JPG-A picture of George Cuvier
(Title image from Andrews, 2001)


John Wesley Powell
Soldier, Explorer, Scientist

History of Geology
Shawn Salley


Born: Mount Morris, New York, March 24, 1834
Died: Haven, Maine, September 23, 1902

Table of Contents
Abstract Early Life
The Grand Canyon The USGS
Historical Assessment   Later Life
References Related Websites


Although classified by most conventional texts, John Wesley Powell always maintained that he was not an adventure or an explorer. He considered himself a scientist, motivated by a desire for knowledge and to further the progress of human kind. However, Powell did live a busy and active life as a military leader, the first navigator of the Colorado River, and director of the United States Geological Survey. His accounts from navigating the Colorado River earned him early fame.  Due to his compassion toward Native Americans he was elevated to director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology in which he continued until his death. His work on the Irrigation Survey for the western United States, although never fully realized, lead to the establishment of river gauging stations and preliminary work toward storage and utilization of river water for irrigation and prevention of floods and overflows. After his death in 1902 he was buried in Section 1 of Arlington National Cemetery. Today numerous buildings, places, organizations, and awards bear his name as credit to his achievements.

Early Life

John Wesley Powell came from an English born family with both parents being well educated. His father was a Wesleyan minister with firm antislavery beliefs. Due to trouble with his values on slavery, J. W. Powell left public school and studied under a self taught naturalist “Big George” Crookham. Crookham instructed entirely based upon field observation, a trait perpetuated by Powell. The instructed disciplines of biology, geology, and archaeology relied heavily on his collection of plants, animal, rocks, and artifacts. When Powell was twelve he first encountered Native Americans of the Winnebago Tribe near a family farm in Wisconsin where he learned that the land his family farmed used to be a part of their hunting grounds. From this encounter, he began a life long study and appreciation of Native Americans and the study of ethnology.

At age of eighteen Powell continued to pursue studies in science despite his father’s wishes to follow him into clergy work. Powell focused at an early age botany and geology, traveling the Mississippi River in a rowboat its entire length. His adventures also led him along the Ohio and Illinois rivers and climbing Pikes Peak and Longs Peak of Colorado (both Colorado summits above 14,000 feet in elevation). His studies left him teaching many different schools and colleges finally leading him to Hennepin, Indiana where he became professor of geology in 1858

As the civil war seamed inevitable, Powell began studying military tactics and engineering until president Lincoln called for troops. In 1861 he enlisted in the Union Army and was commissioned a captain. It was during the battle of Shiloh on April 6 that Powell lost his right arm when a Minie ball struck his wrist. He continued to advance in rank after its amputation to brevet lieutenant colonel, although he preferred to be called major. He was discharged in 1865 and continued as a Professor of Geology at Illinois Wesleyan University.

The Grand Canyon Expeditions

Before Powell’s expedition of 1869, the Colorado River was considered unnavigable. The 900 mile length of the river was uncharted and the canyons that framed the rivers were very unpredictable. Powell’s goals on the first expedition were to map and survey the river and canyon. To his dismay, several boats capsized and were torn apart by the wild canyon rapids. Lost supplies and damaged equipment greatly shortened the trip. Three lives were lost on this voyage at the trips end. At a place now called Separation Canyon, those three abandoned the group to climb out of the canyon were they were killed by the Indians of that area. Powell successfully explored and confirmed his theory on the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River up to that time was wholly unknown and there were many wild rumors concerning those regions. Concerning the canyon’s geology, Powell believed that the river preceded the canyons and then down cut as the plateau rose.

Map of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado showing the route traveled by Powell durring both expiditions. (Image taken from NPR, 2002)

Upon returning a national hero to Illinois, Powell began planning and fundraising for the second expedition in 1871, where he planned to finish exploration and survey work to produce maps and scientific publications. His second expedition started at the same place as the first, the Union Pacific Railroad crossing of the Green River in Wyoming, and continued to the mouth of the Virgin River. More prepared for this trip, Powell redesigned the river boats and had aboard a surveyor, a photographer and several scientists. This expedition brought back not only excellent specimens and photographs, but a new understanding of geologic principles and better explanations of erosion, sedimentation, and continental uplift.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, showing amphitheaters. (Figure taken from Powell, 1875)

The United States Geological Survey

Two years after the United States Geological Survey founding in 1879, Powell became only the Second director on March 21, 1881. With the new director, the Survey's prospective changed from an economic geology basis to an independent basis with multiple functions to serve the greater USGS aim. Powell’s concentration for the Survey could be summed up by his division heads (adapted from Rabbitt, 1989):

  1. The development of a plan for making a complete topographic map of the United States.
  2. The organization of a bureau for the collection of facts and figures relating to the mineral resources of the country.
  3. His labors to preserve for the people the waters and irrigable lands of the Arid Region.

Powell believed geology to be independent of topography. As a director, this led him to separate geologic studies from topographic projects. Later in 1882, Congress authorized the USGS to produce a geologic map of the United States; adversely, Powell redirected all topographic work to prepare for the geologic map, topography being the base map.

As part of the Irrigation Survey for the Western United States, Powell projected that if the west was to be irrigated, then the rivers would have to be monitored and reservoirs be built. Although the Irrigation Survey was abandoned by the USGS due to congressional discontent, the first river gauging station was installed on the Rio Grande River in 1889. The Embudo Stream Gauging Station in New Mexico is the longest continual record of stream flow data in the United States. Another outcome from this discarded project was preliminary work toward storage and utilization of water for irrigation and prevention of floods and overflows.

    View the current stream flow conditions of Rio Grande
at the Embudo Stream Gauging Station.

Although forced to leave because of the political reasons surrounding the absence of an economic based survey and the controversy surrounding the classifications of public lands in the new States of the Union (North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming were all added during Powell's term), J. W. Powell is considered historically as one of the strongest directors of the survey. The USGS National Center in Reston, VA was dedicated in 1974 as the The John Wesley Powell Federal Building. The Survey even named its highest honor possible for those not employed by the USGS, The John Wesley Powell Award, after the early Survey's leader.

Later Life

After working as the director of the USGS, Powell continued to head the Bureau of Ethnology, which he continued to run until his death in 1902 despite failing health mainly due to his amputated arm. However, between 1894 and 1902 Powell spent gradually less time running the Bureau and more time on his philosophical/ethnographic writing. Books Powell authored include compilations of all previous writings about American Indians, a dictionary of Native American tribes, a classification of Native American languages, as well as many field studies.

It is for administrative work with the agency, rather than for his own field studies, that Powell made his main contribution to anthropology. Powell demonstrated great skill as an administrator, compiling a staff who urged others to do some very rigorous research. Powell’s passion for ethnography helped lay the groundwork for anthropological study in the 20th century.

Historical Assessment

The accomplishments of John Wesley Powell are summed up into the three categories of soldier, explorer, and scientist. The survey of the Colorado river was important to the infant stages of the United States Geological Survey and a large step forward into understanding the structural and geomorphic processes of the earth. As a director of the USGS, he expanded the research base, the divisions of the survey, and the annual budget. As evident by his accomplishments, Powell's contributions to American Geology relied not only in ideas, but also in his actions.


Andrews, J. (2001). Did Ancient Chinese Visit the Grand Canyon. Part 3 <Web link>Accessed Nov, 20, 2003.

NPR. (2002) The True Legacy of John Wesley Powell. National Public Radio. Sept. 22, 2002 <Web link> Accessed Nov, 20, 2003.

Powell, J. W. (1875) Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries. Fig. 78

Rabbitt, M. C. (1989) "The First Quarter-Century" in The United States Geological Survey 1879-1989. USGS circular; 1050 <Web link> Accessed Nov, 20, 2003.

Related Websites

Report completed for GO 521: History of Geology
Report 4: American (U.S. & Canadian) 18th-20th Centuries
© S.W. Salley (Nov, 2003)

Back to Index Page