blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

About John Wesley Powell--Background to "The Gardens of Zuņi"

John Wesley Powell

MajorPowell.jpg (23167 bytes)
Major John Wesley Powell in his office, circa 1886.
Photo by Wells Sawyer

It was 1869. Ten men in four boats were about to embark on a journey that would cover almost 1,000 miles through uncharted canyons, and change the west forever. Three months later only five of the original company plus their one-arm Civil War hero-leader would emerge from the depths of the Grand Canyon at the mouth of the Virgin River. Thirty-five-year-old John Wesley Powell was that expedition's leader. From early childhood Powell manifested deep interest in all natural phenomena. Original and self-reliant to a remarkable degree, he undertook collecting and exploring trips that were quite unusual for a youth of his age. He studied botany, zoology and geology wholly without the aid of a teacher.

He traversed various portions of Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and then the Iron Mountain regions of Missouri making collections of shells, minerals and general natural history object. This led to his election in 1859 to the secretaryship of the Illinois Natural History Society. It is said that in 1856 when but 22 years old, he descended the Mississippi alone in a row boat from the Falls of St. Anthony to its mouth, making collections on the way. Again in 1857 he rowed the entire length of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to its mouth, and in 1858 made a like trip down the Illinois River to its mouth and then up the Des Moines.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, Powell enlisted in the 20th Illinois volunteers and was mustered in as second lieutenant. For a time he was stationed at Cape Girardeau and as captain of Battery F of the 2nd Illinois Artillery. He took part in the battle of Shiloh, losing his right arm at Pittsburg Landing. He returned to the service as soon as his wound healed, and took part in the battles of Champion Hill and Black River Bridge. His wife Emma Dean received permission from General Grant to accompany her husband on the battlefield to take care of him.

At the close of operations about Vicksburg he was obliged to submit to a second operation on his arm, but returned to his post in season to take part in the Meridian raid. Later he was made major and chief of artillery; first of the 17th army corps and then of the department of Tennessee, taking part in the operations before Atlanta and in the battle of Franklin.

He was mustered out of the service at the end of the Civil War as a "major" in 1865 and accepted the position of professor of geology and curator of the museum of the Illinois

Wesleyan University at Bloomington, from which institution he had previously received the degrees of bachelor of arts and master of arts. (Although not a college graduate, Powell did receive the degree of Ph.D. from Heidelberg, Germany in 1886 and that of LL.D. from Harvard.) He also became connected with the Illinois Normal University and was widely know throughout the state by his lectures and addresses on scientific subjects.

It was on field trips out west that Powell began to formulate his idea of exploring the Grand Canyon.

On May 24, 1869 Powell and nine men he recruited for a truly monumental journey pushed their boats from shore and headed down the Green River from Green River Station, WY amidst shouts and cheers from onlookers who must have thought they would never see those ten men again.

Less than one month later one of the ten, an Englishman named Frank Goodman, approached the Major and said, "I have had more excitement than a man deserves in a lifetime. I am leaving." At that point in the trip they had already lost one boat to the rapids and most of the ten-month supply of provisions.

rapid.jpg (20032 bytes)
Running A Rapid
Line drawing from Canyons of the Colorado
by John Wesley Powell, 1875

Goodman was able to walk to a nearby settlement though history has lost track of what happened to him.

The 1869 expedition continued down the Green to the confluence of the Grand River flowing west into Utah. The two mighty rivers then merged into the Colorado, Spanish for "red river".

During the next two months on the river the men encountered many more rapids that could not be run safely in Powell's estimation. He was ever cautious, fearful they would lose the rest of the supplies and perhaps even their lives. So they lined the boats down the side of the rapids, or portaged boats and supplies through the rocks along the shoreline. However, there were times when they had to run the swollen river through rapids that surely made them pray.

At a place now called Separation Canyon, O.G. Howland, his brother Seneca and Bill Dunn came to the Major and spoke of "how we surely will all die if we continue on this journey." They could only see more danger ahead. Try as they might, they could not convince Powell to abandon the river.

The next morning, the three men bid farewell to Powell and the remaining five adventurers. Powell left his boat, the Emma Dean, at the head of Separation Rapids in case they changed their minds. With the other five men Powell ran what would turn out to be the first of the two remaining major rapids. The Howlands and Dunn climbed out of the canyon walking toward civilization only to meet their death at the hands of Shivwits Indians who mistook them for miners that had killed a Hualapai woman on the south side of the river. At least that was the story Powell heard the next year when he visited the Shivwits area with Mormon Scout Jacob Hamlin.

Two days later on August 29 Powell and his men reached the mouth of the Virgin River (now under Lake Mead) and were met by settlers fishing from the river bank. The adventurers had not been heard from in three months and were presumed dead.

Powell had completed what he had sought to do -- explore and confirm his theory on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a region up to that time almost entirely unknown and concerning which there were many vague and often wild rumors. His theory was that the river preceded the canyons and then cut them as the Plateau rose.

Returning a national hero to Illinois, Powell promptly hit the lecture circuit raising funds for a second expedition in 1871 which would produce what the first did not -- a map and scientific publications.

Powell's active work as a geologist eventually gave way to a new career in government. In March 1881, he assumed the directorship of the U.S. Geological survey when the first director Clarence King resigned. He served for 13 years, until he retired in 1894. Powell also served as director of the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology from 1880 until his death in 1902. Between 1894 and 1902, Powell spent increasingly less time running the Bureau and more time on his philosophical/ethnographic writing.

Powell died from a cerebral hemmorage at his summer home in Haven, Maine on September 23, 1902. His wife Emma Dean, whom he married in 1862, and their only child, Mary Dean, survived him. With the honors bestowed to a Civil War Veteran, Powell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Copyright Š by Shelly James. Source

John Wesley Powell and the Bureau of Ethnology

Among many of the Native American people of the West, the scientific explorer John Wesley Powell, a former Army Major who had lost his right arm in battle, was known affectionately as Kapurats, or "One-Arm-Off." It's a name he was given during an extensive stay with the White River Ute in the winter of 1868; it's a soubriquet with which he is still associated today. Unlike most white men of his era, John Wesley Powell had tremendous respect for Native Americans, an insatiable curiosity about their language and institutions, and a belief that they had a right to live their lives according to their own traditions. It was because of this interest and empathy that during all his years in the West, when other scientific teams felt they needed military escorts, he never even carried a gun.

Powell's main goal in 1868, during that first winter among the Indians, was to collect geological and geographic data about the region, but the area around his camp, now know as Powell Bottoms, was heavily populated with Utes. Powell felt compelled to learn more about them, too. He spent weeks compiling a dictionary of Ute vocabulary, learning to speak their language, and trading buckskins for cultural artifacts. This stay was the beginning of a thirty-year interest in the native peoples of the American West, during which time Powell would do much to turn anthropology in the U.S. from an avocation pursued by interested hobbyists to a respected field of academic study.

It was 1870 before Powell would spend time with native peoples again. He had returned West after his first run of the Colorado River partly to scout locations along the way where he could resupply during an upcoming second trip. But he also wanted to know what had happened to the three men who had left the expedition just before it ended. Rumor had it they had been killed by Shivwit warriors. If that was the case, he wanted to make peace with the Indians. Setting out with a group of Kaibab Indians and a Mormon guide named Jacob Hamblin, Powell headed southwest from Salt Lake City to a place 20 miles north of the Grand Canyon known by the Indians as Uinkaret or Place of Pines. The following weeks were, in the words of one Powell biographer, "one long ethnological picnic."

The people Powell stayed with were among the most untouched in America. The Major spoke little of their language, but he made himself understood in Ute. The women showed him how to roast seeds with hot coals. The men engrossed him in talk about their religion. By the time the Shivwits explained why they'd killed Powell's men, the Major had established as intimate a tie with them as any white man in the 19th century would. Instead of demanding retribution for the deaths of his men, which would have been usual in those days, he smoked a pipe with the Indian warriors. In his diary, the Major remembers the warm promises made during that meeting. "We will be friends" the Indians said, "and when you come we will be glad. We will tell the Indians who live on the other side of the great river that we have seen Kapurats and that he is the Indians' friend."

One of Powell's greatest regrets of that trip was that he didn't have a photographer with him. It was mistake he would rectify. Powell made sure he took a cameraman on his second trip down the Colorado River and also on most future trips to Indian country. In the spring of 1873, when Powell was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the "conditions and wants" of the Great Basin Indians, the photographer John K. Hillers accompanied the Major on his extensive travels in the Southwest. As Powell collected and recorded the myths, tales and vocabularies of, among others, the Ute, Paiutes and Nevada Shoshoni, Hillers captured their lives on film. Sometimes, in an effort to make the Indians seem both authentic and exotic, Powell distorted reality by insisting they wear fake headdresses. And in other instances, Hillers asked his subjects to effect poses typically used by nineteenth-century portrait photographers that were awkward and alien to the native peoples. Nonetheless, this series of images provides an important and striking record of a way of life that has long disappeared.

In 1879, Powell helped push for the establishment by Congress of the Bureau of Ethnology. Over the next 23 years under his guidance, the agency would sponsor much important anthropological research. This included bibliographic compilations of all previous writings about American Indians, a "Synonymy" or dictionary of Native American tribes, and a classification of Native American languages and many new field studies. In fact, it's for this work with the agency, rather than for his own field studies, that Powell made his main contribution to anthropology. His own investigations were frequently spotty, his arguments were difficult to follow, and often his staff did much of the hard work on his classification projects. In contrast, Powell demonstrated great skill as an administrator, pulling together a loyal staff who urged others to do some very rigorous research. Despite Powell's shortcomings as a scholar, his passion for ethnography helped lay the groundwork for anthropological study in the 20th century.

Copyright Š PBS Online. Source. PBS Online also offers a chronology of John Wesley Powell's life and a chronology of Powell's first expedition down the Colorado River.

John Wesley Powell on the Role of Government in Land Management

John Wesley Powell was perhaps the most influential explorer and nature writer of his time. During the 1860s and 1870s, the
one-armed civil war veteran led dangerous expeditions through uncharted areas of the Western United States to explore and
map them. The expertise he gained in his travels allowed him, in March 1881, to assume the directorship of the U.S. Geological
survey when the first director Clarence King resigned. He served for 13 years, until he retired in 1894. Powell also served as
director of the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology from 1880 until his death in 1902.

John Wesley Powell was born in 1834 to a poor farm family. As a boy he was interested in botany and zoology, although his
minister father did not encourage the endeavors. He persisted despite this, and eventually became a science professor at two
American universities. His teaching career was interrupted by his service in the Civil War, in which he attained the rank of
major. He lost his arm during the Battle of Shiloh, but he did not let the disability prevent him from undertaking the many
strenous exploring trips for which he eventually became famous.

Powell's best known exploration was of the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon had been discovered by Garcia Lopez de
Cardenas, in 1540, but it had never been charted and many of Powell's contemporaries believed that it must contain unpassable falls. Powell reasoned that the Colorado River would have worn down most of the falls, and that the river coudl be navigable. In 1869 he led a ten man expedition down the river. Only half his team survived. In 1969 he finished the exploration, making an enormous contribution to modern geological science with his careful observation of the canyon's formations.

The U.S. government published Powell's findings in 1878, in the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.
He also published a large number of independent articles in mainstream magazines, although his ideas did not gain widespread
support among an apathetic public and an unreceptive Congress. Powell's writing on land management combines detailed
descriptions of the climate and geography of the Western states with clear and original ideas for their organization and
governance. His writing is interesting not only for its revolutionary suggestions regarding land and resource administration, but
for its uncanny anticipation of the power struggle which has emerged between western farmers and ranchers and the federal

Powell published a list of priorities for the organization of the arid west, as follows:

1.The capital to redeem by irrigation 1,000,000,000 acres of land is to be obtained, and $1,000,000,000 is necessary.

2.The lands are to be distributed to the people, and as yet we have no proper system of land laws by which it can be done.

3.The waters must be divided among the States, and as yet there is no law for it, and the States are now in conflict.

4.The waters are to be divided among the people, so that each man may have the amount necessary for domestic purposes...

5.The great forests that clothe the hills, plateaus and mountains with verdure must be saved from devastation by fire and preserved for the use of man, that the sources of water may be protected, that farms may be fenced and homes built, and that all this wealth of forest may be distributed among the people. 

6.The grasses that are to feed the flocks and herds must be protected and utilized.

7.The great mineral deposits - the fuel of the future, the iron for the railroads, and the gold and silver for our money - must be kept ready to the hand of industry and the brain of enterprise.

Powell did not regard the magnitude of the looming tasks as an indication that they would need government control for their
execution. To the contrary:

"...In the name of the men who labor I demand that the laborers shall employ themselves; that the enterprise shall be controlled by the men who have the genius to organize, and who homes are in the lands developed, and that the money shall be furnished by the people, and I say to the Government: Hands off! Furnish the people with institutions of justice, and let them do the work for themselves. The solution to be propounded, then, is one of institutions to be organized for the establishment of justice, not of appropriations to be made and offices created by the Government."

Powell suggested that the irrigable arid lands be divided into semi-autonomous hydrographic districts, structured around local
water sources. Communities sharing a common water source were to be entrusted with the responsibility of its use:

"In a group of mountains a river has its source. A dozen or a score of creeks unite to form the trunk. The creeks higher up divide into brooks. All these streams combined form the drainage system of a hydrological basin... Such a district of country is a commonwealth by itself... Every man is interested in the conservation and management of the water supply, for all the waters are needed within the district. The men who control the farming below must also control the upper regions where the waters are gathered from the heavens and stored in the reservoirs... Not a spring of a creek can be touched without affecting the interests of every man who cultivates the soil in the region. All the waters are common property until they reach the main canal, where they are to be distributed among the people. How these waters are to be caught and the common source of the wealth utilized by the individual settlers interested therein is a problem for the men of the district to solve, and for them alone."

Forests, too, were to be controlled by local users. Powell believed that the long-term interests of the settlers would guide their
management practices:

"If they permit the forests to be destroyed, the source of their water supply is injured and the timber values are wiped out. If the forests are to be guarded, the people directly interested should perform the task. An army of aliens set out to watch the forests would need another army of aliens to watch them, and a forestry organization under the hands of the General Government would become a hot-bed of corruption; for it would be impossible to fix responsibility and difficult to secure integrity of administration, because ill-defined values in great quantities are involved."

Powell was no anarchist: he recognized that the Federal and State governments had roles to play in the management of Western lands. However, most of the responsibilities were reserved, in his scheme, to locally chosen district governments. These local governments would establish courts for the adjudication of questions of resource use. They would establish and enforce protection measures for common and private property. They could also tax themselves as they wished, or borrow money using district resources as collateral. Powell's trust in people's ability to manage local natural resources extended to capital management: "These district communities... will speedily understand how to attract capital by learning that honesty is
the best policy."

The limited role of State governments was described this way:

"Each state should provide courts for the adjudication of litigation between people of different districts, and courts of appeal from the irrigation district courts. It should also establish a general inspection system, and provide that the irrigation reservoirs shall not be constructed in such a manner as to menace the people below and place them in peril from floods. And finally, it should provide general statues regulating water rights."

The Federal government would be limited to a supportive administrative role. It would allocate land to the watershed districts;
classify its use, and retain ownership only of non-irrigable lands. It would also be in charge of interstate allocations and litigation.

Powell was more keenly aware than anyone of just how fragile was the ecosystem of the Western United States. He was a
naturalist at heart, and he advocated policies of settlement specially designed to succeed without creating wasteland. But his
caution did not entail distrust of the people: he believed that those whose livelihoods and properties were at stake would always
be better equipped to manage their land than any bureautcrats.


Institutions of the Arid Lands, by JWP. Originally published in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine for May, 1890, vol. 40, pp. 111-116. Reprinted in and quoted from Selected Prose of John Wesley Powell, George Crossette, ed. David R Godine publisher, Boston, 1970.

Powell and His Colorado Centennial, (introduction.) In Selected Prose of John Wesley Powell. George Crossette, ed.


Return to W.S. Merwin