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John Wesley Powell: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist

The second expedition brought back considerable information. Professor Thompson completed a topographic map of the Grand Canyon region, and Powell's monumental account was published in 1875 by the Smithsonian Institution. Hundreds of photographs were taken, many of them stereoscopic views that brought the western canyons into eastern living rooms. Diaries and field notes were kept by several other members of the party. Dellenbaugh's story of the trip A Canyon Voyage was published in 1908, and the Utah Historical Society published the diary of Thompson in 1939 and those of Bishop, Steward, W. C. Powell, and Jones in 1947.

Major Powell's boat, the Emma Dean, moored on a bank of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

Powell continued to study the Colorado River region under Government auspices. He became impressed with the problems of settling the arid western lands and in 1878, encouraged by Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, he completed his Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States, which was published as a Congressional document. The book was not only a report on the physical characteristics of the land and the rainfall but also discussed the need for a land classification system and contained drafts of proposed legislation providing for the organization of irrigation and pasturage districts. The book, since recognized as one of the most important ever written about the western lands, went unheeded at the time.

Four surveys—the Powell, Hayden, King, and Wheeler surveys—were mapping the West, and some conflicts of interest began to develop, especially between Army and civilian scientists.

In the spring of 1878, Congress investigated the rivalry among the western surveys but was unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion. They called on the National Academy of Sciences for advice, and the academy in turn called on Powell and others for suggestions. Legislation embodying the academy plan that contained many of Powell's ideas was introduced, but before it was finally enacted several provisions were eliminated, including one of special interest to Powell—a proposal to change the public land system. The bill that was passed on March 3, 1879, provided for the establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey, discontinuation of the western surveys, and appointment of a commission to codify the public land laws. Powell became a member of the commission, and Clarence King, who had been in charge of the Geologic Exploration of the 40th Parallel, the first of the national surveys authorized by Congress, became the first Director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The bill that included the organic act of the Geological Survey also contained an appropriation for completing and publishing the results of Powell's research on the Indians and their cultures. This work ultimately led to the creation of the Bureau of Ethnology, which devoted its efforts to collecting information on the fast-disappearing Indian tribes of North America. Powell became its Director, a post he held for the rest of his life.

In 1881, following King's resignation, Major Powell was appointed Director of the U.S. Geological Survey. As Director from 1881 to 1894, Powell was the principal force in expanding geologic studies and topographic mapping through out the country and in stimulating investigations of soil, ground water, rivers, flood control, and irrigation.

Members of the Hayden survey packing a wagon, on mules, across the San Juan Mountains.

Campsite of Lieutenant G. M. Wheeler and survey party near Belmont, Nevada (Wheeler, seventh from left).

Acceptance of directorship of the U. S. Geological Survey.

Clarence King, first Director of the U. S. Geological Survey, 1879-81. John Wesley Powell, second Director of the U. S. Geological Survey, 1881-94.

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Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006