the time was called the finest in all of North America.[25] Powell held a post as lecturer on the History of Culture in the Political Science department at the Columbian University in Washington, D.C. from 1894 to 1899.[26] Powell's contribution to anthropology and scientific racism is not well known in the geosciences, however a recent article revisited Powell's legacy in terms of his social and political impact on Native Americans.[27]


In Cadillac Desert, Powell is portrayed as a champion of land preservation and conservation.[28] 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 disagreements between states.[29] For the remaining lands, he proposed conservation and low-density, open grazing.[3]

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

The railroad companies owned 183,000,000 acres (740,000 km2) – vast tracts of lands granted in return for building the railways – and did not agree with Powell's views on land conservation. They aggressively lobbied Congress to reject Powell's policy proposals and to encourage farming instead, as they wanted to cash in on their lands. The U.S. Congress went along and developed legislation that encouraged pioneer settlement of the American West based on agricultural use of land. Politicians based their decisions on a theory of Professor Cyrus Thomas who was a protege of Horace Greeley. Thomas suggested that agricultural development of land would change climate and cause higher amounts of precipitations, claiming that 'rain follows the plow', a theory which has since been largely discredited.

At an 1893 irrigation conference, Powell would prophetically 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."[30] 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 because of insufficient rain and irrigation water.

Legacy, honors, and namesakes[edit]

John Wesley Powell was honored on a U.S. commemorative stamp in 1969.
Maud Powell, niece of John Wesley Powell, photographed at his monument, Grand Canyon, Arizona, 1918
Portrait of Powell at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

In recognition of his national service, Powell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery,[3]: 570  Virginia. The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, signed 12 March 2019, authorizes the establishment of the "John Wesley Powell National Conservation Area", consisting of approximately 29,868 acres of land in Utah.[32] Green River, Wyoming, the embarkation site of both Powell expeditions, commissioned a statue depicting Powell holding an oar, in front of the Sweetwater County History Museum. In Powell's honor, the USGS National Center in Reston, Virginia, was dedicated as the "John Wesley Powell Federal Building" in 1974. In addition, the highest award presented by the USGS to persons outside the federal government is named the John Wesley Powell Award. In 1984, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.[33]

The following were named after Powell:


An article in Scientific American notes the following awards:[38]

Powell was also an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.[40][41]

Personal life[edit]

On November 28, 1861, while serving as captain of Battery 'F' of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, he took a brief leave to marry Emma Dean.[3]: 89 

On September 10, 1871, Emma Dean gave birth to the Powells' only child, Mary Dean Powell in Salt Lake City, Utah.[42] She was active in the Wimodaughsis, a national women's club in Washington, D.C., started by Anna Howard Shaw and Susan B. Anthony.[43][44][45] Emma Dean Powell died on March 13, 1924, in Washington, D.C. She is buried along with her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.[46]


  1. ^ a b c McNamee, Gregory. "John Wesley Powell". britannica.com. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 9, 2019.
  2. ^ Hunter, Cathy. "John Wesley Powell: Soldier, explorer, scientist, and National Geographic founder". National Geographic. Archived from the original on December 8, 2014. Retrieved December 5, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Worster, Donald (2001). A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509991-5.
  4. ^ a b c "John Wesley Powell: soldier, explorer, scientist". USGS: Science for a Changing World. Retrieved March 24, 2019.
  5. ^ Weiner, Mark S. (2006). Americans without Law. New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-9364-9.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "John Wesley Powell: Soldier, explorer, scientist". U.S. Geological Survey. USGS: Science for a Changing World. United States Department of the Interior. Retrieved March 24, 2020.
  7. ^ Kemp, Bill (17 January 2009). "'Conqueror of the Grand Canyon' returned to Bloomington in 1896". The Pantagraph. Bloomington, IL. Archived from the original on 31 January 2013. Retrieved 17 January 2009.
  8. ^ a b "The Beginnings of the U.S. Geological Survey". National Atlas of the United States. 2010. Archived from the original on 16 October 2012. Retrieved 9 October 2010.
  9. ^ General Information Regarding Rocky Mountain National Park. U.S. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. 1919. p. 35.
  10. ^ Talbot, Vivian Linford; Gowans, Fred R. (1994), "Exploration in Utah", Utah History Encyclopedia, University of Utah Press, ISBN 9780874804256, archived from the original on March 21, 2024, retrieved April 21, 2024
  11. ^ a b c Stegner, Wallace (1954). Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the second opening of the West. University of Nebraska Press. pp. 239–240. ISBN 0-8032-4133-X. (and other reprint editions)
  12. ^ Ross, John F. (2018). The Promise of the Grand Canyon. Viking. pp. 162–166, 172–176, 190–193. ISBN 978-0525429876.
  13. ^ "Utah Lighthouse Ministry". Retrieved 28 January 2015.
  14. ^ Krakauer, Jon (2004). Under the Banner of Heaven: A story of violent faith. Knopf Doubleday Publishing. pp. 235–245. ISBN 978-1400078998.
  15. ^ a b c Marston, Otis R. (2014). From Powell to Power: A recounting of the first one hundred river runners through the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff, Arizona: Vishnu Temple Press. ISBN 978-0990527022.
  16. ^ "Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh collection of photographs and drawings of the Colorado River region". Yale. Retrieved February 15, 2022. The early photographs are by E. O. Beaman, James Fennemore, John K. Hillers, photographers on the 1871 Powell expedition. The collection includes ... photographs, evidently created for inclusion in Dellenbaugh's books on the Colorado River and the West.
  17. ^ Reprinted in Boas, F.; Powell, J.W. (1991). Introduction to Handbook of American Indian Languages and Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico (double volume reprint ed.). University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-5017-7.
  18. ^ Haller, John S. (1971). Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific attitudes of racial inferiority, 1859–1900. SIU Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-0-8093-1982-4. Retrieved March 2, 2013.
  19. ^ a b Baker, Lee D. (1998). From Savage to Negro Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896–1954. University of California Press.
  20. ^ Haller, John S. (1971). "Race and the concept of progress in nineteenth century American ethnology". American Anthropologist. 73 (3): 710–724. doi:10.1525/aa.1971.73.3.02a00120. JSTOR 671764.
  21. ^ Powell, J. W. (1888). "From Barbarism to Civilization". American Anthropologist. 1 (2): 97–123. doi:10.1525/aa.1888.1.2.02a00000. JSTOR 658712.
  22. ^ a b Powell, John Wesley (1895). Exploration of the Canyons of the Colorado. New York: Dover Publications.
  23. ^ Powell, J.W.; Ingalls, G.W. (1875). Report of special commissioners J.W. Powell and G.W. Ingalls on the condition of the Ute Indians of Utah; the Pai-Utes of Utah, northern Arizona, southern Nevada, and southeastern California; the Go-si Utes of Utah and Nevada; the northwestern Shoshones of Idaho and Utah; and the western Shoshones of Nevada; and report concerning claims of settlers in the Mo-a-pa valley (southeastern Nevada). Washington, DC: United States Bureau of Indian Affairs.
  24. ^ Steward, Julian H. (1939). Notes on Hillers' photographs of the Paiute and Ute Indians taken on the Powell expedition of 1873. Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution.
  25. ^ Powell, John Wesley; DeBuys, William Eno (2001). Seeing Things Whole: The essential John Wesley Powell. Washington, DC: Island Press / Shearwater Books.
  26. ^ Catalogue of the Columbian College in the District of Columbia. W. Force. 1898–1901. Retrieved 9 June 2018 – via Hathi Trust.
  27. ^ Pico, Tamara. "The Darker Side of John Wesley Powell". Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved July 16, 2020.
  28. ^ Reisner, Marc (1993). Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Penguin Books.
  29. ^ Powell, John Wesley (1962). Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah (reprint ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  30. ^ Hiltzik, Michael (5 July 2010). "The false promise of Hoover Dam". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 6 July 2010.
  31. ^ International Plant Names Index.  J.W.Powell.
  32. ^ "John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act" (PDF). Congress.gov. S. 47. Retrieved March 16, 2019.
  33. ^ "Hall of Great Westerners". National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Retrieved November 22, 2019.
  34. ^ Dziezynski, James (August 1, 2012). Best Summit Hikes in Colorado: An opinionated guide to 50+ ascents of classic and little-known peaks from 8,144 to 14,433 feet. Wilderness Press. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-89997-713-3.
  35. ^ "About Powell, Wyoming". cityofpowell.com. Archived from the original on August 31, 2013. Retrieved May 29, 2013.
  36. ^ "Criminal Justice Services Department". cjsd.mesacounty.us. Mesa County Government. Mesa County, Colorado. c. 2010. Archived from the original on 7 March 2013. Retrieved 16 November 2012.
  37. ^ "Powell Middle School". Littleton Public Schools. May 23, 2023.
  38. ^ Scientific American. Munn & Company. September 18, 1888. p. 104.
  39. ^ "John W. Powell". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved April 10, 2024.
  40. ^ "John Wesley Powell | American Academy of Arts and Sciences". www.amacad.org. February 10, 2023. Retrieved April 10, 2024.
  41. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved April 10, 2024.
  42. ^ Bearnson, Margaret S. "Powell, John Wesley". Utah History Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 14, 2022.
  43. ^ "Some Brainy Women". Evening Star. December 15, 1894. p. 17. Retrieved August 14, 2022.
  44. ^ "Anna H. Shaw". Woman of the Century. Charles Wells Moulton. 1893. p. 654.
  45. ^ "Wimodausis Club". The Leavenworth Weekly Times. July 31, 1890. p. 6. Retrieved August 14, 2022.
  46. ^ "Emma Dean Powell Obituary". Evening Star. March 14, 1924. p. 7. Retrieved August 19, 2022.


External links[edit]

Preceded by Director of the United States Geological Survey
Succeeded by