Powell, John Wesley (1834 – 1902) American Philosopher, Geologist, Anthropologist, and Scientific Explorer

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John Wesley Powell (1834 1902)
American philosopher, geologist, anthropologist, and scientific explorer

John Wesley Powellcivil-war veteran, college professor, long-time head of the U.S. Geological Survey , member of the National Academy of Sciences , president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and instrumental in the establishment of the National Geographic Society, the Geological Society of America, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Ethnology, and the Bureau of Reclamationis best-known for two expeditions down the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Born in Mount Morris, New York, of English-born parents, Powell was discouraged from education by his father who believed that the ministry was the only purpose for which one needed to be educated. The younger Powell however, worked at a variety of jobs to support his attendance at numerous schools, but never completed a degree. His hard-won recognition as a scientist is based in large part on self-taught concepts and methods that he applied all his life and in everything he did.

Powell made significant contributions to conservation and environmental science . He was an early and ardent student of the culture of the fast-disappearing North American Indians tribes, and his work ultimately led to the creation of the Bureau of Ethnology, of which he was the first director. He served as the second Director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) from 1881 to 1894, and as such he instigated extensive topographic mapping projects and geological studies, stimulated studies of soils, groundwater , and rivers, and advocated work on flood control and irrigation . His Irrigation Survey led eventually to the creation of first the Reclamation Service and then the Bureau of Reclamation .

Powell was the author of the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, published in 1878. Through this document, he became an early advocate of land-use planning. Powell was open to controlled development and suggested that "to a great extent, the redemption of...these lands will require extensive and comprehensive plans..." In his role as director of the USGS, in his writings, his work on various commissions, and in public hearings, Powell advocated that the federal government assume a major role to insure an orderly and environmentally sound settlement of the arid lands of the West.

Wallace Stegner argues that Powell's ultimate importance derives from his impact as an agent of change, from setting in motion ideas and agencies that still benefit the country today. He also widens Powell's impact, asserting that Powell's ideas, through his friend and employee W. J. McGee, heavily influenced the whole conservation movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Powell informed the American public of the grandeur and vulnerability of the arid lands and canyon lands of the West. The legacy of that heritage is the Grand Canyon still largely unspoiled as well as a better understanding of land use possibilities on arid and all lands.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Murphy, D. John Wesley Powell: Voyage of Discovery. Las Vegas: KC Publications, 1991.

Stegner, W. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.


Robinson, F. G. "A Useable Heroism: Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian." South Dakota Review 23 (1985): 5869.

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Powell, John Wesley (1834 – 1902) American Philosopher, Geologist, Anthropologist, and Scientific Explorer

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