The Expeditions of John Wesley Powell

John Powell with Tau-gu, a Paiute

John Powell with Tau-gu, a Paiute

On March 24, 1834, American geologist and ethnologist John Wesley Powell was born. He published the first classification of American Indian languages and was the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. He is famous for the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers, including the first known passage through the Grand Canyon.

John Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834. His family had emigrated from England four years prior and later on moved to Illinois. The young man studied at Illinois College, Illinois Institute, and Oberlin College. He also started teacherin but didn’t earn a degree. He learned Latin and Ancient Greek, but his main interest was devoted to natural sciences which was against the wished of his father. In 1860, Powell went on a lecture tour and realized that the American Civil War was starting, he began to study military science and engineering to prepare himself for the conflict. [1]

He explored Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and the Iron Mountain regions of Missouri, collecting shells, minerals, and general natural history objects, which led to his election in 1859 to the secretaryship of the Illinois Natural History Society. It is said that, in 1856, the only 22 year old man descended the Mississippi by himself in a rowboat from the Falls of St. Anthony to its mouth, making collections on the way. 1857, he possibly rowed the whole length of the Ohio River from Pittsburg to its mouth, and in 1858 made a life trip down the Illinois River to its mouth and thence up the Des Moines . [2]

During the Civil WarJohn Powell as enlisted in the 20th Illinois volunteers in the position of second lieutenant. He took part in the battle of Shiloh, losing his right arm at Pittsburg Landing. However, Powell returned to the war and fought in the battles of Champion Hill and Black River Bridge. After the Civil War, John Powell left his service as Major and accepted the position of Professor of Geology and Curator of the Museum of the Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington. He also became connected with the Illinois Normal University and was widely known throughout the state by his lectures and addresses on scientific subjects. [2]

On May 24, 1869John Powell and nine further men left for a 10 months journey into the Rocky Mountains and around the Green and Colorado rivers. With four boats, they set out from Green River, Wyoming, passing down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado River near present-day Moab, Utah, and completed the journey on August 30, 1869. After only one month in the expedition, one man already quit and three further men left at Separation Canyon during the third month. Unfortunately, these three men disappeared, which remains a mystery up to this day. In 1871John Powell retraced part of the 1869 route with another expedition traveling from Green River, Wyoming to Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon. As a result of the expedition, photographs have been published along with maps and papers. However, it was noticed that these maps were not too precise. In preparation of the expedition, Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon missionary in southern Utah and northern Arizona was employed. He was known to have developed good relationships with Native Americans. He was asked by Powell to work as a negotiator in order to ensure their safety from local Native American groups. Powell mentioned that he believed the three missing men were killed by the Native Americans due to mistaken identities. John Powell’s subsequent geological descriptions of the explored region introduced an entire new branch of geology called geomorphology.[1,2]

In his publications, Powell described his theories of the role of stream flows in wearing down mountains and creating river valleys, which established him as a nationally recognized geologist. Due to his recognition and his ability to talk with politicians, Powell was appointed the second director of the United States Geological Survey in 1881. However, it is believed that due to his insistence on putting truth before politics eventually earned him powerful enemies. Some of his enemies were very eager to exploit the natural resources of the West, objecting to Powell’s insistence on understanding the natural science of the region before developing it. John Powell was pushed out of his position in 1894 and continued his scientific work within the Bureau of American Ethnology. [1]

At yovisto you can learn more about Native Americans in the 19th Century in a video discussion at Berkeley University.

References and Further Reading:

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