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Illustrations courtesy United States Geological Survey

How a one-armed naturalist from Bloomington became the nation's greatest explorer

By Bill Steinlfacher-Kemp

Major John Wesley Powell, the one-armed science professor from Illinois, faced a desperate situation the morning of August 28, 1869. After an exhausting three-month river expedition down the Green and upper Colorado rivers, a series of canyons and rapids 500 miles in length, three members of his nine-man party wanted out. The endless series of rapids they faced each day, the capsized boats, the portages, the desolate landscape and isolation, and the ever-present roaring current had left them at their physical and mental limits. Their surviving rations consisted of moldy flour and dried apples. Their clothing, reduced to rags, no longer protected them from the extremes of 115-degree days and the nights of freezing rain. Their canvas tents were rotted and their rubber ponchos and blankets lost. And on this particular morning, in the depths of the Grand Canyon, they faced the most menacing rapids yet encountered on their long journey.

Undaunted, Powell, who had organized the expedition, pressed the men onward. He was leading an expedition through the United States' last, great unexplored area, and he was not yet willing to call it quits. "I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip," Powell recalled later. "To leave the exploration unfinished, to say there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already nearly accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on."

That morning the three men did leave, climbing out of the canyon by scaling its steep walls. Once out onto the plateau north of the canyon, they intended to make the four-day walk to the Mormon settlements on the Virgin River, but they were ambushed and killed by a band of Shivwit warriors.

Powell and the remaining five men, though, successfully navigated the rapids, and by twelve o'clock in the afternoon the next day they were carried out of the Grand Canyon by the river's swift current into gentler waters. Powell, now the conqueror of the Grand Canyon, would become a national hero.

Already the curator of a museum of natural sciences at Illinois State Normal University and a former Illinois Wesleyan University professor, Powell could have rested on his new-found fame by retiring to a secure academic setting. Instead, he spent the next thirty years dividing his time between the West and Washington, D.C. Though an almost forgotten figure in Illinois, Powell is revered in the West, both as an explorer and as a prophetic voice urging the cautious development of the vast region's arid lands. In the East, his considerable reputation rests with the establishment of the modern federal science bureaucracy. From 1879 until his death he headed the Bureau of Ethnology, and under his leadership that office organized the nation's first systematic research into Native American lifeways. From 1881 until 1894, he also was director of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading what would become under his administration the largest scientific organization in the world. For twelve hectic years he was director of both institutions, and by 1888 he was heading the federal government's scientific triumvirate of topographic, geologic, and hydrologic surveys.

It is a remarkable fact that the 1869 exploration of the Colorado River, one of the greatest adventure stories of the American West, was funded by a handful of Illinois institutions. Indeed, the physical and cultural landscapes of the Middle West shaped Powell's life and career. He spent the greater part of his first thirty-five years in the Midwest, beginning in southern Ohio, then Wisconsin, and finally, from 1851 until his move to the nation's capital in the early 1870s, in Illinois. At one time or another, he would be called a farmer, part-time college student, amateur naturalist, teacher, soldier, professor, and explorer. Throughout his life, his formal education was inadequate and sporadic. In addition to one-room schools and small colleges, Powell sought a more informal education in the prairies, woodlands, streams, and rivers that surrounded the villages of his youth. Powell's life, observed Lester F. Ward, was molded in "the pattern of the American self- made man." An understanding of Powell hisethnology; his ability to organize and lead men under difficult circumstances; and his support of government-funded science rests on an understanding of his formative years in the Midwest.


Powell's parents, Joseph and Mary Dean Powell, were English immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1830. Joseph Powell was a "licensed exhorter" in the Methodist Episcopal Church, a title that facilitated both preaching and his chosen trade, tailoring. The Powells spent their first eight years in America in New York, and John Wesley Powell, the fourth of nine children, was born March 24, 1834, in Mount Morris, a small community situated in the Geneseo Valley.

Seeking a better business climate and, more importantly, greater opportunities to preach, Joseph Powell uprooted his family twice in the next dozen years, first to Jackson, Ohio, and later to Walworth County, Wisconsin, settling on a farm near the village of South Grove. The elder Powell found his true home there, not so much on the frontier farmstead, but in the Wesleyan Methodist order. His abolitionism had turned him away from the Methodist Episcopal Church, and now as a Wesleyan circuit rider he devoted all his energies to preaching at the farms and communities scattered across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

In 1851, the restless Joseph Powell moved his family south into Illinois. After a short stay in Boone County, the Powells moved to Wheaton, a village west of Chicago where the Wesleyan Methodists were planning to locate a school.

In the 1850s, John Wesley ("Wes" Powell spent time teaching in central Illinois and taking classes at Illinois Institute (later renamed Wheaton College), Illinois College in Jacksonville, and Oberlin College in Ohio. So far, Wes Powell had led an unremarkable life, spending most of his early years managing his father's property while the elder Powell rode the circuit. Powell could boast neither a promising career nor a college degree. However, during this period of apparent aimlessness, a passionate interest in the natural sciences took hold. Beginning in 1856, he spent his summers alone on long natural science excursions, usually in the form of journeys up and down the river systems of Middle America. The particulars of these river trips are lost, yet the cumulative result of these summers cannot be overstated. Powell, the future geologist, was studying the topographical features of river valleys formed by water erosion and glacial activity while the future explorer was gaining incalculable experience piloting river craft.

John Wesley Powell, the teacher from Illinois

The summer before entering Illinois College, Powell paddled up the Mississippi River to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then walked through the pine forests of upper Wisconsin and Michigan, finally stopping in Detroit to visit Joseph Dean, his mother's brother. When he arrived at the Dean home, Powell also met Dean's daughter, Emma, and immediately developed an attachment to his first cousin. In the spring of 1859, launching a skiff at Ottawa, Illinois, Powell paddled down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River and proceeded down to the Gulf of Mexico, only to return and paddle up the Des Moines River. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, his natural history collection would grow to an estimated 6,000 plants and a large collection of mollusks.

During his wide-ranging river trips, Powell also demonstrated an interest in archaeology. From 1858 to 1860, he inspected Native American mounds in the states of Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio. "In the fall of 1859 certain mounds on the shores of Lake Peoria, in Illinois, were examined," he recalled, "and skeletons were found in one of the largest, and with them works of art of various materials, especially of stone and pottery."

One month after the fall of Fort Sumter, the twenty-seven-year-old Powell enlisted as a private for the Union cause. After a promotion to second lieutenant, his regiment was sent to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where he organized Battery F, 2d Illinois Light Artillery. During this period Powell also secured a one-week leave of absence to marry Emma Dean.

Powell (now a captain) and his battery were sent to Pittsburg Landing on the banks of the Tennessee River, two or three days before the Battle of Shiloh. On April 6, the first day of the bloody clash, the battery was unofficially attached to Brigadier General William H. L. Wallace's 2d Division, participating until late afternoon in the defense of the area later known as the "Hornets' Nest." Around four o'clock, while raising his arm to give an order to fire on massing Confederates, Powell was hit by a rebel mini ball. Placed on a Union gunboat, Powell was sent nine miles to Savannah, where several days later his right arm, from a point slightly below the elbow, was removed. Emma cared for her husband during his four-month convalescence, and was thereafter granted a "perpetual pass " to follow him throughout the war. After regaining his health, he rejoined his battery at Corinth, Mississippi.


In the spring of 1863, Powell participated in Ulysses S. Grant's epic Vicksburg campaign, one of the most decisive Union victories of the war. During the siege, Powell, suffering from a fever and dysentery, dropped to about 100 pounds, and was in constant pain from the re-exposed nerve endings at his stump. A second surgery was deemed necessary, and Powell, accompanied by Emma, had the operation performed in Detroit. He returned to action in the fall of 1863, and participated in a Union offensive to Meridian, Mississippi, under the general command of William T. Sherman.

Although the Civil War interrupted Powell's natural science collecting trips, it did not altogether end them. He collected fossils from areas around Vicksburg, and unearthed Native American artifacts in Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Promoted to major, Powell participated in Sherman's Atlanta campaign, and afterward commanded sixteen batteries at the Battle of Nashville. Rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, Powell mustered out of service in early January 1865. He retained the rank of major, and was henceforth referred to as "Major Powell."

The Civil War was the defining experience of Powell's generation. Though the war had left him without a right arm, Powell was, in many respects, strengthened by his experiences. He now was an accomplished leader of men. On the battlefields of Vicksburg, Atlanta, and others, he developed an ability to lead under unforgiving conditions, experience that would prove advantageous on his journeys out West.

Powell, who received an honorary degree from Illinois Wesleyan University during the siege of Vicksburg, was offered a teaching post by that school's president, Oliver S. Munsell. At the time of Powell's arrival on the Bloomington campus, the fifteen-year-old university counted an enrollment of less than 200 students. Powell led his students on frequent field trips, a then-innovative approach to science education. "We all recall how textbooks went to the winds with Major Powell," recalled student J. B. Taylor. "He made us feel that we had conquered the commonplace, broken our way through the accepted, and come into the heritage of free thinkers, and there was no shame in it anywhere."

Powell was fortunate to settle in Bloomington-Normal, as the twin communities were home to both the Illinois Natural History Society and Illinois State Normal University. The society's impressive but habitually disorganized collections were housed on the university campus. A fair number of the avowedly eclectic group of educators, physicians, scientific dabblers, wildlife devotees, and amateur naturalists that comprised the society would later rise to positions of regional and national prominencelevels. For instance, Cyrus Thomas, a lawyer and amateur naturalist from southern Illinois, became a nationally respected entomologist on both the state and federal levels. Later, he remade his scientific career as an archaeologist and anthropologist, following Powell to the Bureau of Ethnology and conducting landmark research into the origins of Native American mounds. George Vasey, a physician and amateur botanist from the McHenry County community of Ringwood, was an active member of the society and served as interim museum curator after Powell's departure. Vasey then left for Washington, D.C., becoming the longtime chief botanist of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. There he became the nation's foremost authority on prairie grasses, and was instrumental in the establishment of the U.S. Herbarium. By the 1880s, three of the federal government's leading scientists Powell, Thomas, and Vasey were former members of the Illinois Natural History Society.

Major J. W. Powelt with Tau-gu, a chief of the Paiute Indians, in southern Utah

The society's museum was located on the third floor of ISNU's main building. The museum, featuring one of the finest natural history collections outside the eastern seaboard, covered 3,300 square feet in two spacious halls. Stuffed birds, fossils, and minerals were displayed in cases of French glass, and museum visitors could inspect plants and insects in drawers. Shelves held crystals, ores, and more minerals and fossils, and preserved in alcohol were various species of fish and reptiles. An entire section was devoted to "economical geology" showcasing Illinois' mineral wealth. After the departure of curator Charles Wilbur, the museum underwent a period of mismanagement and neglect. Distressed at the deteriorating condition of the museum, Powell seized a chance to greatly improve his professional standing. He successfully lobbied for an annual state appropriation for the museum, including a modest stipend for a curator position. The politically savvy Powell, surprising few observers, received the coveted curator position.


A Powell expedition lithograph, artist unknown. Circa 1870.

Museum curatorship launched an important chapter in Powell's professional career. As paid curator of a state-supported natural history museum and research center he had the newfound financial wherewithal to explore the West. Before 1867, however, he was ill prepared to launch an expedition down the canyons of the Colorado River. As a western explorer, he needed experience, connections, and, most importantly, knowledge of the landscape. First he would organize two academically-oriented trips to the Rocky Mountains, the first in the summer of 1867 and the second the following year.

Eleven students, educators, and interested observers joined Powell on this first westward trek, paid for and sponsored, in part, by the museum. The party included Emma, his wife; Almon H. Thompson, his brother-in-law and superintendent of Bloomington schools; and a contingent of Illinois Wesleyan students.Following the south bank of the Platte River to Denver, the party concentrated on amassing collections for the museum, including rocks and fossils, as well as insects, birds, small mammals, and other specimens. Martin Titterington, an Illinois Wesleyan junior, recalled "the wrecked wagons, new-made graves and deserted sod houses" they encountered on the journey.

The weary travelers arrived in Denver July 1, and from the state capital they traveled into Bergen's Park, a long, narrow valley bounded by Pike's Peak on the south and Devil's Head on the north. Joseph Hartzell, another Wesleyan student who later became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, sent two dispatches back home that were published in the Bloomington Pantograph. His second dispatch was a detailed description of the two-day ascent of Pike's Peak by eight members of the party, including Emma Powell. "She has uniformly borne the hardships of the trip with a courage and fortitude far beyond that usually attributed to her sex," Hartzell wrote of Emma. The ascent was blocked by a large rockslide, forcing the party to take an alternative route and camp overnight on the mountainside. The amateur ascent was all the more remarkable, Hartzell observed, for "nobody in the party had ever been above the timber line, much less on a mountain's summit."

After several weeks exploring the valley of South Park and the nearby mountain peaks, the group returned to Denver. With the fall school semester fast approaching, the group separated, and most headed back to Illinois. Major Powell, with Emma at his side, remained in the mountains. The Powells spent September and October exploring the Middle Park region and pushing west to the headwaters of the Colorado River. "Later in the fall I passed through Cedar Canyon, the gorge by which the Grand [River] leaves the park," Powell would later recall. "A result of the summer's study was to kindle a desire to explore the canyons of the Grand, Green, and Colorado rivers."

The members of the 1867 expedition collected a vast amount of material, ranging from rocks to butterflies. A large number of crates were sent back to Normal, and when Powell returned later that fall he found the already cluttered museum in disarray. From his salary as curator, he paid several assistants to help unpack, sort, label, and catalogue the new material.

Between organizing the museum and planning a second trip, Powell found time to hold several lectures on the adventures of the past summer. A January 1868 notice in the Pantograph urged residents to attend a lecture titled "The Peaks, the Parks, and the Plains," stating, "It is no dry, scientific address, adapted to some learned convention, but is eminently popular for the people. We claim Prof. Powell as one of our citizens. Let us see to it that his lecture is well patronized."


Powell now realized he would be spending the greater part of the next several years out West, so before leaving for Colorado, he proffered his resignation to Wesleyan. In addition, it was increasingly apparent to the Illinois Natural History Society membership, as well as the ISNU administration, that Powell was losing interest in the museum. His future life and career belonged not to central Illinois but rather to the arid lands of the West. Those returning to Colorado under the name "The Rocky Mountain Scientific Exploring Expedition" included Emma Powell and Almon Thompson. New members included E. W. Keplinger, an Illinois Wesleyan student, and Samuel Garman, an Illinois State Normal student who later became a professor at Harvard University.

One of Powell's goals during the second expedition was an ascent of Long's Peak, a mountain that most thought impossible to climb. Joining Powell on the climb were William N. Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News; Jack Sumner, an experienced tracker and mountaineer who spent time with Powell the previous summer; and Keplinger and Garman. Long's Peak proved a much more difficult and dangerous climb than Pike's Peak the previous summer. On the morning of August 23, after a three- day climb, the party reached the summit and erected a memorial as tribute to the first recorded ascent of the mountain peak.

After the thrilling ascent of Long's Peak, Powell's party met another group of travelers on the banks of the Grand River in Middle Park. Included in this party of easterners were Schuyler Colfax, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican. Bowles wrote back to his newspaper about Powell's intentions to lead an expedition down the Colorado River. Bowles said Powell's proposed expedition was "more important than any which lies before our men of science," adding that "the wonder is they have neglected it so long." After further consultations with the mountaineer Sumner, Powell decided upon formally organizing and leading a river descent of the Green and Colorado rivers the following spring.

That winter, a camp was established on the banks of a tributary of the White River. Three log cabins were built, and Powell took advantage of the long winter nights to make his first study of Native Americans, learning some of the language, rituals, and stories of the Utes. In addition to these studies, Powell spent the winter scouting the region in preparation for the planned river expedition.

In the spring of 1869, Powell's party broke winter camp, and he and Emma boarded a train to Chicago. At the Bagley Boat Yard in Chicago, he supervised the construction of four boats capable of withstanding the expected punishment from several months navigating through rough water. Powell's familiarity with river travel from the summer excursions were of great benefit when it came time to design and build the boats. Three twenty-one-foot boats were built of oak and a more maneuverable, smaller lead boat, dubbed the Emma Dean, was fashioned from pine. The three larger boats were double ribbed and featured watertight fore and aft compartments to prevent sinkings, even if swamped. As preparations were made in Chicago, the rest of the expedition, a ragtag collection of adventure seekers, unemployed veterans, and assorted nobodies, waited at Green River, Wyoming, for Powell's return.

gift of john wesley powell

water jar the zuni world
polychrome white and brown
these fantastic birds
and here grazing below
the familiar pronghorns

where zuni have a middle world the world below them empty

this pot holds all creation
all the world the zuni knew
its air earth fire and yes
that dream of clear running water

and nothing disturbs this world
not even my breath this noontime
forming its own small country
on the glass display case
above that parched universe

the one world of the zuni

--John Knoepfle
from the one instant and forever

One of the most remarkable aspects of Powell's Colorado River expedition was the modest scale of its organization. The federal government, which had a large stake in the success or failure of Powell's expedition, provided little support other than the allowance to draw rations at U.S. Army outposts. Powell secured donations from several Illinois institutions, including $500 from the Natural History Society and $100 from the Chicago Academy of Sciences. In addition, he spent $2,000 from his own financial resources. Yet without the promise of free transportation from various railroads the expedition's viability was in serious doubt.

At the point where the recently completed Union Pacific Railroad crossed the Green River in Wyoming, the party of ten men launched four wooden boats on the morning of May 24, 1869, before a small gathering of locals. It was a most inconspicuous beginning for an epic three-month adventure.

On July 19, the Pantograph printed a letter from Powell to Illinois State Normal University President Richard Edwards. "Wrecked one of our boats and lost about one-third of our supplies and part of our instruments," wrote Powell from the Uintah Indian Agency. "Have not made large general collections, but have some fine fossils, a grand geological section and a good map." Despite the wreck and loss of rations, Powell reported that the expedition was so far a success. "Personally I have enjoyed myself much the scenery being wild and grand beyond description. All in good health all in good spirits, and all with high hopes of success."


After the harrowing three-month adventure, Powell returned to the East a hero. The conqueror of the Colorado was in demand as a speaker, and he lectured on his adventures in Salt Lake City, Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere. Powell finally returned to his hometown, joined by his brother Walter, who promptly enrolled at Illinois Wesleyan. The now-famous Major Powell delivered his Colorado River lecture at a local academy of music, and the Pantograph raved that, "The lecture was one of the best of the kind ever given here." With the fate of the financially troubled society undecided, Powell spent the first several months of 1870 tending to his duties as museum curator.

Acknowledging his disinterest in the museum and society, Powell returned to Washington to seek assistance for a second Colorado River expedition. This time he received a $10,000 congressional appropriation. Powell and some associates, including his trusted assistant Almon Thompson, then spent a greater part of 1870 exploring the vast plateau region north of the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River expedition of 1871 included Thompson and Jack Hillers, a recently discharged sergeant in the regular Army who would later become one of the preeminent photographers of western landscapes and Native Americans; William Clement Powell, a nephew; and Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, who later wrote the classic The Romance of the Colorado River.

Having purchased a home in Washington, D.C. in early June 1872, Powell divided his time between Washington and the Utah Territory, though he still maintained tenuous connections with his former hometown. In 1872, for instance, he attended the commencement services of Illinois Wesleyan and invited professor H. C. Demotte to accompany him out West. Powell spent that summer occupied with his survey of northern Arizona and southern Utah, but before leaving he resigned as curator of the museum in late June 1872.

Powell now joined the ranks of Clarence King, Ferdinand V. Hayden, and George M. Wheeler as a head of one of the great western surveys. Powell's survey was first under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution, and then after July 1874, it was transferred to the Department of the Interior.

In 1879, after more than four years of persistent lobbying, Powell succeeded in consolidating the rival surveys into one entity. Clarence King, chief of the Fortieth Parallel Survey, was appointed the first director of the newly organized U.S. Geological Survey. A provision in the act creating the Geological Survey stipulated that all ethnological research previously undertaken by the surveys would be organized under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution. Consequently, Spencer F. Baird, secretary of the Smithsonian, selected his friend and colleague Major Powell to head the Bureau of Ethnology. Powell, who over the past decade had developed a greater interest in ethnology than geology, would remain director of the bureau (later called the Bureau of American Ethnology) until his death in 1902.

Clarence King resigned in March 1881, and President James Garfield appointed Powell the Geological Survey's second director. The survey's role and annual budget increased exponentially during Powell's tenure, and by 1890-1891, the annual appropriation for the Geological Survey neared $750,000, a remarkable sum for that period and enough to make it the largest scientific organization in the world. One of the most significant accomplishments of Powell's tenure as director was the initiation of a comprehensive topographic survey of the nation, a project that necessitated 54,000 maps and was not completed until 1991.

Powell died September 23, 1902, at the age of sixty-nine. "His passing away will be a loss not only to the local institutions of learning, but to the world of science at large," declared the Pantograph. Powell earned fame out West as an explorer, and influence in the nation's capital as a scientist, reformer, government leader, and conservationist. Today, his name remains most closely associated with the Grand Canyon and the federal science bureacracy. But for Powell, prior to the treacherous currents and canyons of the Colorado River there were the more placid rivers of the Middle West; before the Geological Survey there was the Illinois Natural History Society. Indeed, Major John Weslev Powell s ideas, character, and determination were forged in the Illinois prairies and backwaters.

Bill Steinbacher-Kemp is a clerk at Milner Library, Illinois State University, and an adjunct history instructor at Heartland Community College.

Recommended Reading

J. W. Powell, Canyons of the Colorado (Flood & Vincent, 1895; reprint, Dover Publications, Inc., 1961, retitled The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons).

Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Houghton Mifflin, 1954; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1992).

Donald Worster. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell (Oxford University Press, 2001).


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