Powell, John Wesley
POWELL, JOHN WESLEY
(b. Mount Morris, New York, 24 March 1834; d. Haven, Maine, 23 September 1902), geology, ethnology, federal science and mapping administration. For the original article on Powell see DSB, vol. 11.
In 1889 John Powell reached the apex of his power and influence as the manager of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), its Irrigation Survey (IS), and the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology (BE), but his nadir followed in less than five years. Since 1950 evaluations in three significant book-length biographies, sections in related volumes, many articles, several film and television presentations, and an on-stage impersonator’s portrayal ascribe the causes for and results of Powell’s rapid decline to persons and circumstances beyond his control.
Expeditions Powell served as an officer of Union artillery in combat during the Civil War and led a daring exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. Then he made significant contributions to geology and ethnology as he managed the organization that became the Interior Department’s U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. In partnership with Clarence Dutton and G. K. Gilbert, Powell advanced the understanding of how uplift and running water shape mountain and valley landforms. Powell also urged a more rational use of the West’s arid lands and limited waters and a wiser, more humane policy toward its native peoples.
Powell, who insisted on being called “Major,” proved himself brave, intelligent, and resourceful, but he also was aggressive, egotistical, and obstinate. During the 1869 voyage three men died after Powell failed to prevent their
quiet mutiny and departure from the river. In later years he ignored the expedition’s other participants, one of whom had saved his life in the Grand Canyon.
In the effort to reform federal mapping and science surveys during 1878 to 1879 Ferdinand Hayden, Clarence King, and Powell favored consolidating survey functions under civilian control within the Interior Department. King, not Powell, helped to write the plan presented by Yale’s O. C. Marsh and his National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee. When, at Interior Secretary Carl Schurz’s request, Powell drafted unacceptable legislation from the NAS plan, Schurz asked King to co-write a new and the enacted version.
Powell, not yet in the NAS, co-founded with Dutton and others Washington’s Cosmos Club to expand his social-scientific circle in the capital and also to support his brief quest to lead the new USGS. To defeat Hayden, Powell then backed King’s stronger and successful candidacy for USGS director. Powell also knew that King intended (for reasons personal and professional) to remain with the USGS only long enough to get the fledgling agency up and running. When the reform-minded Schurz left office in 1881, King resigned and recommended Powell as his replacement to manage the mission-oriented USGS.
Director of the USGS As USGS director Powell blended the staffs and work of the USGS and the BE. Powell’s goals and methods in science and its administration, however, differed widely from those of the Yale-trained King. Powell represented an older, less-specialized, and often self-taught tradition in science in America. Everything possible, Powell believed, must be learned about a subject before applying the information gained to solving problems. His looser managerial style often allowed the USGS staff to choose their own subjects for study. Dutton and others in the USGS respected Powell as they had King, but Powell, unlike King, did not earn their affection.
By 1882 Congress had not yet founded the separate agency for surveys of measurement and position that King sought to secure a more reliable national geological map and to advance other USGS work. King and Powell’s friends in Congress convinced their colleagues and President Chester Arthur to authorize the USGS to continue that map’s preparation, by which Powell officially extended agency activities nationwide. To King’s dismay Powell quickly remade the USGS into a national bureau for topographic mapping and basic geology but at the expense of the agency’s mandated studies in mineral resources and other applied geology vital to the nation’s economic health.
Under Powell’s leadership USGS direct appropriations increased steadily through the 1880s and the agency’s staff and activities grew proportionally to include, as full- or part-time employees, NAS president Marsh and almost all of Powell’s other actual or potential critics. Congress, however, grew increasingly dissatisfied with the agency’s paucity of products useful to meeting national needs, its unauthorized investigations and publications, and its alleged mismanagement. In 1886 Powell emerged relatively unscathed from hearings by the joint congressional commission headed by Senator William Allison and held to improve economy and efficiency in federal science bureaus. After the minority report trumpeted some of Powell’s shortcomings, Congress asked the USGS to specify the funds it required for publications and then required the agency to itemize its entire budget.
Faced with the results of arid summers and harsh winters in the West, Congress and President Grover Cleveland enabled Powell to pursue his long-standing goal of improving the region’s land- and water-use practices. In 1888 they authorized and funded the IS within the USGS to help redeem arid lands in the West by irrigation. Powell merged USGS and IS topographic work to advance the former’s ongoing small-scale mapping of the West. Dutton, who led the IS engineers and hydrographers, told Powell that the combination was illegal and then testified before Congress that his work required larger-scale maps of specific areas for which the smaller-scale regional maps were useless.
The attorney general’s ruling on the 1888 statute closed the public lands to entry until the IS segregated the lands and locations for the dams, reservoirs, and canals required for successful irrigation, flood-control, and reclamation. When Powell refused to recommend promptly all the sites whose selection would have reopened the public lands and released federal dowry lands to the six states admitted to the Union during 1889 to 1890, Congress turned hostile and some members (especially in the Senate) grilled Powell severely (and a few even savagely). In 1890 Congress and President Benjamin Harrison repealed the land restrictions and terminated the IS. After a fifteen-year detail to Interior’s surveys Dutton returned at his request to the Army Ordnance Corps. Congress turned to the Agriculture Department for aid in reaching a better understanding of the West’s surface and underground water supplies.
When a new national monetary crisis began in 1890, Powell and the USGS did not respond as effectively during the next two years as King and the agency had done in 1879. In 1892 Congress and Harrison carefully and selectively slashed the agency’s statutory staff (by fifty percent) and its operating expenses (by thirty-three percent), keeping the vital work on mineral resources and their statistics but eliminating unauthorized efforts and the general investigations in geology and paleontology they felt were less useful. Powell had to live within the new law but he responded to it by dismissing, transferring, or retiring fifteen percent of the agency’s whole staff. His cuts, however, fell most heavily on the USGS geologic unit, which lost seventy percent of its funds and some of its staff. Powell fired Marsh, economic geologists Franklin Emmons and George Becker (the latter almost Gilbert’s equal in geophysics), and other staffers. Emmons and Becker already had demonstrated to the mining industry the value of geology in discovering and developing mineral districts.
Powell also failed to heed useful advice from King, other scientists, and politicians concerned about the welfare of the USGS and the quality of its public service. Ignoring a new congressional investigation Powell refused to reform or resign, instead heeding those in his internal clique who advised him to die in office. Powell then spent most of his time away from Washington, continuing to promote before national, state, and territorial organizations his agrarian-populist ideas for public ownership of water supplies and organizing new states’ counties by drainage-basin boundaries. In 1893 interior secretary Hoke Smith, advised by King, advanced chief paleontologist Charles Walcott (King’s appointee in 1879) to replace Gilbert as geologist-in-charge of Geology and Paleontology. Walcott rehired Emmons and Becker, restored much of the USGS efforts in economic geology, and returned Gilbert to field work.
When Powell schemed to have the USGS transferred to the Smithsonian (to join the BE) or to the Department of Agriculture (to emphasize USGS work on soils and surficial geology), Congress, Smith, and President Cleveland rang a decisive alarm bell. In 1894, adopting a time-honored method, they reduced Powell’s salary by $1,000, to take effect when the new fiscal year began on 1 July. Powell resigned as director in May and underwent a needed operation on the stump of the arm he lost at Shiloh.
King could not, as many wished, resume the director-ship. Instead he recommended Walcott to Smith and Cleveland. Director Walcott promptly returned the USGS to its earlier efforts on behalf of the country’s significant economic and educational interests. From 1894 to 1896 Walcott began continuously funded and successful national studies of water resources (including artesian sources, whose importance Powell had decried), sent Becker and William Dall to study Alaska’s gold and coal resources, and professionalized topographic mapping by introducing improved field procedures and records and placing topographers under civil-service rules.
As a measure of Walcott’s success Powell’s principal critics in Congress, especially those in the Senate, changed their opinion about the USGS. Those legislators supported the USGS strongly—increasing the agency’s funding (including restoring the director’s salary) and gave it new missions in topographic surveys (forest reserves, Indian reservations, and other federal lands), reclamation, and fuels and structural-materials testing. USGS direct and transferred appropriations quickly climbed to totals beyond any reached during Powell’s years. They topped one million dollars in fiscal 1898 and rose steadily above that total after fiscal 1900.
Past views of Powell as victim are false. Powell, like all managers, was responsible for his actions and their results. Concluding otherwise absolves Powell of accountability. Some historians see Powell as the conservationists’ Cassandra. Unfortunately he did not have all the answers to the West’s problems in the 1880s and 1890s. To suggest that if congresses and presidents had merely followed Powell’s policies all would have been well then (and now) in land and water issues in the West is historically untenable. Many in Congress and industry opposed Powell and his ideas, most of these persons with good reasons although some did so with ill grace. Powell’s hubris and his unwillingness to compromise or to consider conflicting opinion or advice largely contributed to his failures.
Powell, as explorer and scholar, significantly advanced mapping and science during America’s Gilded Age. As USGS director, however, he also had opportunities, made choices, received repeated warnings, refused to change, and nearly brought the agency down with him. The principal managerial lesson from Powell’s USGS directorate, especially after 1886, is how not to run a federal agency.
WORKS BY POWELL
Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1983. Facsimile of the second (1879) edition, with an introduction by T. H. Watkins.
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2002. Reprint of the 1895 edition of Canyons of the Colorado, with an introduction by Anthony Brandt.
Bartlett, Richard. Great Surveys of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
———. “Scientific Exploration of the American West, 1865–1900.” In American Exploration, vol. 3, A Continent Comprehended, edited by John Allen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Chapter 22 summarizes the section on Powell’s pre-USGS organization in Bartlett’s 1962 volume.
Darrah, William. Powell of the Colorado. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951.
DeBuys, William. Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2001. DeBuys reprints and comments on a number of Powell’s publications.
Dolnick, Edward. Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell’s Journey of Discovery and Tragedy through the Grand Canyon. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Flack, James. Desideratum in Washington: The Intellectual Community in the Capital City, 1870–1900. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing, 1975. Flack emphasizes the social context of Powell’s work during these years.
Fowler, Don. “Powell, John Wesley.” In American National Biography, edited by John Garrity and Mark Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hinsley, Curtis. Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology, 1846–1910. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981. Hinsley assesses Powell’s contributions to ethnology as a scientist-manager.
Lee, Lawrence. “Powell, John Wesley.” In Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists, edited by Kier Sterling. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Nelson, Clifford. “Toward a Reliable Geologic Map of the United States, 1803–1893.” In “Surveying the Record: North American Scientific Exploration to 1930,” edited by Edward Carter II. American Philosophical Society Memoir 231 (1999): 51–74. Nelson evaluates Powell’s contributions to this improving cartography.
———. “Powell, John Wesley.” In The Development of the Industrial United States, 1870–1899, edited by Ari Hoogenboom. New York: Facts on File, 2003.
Pisani, Donald. To Reclaim a Divided West: Water, Law, and Public Policy, 1848–1902. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992. Pisani’s evaluation of Powell’s role in the development of land- and water-use policies and practices in the American West is the best of several assessments to date.
Rabbitt, Mary. “John Wesley Powell: Pioneer Statesman of Federal Science.” In The Colorado River Region and John Wesley Powell: A Collection of Papers Honoring Powell on the 100th Anniversary of His Exploration of the Colorado River, 1869–1969. Washington, DC: USGS Professional Paper 669, 1969. Rabbitt revised this earlier and far less critical work in three later works.
———. Minerals, Lands, and Geology for the Common Defense and General Welfare: A History of Public Lands, Federal Science and Mapping Policy, and Development of Mineral Resources in the United States, vol. 1, Before 1879. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, 1979. Vol. 2, 1879–1904. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, 1980. Rabbitt appraises Powell’s role as a participant in and leader of federal mapping and science agencies.
———. The United States Geological Survey 1879–1989. Washington, DC: U.S. Geological Survey, 1989. Available from the Publications Warehouse at www.usgs.gov. Rabbitt briefly summarizes her two volumes cited above. Vol. 3 (1904-1939) appeared in 1986; Nelson is completing Vol. 4 (1939–1979).
Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Viking, 1986.
Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1954.
Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.
———. “The Legacy of John Wesley Powell.” In An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West, edited by Donald Worster. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.
———. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. The first chapter extends the portrayals of Powell in William Darrah and Wallace Stegner. Like Darrah and Stegner, however, Worster does not adequately explain the cartographic, economic, engineering, managerial, political, and scientific reasons for the failure of the IS and Powell’s demise as head of the USGS.
Zernel, John. “Powell, John Wesley.” In The History of Science in the United States: An Encyclopedia, edited by Marc Rothenberg. New York: Garland Publishing, 2001.
Clifford M. Nelson
"Powell, John Wesley." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/powell-john-wesley
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Powell, John Wesley
POWELL, JOHN WESLEY
(b.. Mount Morris. New York, 24 March 1834; d. Haven, Maine, 23 September 1902) geology, ethnology.
Powell’s parents, Joseph and Mary Dean Powell, were Methodist immigrants from England bent upon carrying the Gospel to border cabins. As a consequence the family led a wandering life, moving always westward toward newer frontiers: in 1838 to Jackson, Ohio, near Chillicothe: in 1846 to South Grove, Wisconsin: in 1851 to Bonus Prairie, Illinois; the next year to Wheaton, Illinois; and finally, after John Wesley had broken away to follow his scientific inclinations rather than devote himself to the ministry for which his father had intended him, to Emporia. Kansas. The clarity with which Powell later understood the problems of western settlement derived to some extent from his boyhood frontier experience.
His education was often interrupted and in good part homemade; but a frontier man of learning, George Crookham of Jackson, early initiated Powell into natural history and into the habit of collecting trips in the field. Later, when he was working his father’s Wisconsin farm, teaching in a country school, or snatching short periods of instruction at Illinois Institute (now Wheaton College), Illinois College, and Oberlin. Powell continued collecting. A persistent and omnivorous amateur at that stage, he made long solitary trips through Wisconsin, down the Mississippi to New Orleans, down the Ohio from Pittsburgh to Cairo, through the Iron Mountain country of Missouri, down the Illinois, up the Des Moines. In 1858 he was made secretary of the Illinois Society of Natural History. Two years later, as principal of schools in Hennepin, Illinois, he won a prize with his mollusk collection at the fair of the Illinois State Agricultural Society and seemed on his way to becoming a rural savant on the model of his instructor, Crookham.
The Civil War eased Powell into a wider world. Enlisting as a private in May 1861, he was a captain within six months and a member of Grant’s staff, considered something of an authority on fortifications. Despite the loss of his right arm, shattered by a Minié ball at Shiloh. he remained in the army throughout the war, rising to the command of the artillery of the 17th Army Corps. In January 1865 he resigned with the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel. He had married a cousin, Emma Dean, in 1862.
Shortly after returning to civilian life, Powell accepted a professorship of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University, moving a year later to its sister institution, Illinois State Normal University. From there in the summer of 1867 he led a party of students to the Rocky Mountains under the sponsorship of the Illinois State Natural History Society. In 1868 he repeated the expedition, exploring west of the continental divide and wintering on the White River in western Colorado. There he conceived and prepared for his 1869 boat exploration down the unknown canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers from Green River, Wyoming, to the mouth of the Virgin. From that exploration, the last major one within the continental United States, he emerged a national hero; and when, on 12 July 1870, Congress created an early, informal version of what would become the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, parallel to and in competition with the King, Hayden, and Wheeler surveys already in the field, Powell was placed in charge of it.
He remained in charge of it throughout its nine years of existence: and out of its continuing investigation of the lands, water, and people of the plateau country of Utah, western Colorado, and northern Arizona he developed most of the broad principles upon which he built his later career. The career was multiple, involving a constant interaction among Powell’s personal knowledge of the west, his active involvement in the nascent sciences of geology and American ethnology, and his increasing influence as a government scientist.
Powell’s pioneering trip down the Green and Colorado was supplemented by a second, and scientifically more productive one, in 1871-1872. The geologists he enlisted in the later years of the survey were men of real stature; and in collaboration with them, especially with Grove Karl Gilbert, Clarence E. Dutton, and W. H. Holmes, he did much to formulate the basic principles of structural geology. His own publications, notably The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West (1875) and The Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains (1876), as well as the reports and monographs of his collaborators, are of lasting scientific importance. Powell on antecedent and subsequent streams; Gilbert on stream erosion, recession of cliffs, and laccolithic uplifts; Dutton on isostasy and volcanism; and all of them together on the large problems of orogeny are still basic and indispensable after nearly a century. Their contributions were less individual than mutual. Both Gilbert and Dutton testified to the provocative fecundity of Powell’s ideas and the impossibility of separating out individual contributions.
Knowing the West from years of field experience, Powell early came to feel that the land laws under which it was being settled were both destructive to the land and ruinous to the individual settlers. He believed in the role of government as a source of unbiased scientific information for the use of both citizens and lawmakers; and when President Hayes came into office in 1877 on a platform of reform, Powell seized the opportunity to present to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz a program for land laws and settlement policies appropriate to the West. His extremely important Report on the Lands of the Arid Region (1878) made use of the staff and the findings of his survey to State the conditions of the West and the necessary institutional and legal changes if it was to be settled without great individual hardship and disaster to the land. It proposed for the lands beyond the 100th meridian a revision of the near-sacred 160-acre formula of the Homestead Act in favor of smaller irrigated farms and very much larger grazing farms; the stopping of the rectangular surveys and the practice of contract surveying; the institution of surveys based upon drainage divides and the location of perennial water: and—in the interest of governmental efficiency—the transfer of the cadastral surveys to the Coast and Geodetic Survey from the General Land Office, and the consolidation of the four competing western surveys into a single bureau under the Interior Department.
In the ensuing struggle between the reformers and the forces engaged in western promotion, Congress put none of that program into effect except the consolidation of the western surveys into the U.S. Geological Survey. Having supported Clarence King for the directorship of the new bureau, Powell moved over to the Smithsonian Institution to direct the newly created Bureau of Ethnology. His Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, years ahead of the public and governmental acceptances of the times, did not become truly influential until the Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s, when its principles became the basis for the attempt to heal conditions that might have been largely prevented if the Report had been acted on when it was presented.
As head of the Bureau of Ethnology, renamed the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1894, Powell put into practice the same collaborative and directive effort that had marked his administration of the Powell Survey. Even before he undertook to direct the governmental study of the Indians, he published his seminal Introduction to the Study of the Indian Languages (1877), building upon and greatly enlarging the pioneer studies of Albert Gallatin. His effort was to create first the alphabet for ethnological study, and then the systematic classification of the Indian tribes. Personally and through his collaborators James Pilling, Garrick Mallery, Cyrus Thomas, and others, he moved from classification of the language stocks to other sorts of classification and study. Pilling’s bibliographies of the various language stocks grew out of an assignment from Powell. The reports and monographs of the Bureau of Ethnology, beautifully printed and carefully made, mark not only the systematization of the study of the Indian tribes but also its first notable achievements. And Frederick Webb Hodge’s Handbook of the American Indian (1907-1910) was the summation of the work of many, all of them working under Powell’s direction and guided by his powerfully synthesizing and organizing mind.
When Clarence King resigned as director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1881, Powell succeeded him, without relinquishing his position as head of the Bureau of Ethnology. Thereafter for a dozen years, as head of two major bureaus, he was perhaps the most powerfully placed scientist in the United States.
The aridity which Powell saw as the compelling fact of western life—the fact which should enforce changes in laws and institutions as well as in patterns of agriculture and land use—was impressed upon even the most extreme western boosters by the ten-year drought of the 1880’s. In consequence Powell’s proposals, made in the Arid Region report, had a second chance to gain political support. Put in charge of a program of western irrigation surveys in 1888, Powell made use of the opportunity to throw all the resources of the new survey, as well as much of the effort of the U.S. Geological Survey, behind topographical mapping and land classification as the preliminary for the spotting of dam and canal sites. The bill authorizing the irrigation survey was loosely and ambiguously phrased. Upon interpretation by the attorney general, it proved to have withdrawn from settlement the entire public domain until Powell could complete his designation of reclamation sites and could certify the lands under them as irrigable and hence open to filing.
Possessed of sudden, unexpected power, Powell labored to finish his mapping, hoping to forestall in much of the West the unhappy consequences of dryland homesteading. But the so-called irrigation clique, headed by Senator William Stewart of Nevada, had in mind only a quick spotting of irrigation sites upon existing maps, with all the speculation such a program would give rise to. The cries from the West grew louder as Powell’s work dragged on. In 1890 Stewart and his colleagues sharply cut the Irrigation Survey budget, and in the following year they pursued their feud with Powell by cutting the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey as well. In 1894, defeated for the second time in his program for scientific planning of western settlement, Powell resigned from the Geological Survey. He devoted the rest of his life to the Bureau of American Ethnology and to the writing of philosophical treatises. Of these last the most important, although never influential upon the history of thought, was Truth and Error, or the Science of Intellection (1898).
As a thinker on the origins and patterns of society, Powell should be associated with the social Darwinism of Lester Ward, one of his employees and close collaborators, and with the systematic anthropological theories of Lewis Morgan, another of his close intellectual companions. His synthetic formulations have proved less durable than his contributions in geology and his sound organization of the science of man. Powell was one of the founders and systematizers of government science in the United States, and his bureaus proved to be models for many subsequent ones covering other fields of science. Above all else, his perception of the abiding aridity of much of the West, and of the importance of lack of water upon all the institutions of the men who must live there, entitles him to be called one of the prophetic pioneers.
I. Original Works. Powell’s principal geological contributions were made in Report on the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries (Washington, D.C., 1875), and in Report on the Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains and a Region of Country Adjacent Thereto (Washington, D.C., 1876). Exploration of Colorado River has been repr, several times, most recently with an intro. by Wallace Stegner (Chicago, 1957). The important Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, 45th Congress, 2nd Session, HR Executive Document 73(Washington, D.C., 1878), has been repr., also with an intro. by Wallace Stegner (Cambridge, Mass., 1962). Later developments of the ideas in the Arid Region report may be found in three articles: “The Irrigable Lands of the Arid Region,” in Century, 39 (1890), 766-776; “The Non-Irrigable Lands of the Arid Region,” ibid., 915-922; and “Institutions for the Arid Region,” ibid., 40 (1890), 111-116.
Powell’s ethnological publications are extensive, beginning with the seminal Introduction to the Study of the Indian Languages (Washington, D.C., 1877). Representative later studies are “Human Evolution,” in Transactions of the Anthropological Society of Washington,2 (1883), 176-208; “From Savagery to Barbarism,” ibid., 3 (1885), 173-196; and “From Barbarism to Civilization,” in American Anthropologist, 1 (1888), 97-123. Truth and Error, or the Science of Intellection (Chicago, 1898) is the expression of Powell’s philosophical system.
Further bibliographical information is in Darrah and in Stegner (see below). Powell’s papers, including the extensive and valuable letter files of his two bureaus, are in the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
II. Secondary Literature. For biographical information as well as estimates of Powell’s scientific contributions, see Grove Karl Gilbert et al., John Wesley Powell, a Memorial (Chicago, 1904); W. M. Davis, “Biographical Memoir of John Wesley Powell,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 8 (1915), 11-83; William Culp Darrah, Powell of the Colorado (Princeton, 1951); and Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Boston, 1954).
The reports and monographs of the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region (Powell, 1870-1879), as well as those of the U.S. Geological Survey (1881-1892) and the Bureau of [American] Ethnology (1879-1902), are important as revealing not only Powell’s general interests but also, often, his specific ideas, passed on to collaborators.
"Powell, John Wesley." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/powell-john-wesley-0
"Powell, John Wesley." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/powell-john-wesley-0
Powell, John Wesley
Powell, John Wesley
John Wesley Powell (1834–1902), American geologist and anthropologist, was born in Mount Morris, New York. The son of a Methodist preacher who moved first to Ohio, then to Wisconsin, and then to Illinois, Powell received a casual education. Although he attended Oberlin and Wheaton colleges, he did not earn a degree. He taught in several common schools until the outbreak of the Civil War. He joined the Union army, serving more than three years in the artillery, and lost his right arm in the battle of Shiloh. Although promoted to colonel, Powell resigned as major and used this title the remainder of his life.
Following the war Powell taught at Illinois State Normal University, and during this period he organized student field trips to Colorado to study geology and biology. He led two expeditions, one in 1869 and one in 1871/1872, down the Colorado River. This spectacular feat of exploration was the turning point in Powell’s career. In traversing the plateau country, he recognized the intimate relation between the land, the climate, and the people who occupied the land. His study of th semiarid lands and of the adjustments made by the Indians and Mormons who lived there emphasized the essential character of the region: although the land is potentially irrigable, there is an insufficient supply of water. Powell believed that the aboriginal Indians and the Mormons had developed social institutions and practices to adapt themselves to their environment. Because these lands were part of the public domain, Powell called upon the federal government to start land-utilization projects. His Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878) is considered one of the landmarks in conservation.
From 1871 to 1879, Powell headed one of the four federal geological and geographical surveys of land in the public domain. These were replaced in 1879 by the U.S. Geological Survey. The Bureau of Ethnology was organized at the same time, and Powell became its first director, a position he held until his death. As an anthropologist, Powell is best known for An Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages (1877), in which he attempted a linguistic classification and set forth an interesting grouping of words by use, emotion, and purpose.
Powell’s greatest reputation as a scientist resulted from his studies of land forms and erosion. He advanced many original ideas in geology but was content to see them pursued by others. He was strongly influenced by the writings of Darwin but believed that effective evolution does not apply to man, who by his intellect is able to divert or control it. He wrote passionately about the misuse of man’s capacity to control his own destiny.
In 1881 Powell became director of the Geological Survey, and he remained in this position until 1892. This was an extremely influential post at a time when Congress was moving rapidly into the regulatory field. Powell was successful in establishing, under the Geological Survey, an irrigation survey which was intended to initiate the construction of extensive irrigation works. Congress curtailed the activities of the Irrigation Survey in 1885, but Powell continued with the mapping of water resources, and he trained specialists who later, in 1902, staffed the Bureau of Reclamation.
Powell lobbied diligently for the creation of a federal department of science with Cabinet rank and for concepts remarkably similar to those incorporated eventually in the National Science Foundation. He believed that the federal government should be involved in the scientific and technological interests of the nation and patronize its institutions of research. He also believed in the social function of science and would not divorce it from the development of pure science. This was consistent with his belief that there is an inevitable and gradual process of concentration or centralization of authority and powers in all social institutions. He thought that in modern society there should be a continuing combination of similar institutions (“corporations”), whether they be governmental, industrial, religious, or scientific. Paradoxically, he believed in extreme individualism.
Late in life Powell assembled his diversified thoughts into a trilogy, only the first volume of which, Truth and Error (1898), was published. It contained a strange mixture of material and fared badly at the hands of reviewers, although it embodied many of Powell’s keen observations on man and evolution.
It is difficult to assess Powell’s influence. He was a man of action, a skillful organizer and administrator. Many regard him as one of the most successful of the government servants who have determined the role of government in science. His personal influence upon his associates, for example on Lester Ward and especially on those in the Geological Survey, was remarkable.
Many academic and professional honors were showered upon Powell, although he cared little for them. He died at his summer home at Haven, Maine, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
William C. Darrah
[Other relevant material may be found in Conservation; Indians, North American; Science, article Onscience-government relations.]
(1875) 1964 Canyons of the Colorado. New York: Argosy Antiquarian → First published as The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West.
(1877) 1880 An Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages. 2d ed. Washington: Government Printing Office.
(1878) 1962 U.S. Geographical and Geological SurVey of The Rocky Mountain RegionReport on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, by John Wesley Powell. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.
1898 Truth and Error. La Salle, III.: Open Court
Darrah, William C. 1951 Powell of the Colorado. Princeton Univ. Press.
Stegner, Wallace E. 1954 Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Warman, P. C. 1903 Catalogue of the Published Works of John Wesley Powell. Washington Academy of Science, Proceedings 5:131–187.
"Powell, John Wesley." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/powell-john-wesley
"Powell, John Wesley." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/powell-john-wesley
John Wesley Powell
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.
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).
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. □
"John Wesley Powell." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-wesley-powell
"John Wesley Powell." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/john-wesley-powell
Powell, John Wesley
Powell, John Wesley
American Geologist 1834–1902
During America's Gilded Age, John Wesley Powell contributed significantly to a better understanding of the influence of running water on landscapes and the importance of a more rational use of water resources in the American West. His geomorphologic-based classification of rivers and drainage systems is still used today, more than 125 years after he first articulated the concepts.
Leadership and Exploration
John Wesley Powell left formal education, teaching, and natural history to command Union artillery units in the western theater during the American Civil War. Major Powell, who lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh (in Tennessee), returned in 1865 to teaching and museum curation. Summer excursions to the central Rocky Mountains generated productive exploration, when he led two daring reconnaissances by boat down the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871. Powell then managed four federal organizations funded by the U.S. Department of Interior: the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region (from 1872 to 1879); the Bureau of Ethnology (from 1879 to 1902); the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS (from 1881 to 1894); and the USGS Irrigation Survey (from 1888 to 1891).
River Landscapes and Geologic Controls
Powell, reflecting on the dynamic relations between moving waters and the geologic structures they crossed or matched, presented in 1875 a three-fold classification of rivers and drainage systems based on their history and his concept of a base level of erosion below which streams could not cut. His "antecedent" streams predated geologic uplifts of plateaus and mountains and maintained their courses during elevation; "consequent" streams postdated these uplifts and were controlled by them; and "superimposed" streams exceeded uplift rates to expose older structural settings.
Using and Conserving the West's Water
In 1878, Powell formally proposed reforming land and water use in the West. A decade later Congress funded the Irrigation Survey to aid development in the region. When Powell refused to recommend promptly the dam and reservoir sites whose selection would have reopened the public lands to entry and released federal dowry lands to six new states, Congress terminated the Irrigation Survey.
Powell continued to promote reclaiming the West by wise communal irrigation and land use, including organizing drainage basins as counties in new states. In 1894, with the USGS under a new director, Congress restored funds for water-resource investigations by the agency and continued them thereafter. Powell lived to see the National Reclamation Act of 1902 lead to establishing the Reclamation Service within the USGS.
see also Bureau of Reclamation, U.S.; Geological Survey, U.S.; Stream Erosion and Landscape Development.
Clifford M. Nelson
Darrah, William Culp. Powell of the Colorado. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951.
Powell, John Wesley. Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1875.
——Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1879.
Rabbitt, Mary C. Minerals, Lands, and Geology for the Common Defence and General Welfare, Vol. 1: Before 1879 and Minerals, Lands, and Geology for the Common Defence and General Welfare, Vol. 2: 1879–1904. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979–1980.
Stegner, Wallace E. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.
Worster, Donald. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
"Powell, John Wesley." Water:Science and Issues. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/powell-john-wesley
"Powell, John Wesley." Water:Science and Issues. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/powell-john-wesley
Powell, John Wesley
John Wesley Powell, 1834–1902, American geologist and ethnologist, b. Mt. Morris (now part of New York City). The family moved to Illinois, where Powell joined the Natural History Society, making collections and serving as secretary of the society. After the Civil War, in which he lost an arm at Shiloh, he was appointed professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan College, Bloomington. He led geological expeditions into Colorado and Utah in 1867 and 1868 and in May, 1869, began, under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution, a geographical and geological survey of the Colorado and Green rivers. In the course of this expedition his party passed by boat through the Grand Canyon, a hazardous feat first described in his Explorations of the Colorado River of the West (1875) and later in his Canyons of the Colorado (1895). He was later engaged in geological and ethnological explorations in Arizona and Utah. His efforts toward the reorganization of rival surveys in the West were a factor in bringing about the establishment (1879) of the U.S. Geological Survey, of which he served as director from 1881 to 1894. In 1879, Powell founded and became the first director of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He remained there for more than 20 years, and many of his contributions to ethnology appeared in its Reports.
See biographies by W. C. Darrah (1951, repr. 1969), J. U. Terrell (1969), W. E. Stegner (1954, repr. 1962), and D. Worster (2001); E. Dolnick, Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy through the Grand Canyon (2001).
"Powell, John Wesley." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/powell-john-wesley
"Powell, John Wesley." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/powell-john-wesley