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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,125

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This is the grave of John Wesley Powell.

Born in Mount Morris, New York in 1834, Powell grew up poor. His father was an itinerant preacher who came over from England a few years before his son was born. The family moved around a lot and didn’t do all that well. But young Powell was interested in charting his own path, quite literally as it would turn out. In his early 20s, he started taking solo adventures. He would take four months and walk across the Midwest. He would row the whole Ohio River and then row upstream on the Mississippi to St. Louis. Heck, in 1856, he rowed the entire Mississippi from its beginning point in Minnesota to New Orleans. So this was no ordinary guy. Not sure how he paid for it all. He did teach off and on and he also went to college off and on over a seven year period. That included some time at Oberlin. But he never finished. Powell was particularly interested in natural science. His travels became known to the broader scientific world and in 1859, was elected to the Illinois Natural History Society. He also gave lectures about his travels.

In 1861, Powell was giving some lectures when he learned that the South had committed treason in defense of slavery. He enlisted in the Army as a private in May 1861, was immediately elected to be sergeant-major of the regiment, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in July when the 20th Illinois was brought into the federal forces. He soon recruited his own artillery company in Missouri and was promoted to captain. At Shiloh, Powell was shot in the right arm and it was amputated. He probably could have gotten out of fighting at this point, but that was not Powell’s way. He was back to participate in the siege of Vicksburg and then in the Atlanta campaign. Toward the end of the war, he was under the command of George Thomas and was at the Battle of Nashville. He eventually was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel. He didn’t get shot again, so that was lucky.

The war certainly served Powell’s idea of adventure. He wasn’t done yet either, not by a long shot. For a bit there at the end of the war, his expertise on the natural world of the United States got him some teaching positions. He took a job as geology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and he had a sort of permanent base for lecturing at Illinois State in Normal. But the academic life was not for him. In fact, turned down a job with the state of Illinois in order to explore the West. That was his new obsession. He had rowed the Midwest and fought in the South. Now, with whites pushing out the tribes, Powell wanted to know what was out there.

Powell first explored Colorado, taking his wife with him as well as students. He went up into the Rockies and was part of the first party of whites to climb Long’s Peak in 1868. He went down along the Green River and the upper reaches of Colorado River. He collected specimens to study and send back to collections in Illinois.

Then, in 1869, Powell led the first expedition down the Colorado River and then the second in 1871-72. This is why we know of him today, not so much for the adventure side of it, though that was very real. It’s because he really did come to understand the land around him and in doing so, challenged the way Americans thought about how to populate a region. The two trips he took in the next couple of years were truly epic. No whites had been through the Grand Canyon before. They had to negotiate the rapids through the Canyon which, uh, are difficult. Moreover, the expedition also explored Glen Canyon, sadly lost due to the vile Glen Canyon Dam. Some of the members disappeared when they left the expedition and were probably either killed by Paiutes or Mormons. This was very much a scientific expedition, replete with photographers and mapmakers.

What Powell learned here was that the southwestern deserts were by no means ready for the kind of settlement that the rest of the nation had. Dividing the desert into 160 acre squares was nonsense. This was an area defined by aridity, not fertile soil. After his missions, Powell filed Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. He argued that it made no sense to draw random lines on the map to divide things among states and companies and settlers. Instead, you had to follow the watersheds. In fact, he believed western states should have watershed boundaries to limit disagreements between them over scarce water, which considering the state of western water supplies today was a pretty good idea. If you were going to have grazing, he proposed to have those allotments be expanded to over 2,500 acres in order to support the cows on the available vegetation and water. But to say the least, this way of thinking was seen as bizarre by those who promoted regional growth. The railroad companies owned land grants given by the government to build transcontinental railroads. Capitalism had defined how to divide American land. The railroads had every intention of traditional agriculture to get people to buy those lands and make money. They lobbied Congress to set aside his report and let the proper path of capitalism and settlement continue, no matter the suitability of the land to grow much of anything at all. Powell was ignored, much to the West’s detriment over the years, as we are seeing with climate change and the contemporary mega-drought.

Powell’s ideas may not have been accepted, but he was still a major figure in American science. He became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1881, holding that position until 1894. He spent a bunch of time writing and publishing his work on the Southwest. He had originally published Report of the Exploration of the Columbia River of the West and Its Tributaries but it was a bit dry. He worked it up for greater attention in The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, which he republished in 1895. He also served as the director of Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian from 1879 until his death. Not surprisingly, he felt the same as most Americans in these years in terms of the inevitability of Native decline in the face of white superiority and he believed those who lived out in the deserts, such as the Paiutes, were only marginally human.

In the end, despite his deep racism toward the tribes, Powell was effectively right about the American West. The region simply cannot support the kind of population it has today, especially with any sort of agriculture. Something has give pretty soon. It will probably be agriculture first, but Las Vegas and Phoenix and Albuquerque and Los Angeles are completely unsustainable as cities and it’s hard to see any of them having anything close to their current population by 2100, if not sooner.

Powell died in 1902, at the age of 68.

John Wesley Powell is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other directors of the U.S. Geological Survey, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Doolittle Walcott is buried in Washington, D.C. and George Otis Smith is in Skowhegan, Maine. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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