John Wesley Powell – Major, United States Army

From a contemporary news report:”Haven, Maine, September 23, 1902: Major John Wesley Powell died at 6 PM tonight at his Summer home here. He had been critically ill for some days.

He was born at Mount Morris, New York, September 23, 1834. He studied in Illinois College at Jacksonville, Illinois and at Wheaton College, teaching in the common schools during the intervals of studying.

He served in the Civil War, enlisting as a Private, but promoted the Lieutenant olonel of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Artillery. At Shiloh he lost an arm. At the close of the war hebecame Professor of Geology at Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington. He was afterward appointed Director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Instution.

“Scientists in the Washington, D.C. area placed him in the foremost rank of geologists and anthropologists of the world. He had been identified with the scientific work, from the viewpoint of scientists here was his exploration of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in the 1860s. His fellow workers say that he was not only the first man who ever went through the Colorado Canyon, but also the only one who so far has ever traveled its entire length from Green River Station to the mouth of the canyon. His trip was party undertaken in connection with the Smithsonian Institution and partly by means of his own private resources.

His work as the Director of the Government Geological and Geographical Surveys in the Rocky Mountain region in the early 1870s was largely responsible for his selection for executive responsibilities later in this city. The Rocky Mountain District was one of the four surveys of territories which, in 1879, were combined into the present Geological Survey. He had also been Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology since he founded it in 1879, and also a Director of the Geographical Survey for more than a decade.”

He is buried in Section 1 of Arlington National Cemetery. His wife, Emma Dean Powell, 1835-1924, is buried with him.


MAJOR POWELL had kindly consented to write an introduction to this volume wherein I have inadequately presented scenes from the great world drama connected with the Colorado River of the West, but a prolonged illness prevented his doing any writing whatever, and on September 23, 1902, while, indeed, the compositor was setting the last type of the book, a funeral knell sounded at Haven, Maine, his summer home, and the most conspicuous figure we have seen on this stage, the man whose name is as inseparable from the marvellous canyon-river as that of De Soto from the Mississippi, or Hendrik Hudson from the placid stream which took from him its title, started on that final journey whence there is no returning. A distinguished cortege bore the remains across the Potomac, laying them in a soldier’s grave in the National Cemetery at Arlington. Thus the brave sleeps with the brave on the banks of the river of roses, a stream in great contrast to that other river far in the West where only might be found a tomb more appropriate within sound of the raging waters he so valiantly conquered.In the history of the United States the place of John Wesley Powell is clear. A great explorer, he was also foremost among men of science and probably he did more than any other single individual to direct Governmental scientific research along proper lines. His was a character of strength and fortitude. A man of action, his fame will endure as much by his deeds as by his contributions to scientific literature.

Never a seeker for pecuniary rewards his life was an offering to science, and when other paths more remunerative were open to him he turned his back upon them. He believed in sticking to one’s vocation and thoroughly disapproved of wandering off in pursuit of common profit. The daring feat of exploring the canyons of the Colorado was undertaken for no spectacular effect or pecuniary reward, but was purely a scientific venture in perfect accord with the spirit of his early promise. As G. K. Gilbert remarks in a recent number of Science, it was “of phenomenal boldness and its successful accomplishment a dramatic triumph. It produced a strong impression on the public mind and gave Powell a national reputation which was afterwards of great service, although based on an adventurous episode by no means essential to his career as an investigator.” The qualities which enabled him so splendidly to perform his many self-imposed tasks were an inheritance from his parents, who possessed more than ordinary intelligence. Joseph Powell, his father, had a strong will, deep earnestness, and indomitable courage, while his mother, Mary Dean, with similar traits possessed also remarkable tact and practicality. Both were English born, the mother well educated, and were always leaders in the social and educational life of every community where they dwelt. Especially were they prominent in religious circles, the father being a licensed. exhorter in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Both were intensely American in their love and admiration of the civil institutions of the United States and both were strenuously opposed to slavery, which was flourishing in America when they arrived in 1830. For a time they remained in New York City and then removed to the village of Palmyra whence they went to Mount Morris, Livingston County, New York, where, on March 24, 1834, the fourth of their nine children, John Wesley, was born. Because of the slavery question Joseph Powell left the Methodist Episcopal Church on the organisation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and became a regularly ordained preacher in the latter. It was in this atmosphere of social, educational, political, and religious fervor that the future explorer grew up.

When he was four or five years old the family moved to Jackson, Ohio, and then, in 1846, went on westward to South Grove, Walworth County, Wisconsin, where a farm was purchased. They were in prosperous circumstances, and the boy was active in the management of affairs, early exhibiting his trait for doing things well. His ploughing, stack-building, and business ability in disposing advantageously of the farm products and in purchasing supplies at the lake ports received the commendation of the countryside.

His early education was such as the country schools provided. He later studied at Janesville, Wisconsin, earning his board by working nights and mornings. His parents ever held before him the importance of achieving the highest education possible. Thus he continually turned to books, and while his oxen were eating or resting, he was absorbed in some illuminating volume. In 1851 his family removed to Bonus Prairie, Boone County, Illinois, where a larger farm had been purchased. About 1853 the Wesleyan College was established at Wheaton, Illinois, and the family removed there in order to take advantage of the opportunities afforded. The father became one of the trustees and Powell entered the preparatory classes. With intervals of teaching and business pursuits, he continued here till 1855, when, largely through the influence of the late Hon. John Davis, of Kansas, he entered the preparatory department of Illinois College at Jacksonville, Illinois. Thus far he had shown no special aptitude for the natural sciences, though he was always a close observer of natural phenomena. His ambition at this period, which was also in accord with the dearest wishes of his parents, was to complete his college course and enter the ministry. Illinois College not possessing a theological atmosphere after a year spent there he departed, and in 1857 began a course of study at Oberlin College, Ohio. Among his studies there was botany, and in this class Powell at last discovered himself and his true vocation – the investigation of natural science. He became an enthusiastic botanist and searched the woods and swamps around Oberlin with the same zeal and thoroughness which always characterised his work. He made an almost complete herbarium of the flora of the county, organising the class into a club to assist in its collection. In the summer of 1858, having returned to Wheaton, Illinois, where the family had settled in 1854, he joined the Illinois State Natural History Society, then engaged in conducting a natural history survey of the State through the voluntary labour of its members. To Powell was assigned the department of conchology. This work he entered upon with his usual application and made the most complete collection of the mollusca of Illinois ever brought together by one man. Incidentally, botany, zoology, and mineralogy received attention, and in these lines he secured notable collections. With the broad mental grasp which was a pronounced trait, he perceived that these studies were but parts of the greater science of geology, which he then announced, to at least one of his intimate friends, was to be the science to which he intended to devote his life. The next year was given to study, teaching, and lecturing, usually on some topic connected with geology.

In the spring of 1860, on a lecturing tour, he visited some of the Southern States, and while there closely observed the sentiment of the people on the subject of slavery , with the result that he expressed the conviction that nothing short of war could settle the matter. In the summer of 1860 he became principal of the public schools of Hennepin, Illinois. These he organised, graded, and taught with a vigour which was characteristic, yet never forgetting his geological investigations in the neighbouring country, where, on Saturdays and at other times when the schools were not in session, he made botanical and zoological collections.

Convinced that war was inevitable, the winter of 1860-61 found him studying military tactics and engineering. When the call came for troops, he was the first man to enroll, and largely through his efforts Company H of the 2Oth Regiment, Illinois Infantry , was raised in Putnam County. When the regiment was organised at Joliet, Illinois, he was appointed sergeant-major, and in this capacity went to the front. When the force was sent to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, his prescience in studying military engineering made him invaluable. He was practically given charge of planning and laying out and constructing the fortifications at that place, a work he executed so well that it received the unqualified commendation of General Fremont. The second lieutenant of Company H resigning, Powell was elected to fill the vacancy. After a service of a few weeks with his company he was put in charge of the fortifications he had constructed, being retained in this post after the departure of his regiment. In the early winter of 1861-62 he recruited a company of artillery, largely from loyal Missourians. This company was mustered into service as Battery F, 2d Illinois Artillery, John Wesley Powell, Captain. After drilling a few weeks he was ordered to proceed with his battery to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, where he arrived the latter part of March, 1862. The battery took part in the battle of Shiloh, April 6th of that year, and during the engagement, as Powell raised his arm, a signal to fire, a rifle ball struck his hand at the wrist. glancing toward the elbow. The necessary surgery was done so hastily that later a second operation was imperative, which left him with a mere stump below the elbow-joint. Never for long at a time afterward was he free from pain and only a few years ago a third operation was performed which brought relief.

As soon as the original wound was healed he went back to his command, assisting as Division Chief of Artillery in the siege of Vicksburg. After the fall of this place he took part in the Meridian Raid. Then he served on detached operations at Vicksburg, Natchez, and New Orleans until the summer of 1864, when he was reassigned to the former command in the Army of the Tennessee. In all the operations after the fall of Atlanta he bore an active part, and when Sherman commenced the march to the sea, Powell was sent back to General Thomas at Nashville, in command of twenty batteries of artillery. At the battle of Nashville he served on the staff of Thomas and continued with this command till mustered out in the early summer of 1865. As a soldier his career was marked by a thorough study and mastery not only of the details of military life, but of military science. Especially was he apt in utilising material at hand to accomplish his ends – a trait that was also prominent in his civil life. Bridges he built from cotton-gin houses, mantelets for his guns from gunny bags and old rope, and shields for his sharpshooters from the mould-boards of old ploughs found on the abandoned plantations. All this time wherever possible he continued his studies in natural science. He made a collection 0f fossils unearthed in the trenches around Vicksburg, land and river shells from the Mississippi swamps, and a large collection of mosses while on detached duty in Illinois. He also familiarised himself with the geology of regions through which the armies passed to which he was attached. Time and again he was commended for his services and declined promotion to higher rank in other arms of the service. “He loved the scarlet facings of the artillery, and there was something in the ranking of batteries and the power of cannon,” writes Thompson, “that was akin to the workings of his own mind.”

In 1862 he was married to his cousin, Miss Emma Dean, of Detroit, who still lives in Washington with their daughter, an only child. Mrs. Powell was often his companion in the army and early Western journeys. Upon the return of Powell to civil life in 1865 he was tendered a nomination to a lucrative political office in Du Page County, Illinois, and at the same time he was offered the chair of geology in the Wesleyan University, a struggling Methodist College at Bloomington, Illinois. There was no hesitation on his part. He declined the political honour and its emoluments and accepted the professorship, which he retained two years. At the session of the Illinois Legislature in 1867 a bill was passed, largely through his effort, creating a professorship of geology and natural history in the State Normal University at Normal, Illinois, with a salary of fifteen hundred dollars and an appropriation of one thousand dollars annually to increase the geological and zoological collections. He was elected to this chair and at about the same time was also chosen curator of the Illinois State Natural History Society, whose collections were domiciled in the museum of the Normal University. Attracted by the Far West as a field for profitable scientific research, the summer of 1867 found him using his salary and the other available funds to defray the expense of an expedition to the then Territory of Colorado for the purpose of securing collections.

He organised and outfitted at Plattsmouth, Nebraska. All his assistants were volunteers except the cook. A. H. Thompson, afterwards so closely associated with him in the detailed exploration of the Colorado and in subsequent survey work, was the entomologist of the party. They crossed the plains with mule teams to Denver, worked along the east slope of the Front Range, climbed Pike’s Peak, and went westerly as far as South Park. Without realising it, apparently, Powell was all these years steadily approaching the great exploit of his life, as if led on and prepared by some unseen power. Now the project of exploring the mysterious gorges of which he heard such wonderful tales dawned upon him. It was as near an inspiration as can be imagined. Henceforth his mind and energy were directed irresistibly toward the accomplishment of this conception. Again in 1868 he was in the field with the same financial backing, to which was added a small allotment from the Illinois Industrial University at Champaign, Illinois, a State school. All but Mrs. Powell and his brother Walter, of this 1868 party, returned East on the approach of autumn, while with these and several trappers and hunters, among whom were the two Howlands, William Dunn, and William Rhodes Hawkins, afterwards of his party to explore the canyons, he crossed the range to White River and wintered there near the camp of Chief Douglass and his band of Utes. When spring came in 1869 he went out to Granger, on the Union Pacific Railway, and there disposed of his mules and outfit, proceeding immediately to Washington, where he induced Congress to pass a joint resolution endorsed by General Grant authorising him to draw rations from Western army posts for a party of twelve men while engaged in making collections for public institutions. Never was assistance better deserved. Then he returned to Illinois and obtained from the trustees of the Normal University permission to again divert his salary and the other funds to Western work. The trustees of the Illinois Industrial University allotted him five hundred dollars, and the Chicago Academy of Sciences, through the influence of Dr. Andrews, the curator, also contributed two hundred and fifty or five hundred dollars. In addition some personal friends contributed small sums.

The object proposed was to make collections in natural history to be shared accordingly with the contributing institutions. While these collections were one of Powell’s objects, others were the examination of the geology, and particularly the solution of the greatest remaining geographical problem of the United States, the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. The Green, was known as far as the Uinta Mountains, and here and there at widely separated points on down to about Gunnison Valley. But there were long gaps, and below Gunnison Crossing as far as the Grand Wash the knowledge of the canyons as already pointed out was vague in the extreme. The altitude of Green River Station, Wyoming, was known to be about six thousand feet above sea level, and that of the mouth of the Virgen less than one thousand. How the river made up this difference was not understood and this problem was what Powell now confronted. His fortitude, nerve, courage, and war experience served him well in this endeavour upon which he started, as previously described, in the spring of 1869. The War Department and perhaps the Smithsonian Institution, furnished some instruments. This expedition met with so many disasters that Powell deemed a second descent in the interest of science desirable, and for a continuation of his explorations, Congress voted in 1870 an appropriation of ten thousand dollars. This second expedition was successful, performing its work in the years 1871-72-73. At the Session of 1871-72 another appropriation was made by Congress for proceeding with the topographical and geological survey of the country adjacent to the river. These appropriations were expended under the supervision of the Smithsonian Institution and were continued annually for work under the titles, EXPLORATION OF THE COLORADO RIVER AND ITS TRIBUTARIES, and SURVEY OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN REGION, up to 1879, when the work was consoLidated largely through Powell’s endeavour, with two other surveys, Hayden’s and Wheeler’s. The latter thought all this work ought to be done by the War Department, but Powell believed otherwise and his view prevailed. Out of these grew by the consolidation the Geological Survey, of which Clarence King was made director. Powell, because of the earnest efforts he had made to bring about the consolidation, refusing to allow his name to be presented. The new Geological Survey was under the Interior Department, and in 1881, when King resigned the directorship, Powell was immediately appointed in his place.

The results of powell’s original field work were topographic maps of a large part of Utah, and considerable portions of Wyoming, Arizona, and Nevada, constructed under the direction of Powell’s colleague, Prof. A.H. Thompson. There were also many volumes of reports and monographs, among them the account of the expedition of 1869, entitled, THE EXPLORATION OF THE COLORADO RIVER OF THE WEST, 1869 to 1872,” THE GEOLOGY OF THE UINTA MOUNTAINS by Powell; LANDS OF THE ARID REGION, by Powell; GEOLOGY OF THE HIGH PLATEAUS OF UTAH, by C. E. Dutton, of the Ordnance Department, U.S.A.; GEOLOGY OF THE HENRY MOUNTAINS, by G. K. Gilbert; and four volumes of CONTRIBUTIONS TO NORTH AMERICAN ETHNOLOGY, one of which contained Lewis H. Morgan’s famous monograph on “HOUSES AND HOUSE LIFE OF THE AMERICAN ABORIGINES.” Early in his Western work Powell became interested in the native tribes. In the winter of 1868, while on White River, he studied language, tribal organisation, customs, and mythology of the Utes and from 1870 to 1873 he carried on studies among the Pai Utes, the Moki, etc., being adopted into one of the Moki clans. On his journeys during these periods he often took with him several of the natives for the purpose of investigating their myths and language. Eventually he became the highest authority on the Shoshonean tribes. In 1874 he was one of the commissioners to select and locate the Southern Pai Utes on a reservation in south-eastern Nevada.

North American archaeology also claimed his interest and about the time of the consolidation of the Surveys Powell proposed the establishment of a Bureau of Ethnology to carry on investigations in this field as well as the ethnologic. This was done and the Bureau was attached to the Smithsonian Institution with Powell as director, an office that he held without salary till his resignation as head of the Geological Survey in 1894. After this he received a salary as chief of the Bureau of Ethnology in which office he remained till his death. The widely known extensive series of valuable volumes published by the Bureau, constituting a mine of information, attest the efficacy of his supervision. He contributed much to these and also wrote numerous papers on anthropological subjects and made many addresses. His labours as a pioneer in and organiser of the science of ethnology have been recognised by learned institutions and societies throughout the world. The results of his direction of the Geological Survey are seen in the maps, reports, bulletins, and monographs, constituting an imperishable monument to his ability as an organiser and administrator.

He delivered many lectures and once, when he appeared on the platform at the University of Michigan, an incident occurred which illustrates his tact and his faculty for seizing means at hand to accomplish his end. At this time it was the habit of the students at public lectures to guy the speaker, even Charles Sumner having been a victim. Powell had been warned of this practice. As he advanced in evening dress a voice called out “How are your coat tails?” – a greeting which was repeated from all parts of the house. During a momentary lull he exclaimed with the peculiar squinting of the eyes and the half-laugh his friends so well remember: “Your greeting reminds me of Dave Larkins’s reply when criticised for wearing a wamus (a heavy woolen garment) in July. Dave said, with his slow drawl, “If you don’t like my wamus I can take it off.” The suggestion took with the students and when the laughter had ceased, cries of “You’ll do – go on,” came from everywhere. The incident roused Powell, and he has often said he never talked better nor had a more attentive audience. He was rewarded with enthusiastic applause. With his closing sentence he said: “I have given you the finest account of the exploration of the Colorado River my command of language permits. I have been as dramatic and as eloquent as I thought this occasion demanded. If anyone wishes a plain statement regarding the exploration, I will be happy to give it to him at my hotel.” There was a hush for a moment as the students grasped the implication and cries of “Sold!” burst from them. A large number did call the next morning to discover whether he had actually stated facts, which of course he had.

He possessed absolute independence of thought and never accepted what was told him unless he could demonstrate its accuracy. Often in his explorations he was told he could not travel in certain places, but he went on just the same to find out for himself. He had a rare faculty of inducing enthusiasm in others, and by reposing complete confidence in the individual, impelled him to do his very best. Thus he became the mainspring for much that was never credited to him, and which was really his in the germ or original idea. Gilbert truly says, “It is not easy to separate the product of his personal work from that which he accomplished through the organisation of the work of others. He was extremely fertile in ideas, so fertile that it was quite impossible that he should personally develop them all, and realising this, he gave freely to his collaborators. The work which he inspired and to which he contributed the most important creative elements, I believe to be at least as important as that for which his name stands directly responsible.” (Oct. 10, 1902)

In the field of geology he was particularly facile in the invention of apt descriptive terms, and indeed he was never at a loss for words to express new meanings, coining them readily where none had existed that were appropriate. Some of his ideas have been developed by younger men, till they have become distinct divisions of the larger science to which they belong. His greatest work in the Geological Survey, that which was more the result of his personal effort, may be summed up under three heads: First, the development of a plan for making a complete topographic map of the United States; second, the organisation of a bureau for the collection of facts and figures relating to the mineral resources of the country; and third, his labours to preserve for the people the waters and irrigable lands of the Arid Region. It is hard to say which of these is greater or which was nearer his heart. Together they constitute a far reaching influence in the development of the country such as no one man heretofore has contributed. His studies and recommendations with regard to the arid lands of the West are of the greatest importance to that district and to the country at large and the nearer they can be carried out the better will it be for posterity. He perceived at once that the reservation of sites for storage reservoirs was of the first importance and this was one of the earliest steps he endeavoured to bring about.

Of late years when he might have relaxed his labours, he turned his attention to the field of psychology and philosophy, working till his malady, sclerosis of the arteries, produced his last illness. The result was two treatises in this line, TRUTH AND ERROR, published in 1899, or “treating of matter, motion, and consciousness as related to the external universe or the field of fact,” as Gilbert describes it, and GOOD AND EVIL, running as a series of essays in the AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, treating of the same factors as related to humanity or to welfare: A third volume was planned to deal with the emotions, and he had also woven these ideas into a series of poems, of which only one has been published. Few understand these later products of Powell. Many condemn them; but Gilbert expresses his usual clear, unbiassed view of things and says,(and I can do no better than to quote him, a mail of remarkably direct thought, and for many years very close to Powell) “His philosophic writings belong to a field in which thought has ever found language inadequate, and are for the present, so far as may be judged from the reviews of TRUTH AND ERROR, largely misunderstood. Admitting myself to be of those who fail to understand much of his philosophy, I do not therefore condemn it as worthless, for in other fields of his thought events have proved that he was not visionary, but merely in advance of his time.”

One inexplicable action in his career, to my mind, was his complete ignoring in his report of the men and their work, of his second river expedition, particularly of his colleague, Prof. Thompson, whose skill and energy were so largely responsible for the scientific and practical success of the second expedition. The report embodied all the results achieved by this expedition and gave no credit to the men who with unflagging zeal, under stress and difficulties innumerable, accumulated the data. This has ever appeared to me unjust, but his reasons for it were doubtless satisfactory to himself. The second expedition is put on record, for the first time in this volume, except for a lecture of mine printed some years ago in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society.

The life of Powell is an example of the triumph of intelligent, persistent endeavour. Long ago he had formulated many of his plans and as far back as 1877, and even 1871, as I understood them, he carried them out with remarkable precision. Before the authorisation of the Bureau of Ethnology, its scope was developed in his mind and he saw completed the many volumes which have since been published. His power to observe the field ahead, standing on the imperfections of the present, was extraordinary. As a soldier he was a patriot, as an explorer he was a hero. As a far-seeing scientific man, as an organiser of government scientific work, as a loving friend, and a delightful comrade whether by the campfire or in the study, and as a true sympathiser with the aspirations and ambitions of subordinates or equals, there has seldom been his superior.

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