John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell was an American geologist, U.S. Army soldier, explorer of the American West, professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and director of major scientific and cultural institutions. He is famous for his 1869 geographic expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers, including the first official U.S. government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon.
Powell served as second director of the U.S. Geological Survey (1881–1894) and proposed, for development of the arid West, policies that were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. He became the first director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution during his service as director of the U.S. Geological Survey, where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications.
Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834, the son of Joseph and Mary Powell. His father, a poor itinerant preacher, had emigrated to the U.S. from Shrewsbury, England, in 1831. His family moved westward to Jackson, Ohio, then to Walworth County, Wisconsin, before settling in rural Boone County, Illinois.
Powell studied at Illinois College, Illinois Institute (which would later become Wheaton College), and Oberlin College, over a period of seven years while teaching, but was unable to attain his degree. During his studies Powell acquired a knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin. Powell had a restless nature and a deep interest in the natural sciences. This desire to learn about natural sciences was against the wishes of his father, yet Powell was still determined to do so. In 1861 when Powell was on a lecture tour he decided that a civil war was inevitable; he decided to study military science and engineering to prepare himself for the imminent conflict.
Powell's loyalties remained with the Union and the cause of abolishing slavery. On May 8, 1861, he enlisted at Hennepin, Illinois, as a private in the 20th Illinois Infantry. He was elected sergeant-major of the regiment, and when the 20th Illinois was mustered into the Federal service a month later, Powell was commissioned a second lieutenant. He enlisted in the Union Army as a cartographer, topographer and military engineer.
In 1881, Powell was appointed the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, a post he held until his resignation in 1894, being replaced by Charles Walcott. In 1875, Powell published a book based on his explorations of the Colorado, originally titled Report of the Exploration of the Columbia River of the West and Its Tributaries. It was revised and reissued in 1895 as The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. In 1889, the intellectual gatherings Powell hosted in his home were formalized as the Cosmos Club. The club has continued, with members elected to the club for their contributions to scholarship and civic activism.
In the early 1900s the journals of the expedition crew began to be published starting with Dellenbaugh’s A Canyon Voyage in 1908, followed in 1939 by the diary of Almon Harris Thompson, who was married to Powell’s sister, Ellen Powell Thompson. Bishop, Steward, W.C. Powell, and Jones’ diaries were all published in 1947. These diaries made it clear Powell’s writings contained some exaggerations and recounted activities that occurred on the second river trip as if they occurred on the first. They also revealed that Powell, who had only one arm, wore a life jacket, though the other men did not have them.
Books by John Wesley Powell
The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell is a classic of American exploration literature. It is about the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 which was the first trip down the Colorado River by boat, including the...
This is a 1906 collection of three essays by men famously associated with The Grand Canyon: Charles A. Higgins, John Wesley Powell, and Charles F. Lummis.