John Wesley Powell Biography


John Wesley Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, on March 24, 1834. The Powell family moved west to Jackson, Ohio, where Reverend Powell, John’s father, vigorously expressed antislavery beliefs. Because of local backlash to his family’s anti-slavery position, Powell was removed from public school and began studying with George Crookham, a local naturalist. Crookham emphasized learning about nature firsthand and taught Powell about biology, geology, and archaeology with his vast collection of plants, animals, rocks, and artifacts.

In 1846, Powell's family moved to rural Wisconsin to start a farm. Their farm was located close to several forests, meadows, and streams where a young Powell would play. His first encounter with Native Americans happened when members of the Winnebago Tribe camped near his family’s farm and explained how the Powell's land used to be part of their hunting grounds. This encounter fascinated Powell and began his lifelong study and appreciation of Native Americans and the study of ethnology.

After attending college in Illinois, he began teaching in Hennepin, Illinois, in 1858, becoming the superintendent of its schools in 1860. By 1860, it was clear to Powell that that a civil war was inevitable, and he studied military science and engineering in the winter of that year. In 1861, as a fierce abolitionist, Powell enlisted in the 20th Illinois Infantry. During the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1962), Powell was so severely wounded that his right arm was amputated below the elbow.

After the war, Powell became a geology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, where he often took his students into the field. Powell loved travel and took a group of students to the Rocky Mountains to collect specimens of plants and animals in 1867. During this trip, Powell had the opportunity to explore the headwaters of the upper Colorado River, which was then known as the Grand River.

On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and a crew of nine men began their historic journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers to make the first known passage through Grand Canyon. The trip carried the party 1,000 miles through winding canyons, including Grand Canyon, and violent rapids. Although Powell succeeded in completing the trip, his notes were incomplete because of the difficulty of the trip. Powell was successful in getting funds from Congress for a second trip, which launched on May 22, 1871. This expedition resulted in a topographical map of the region, published accounts of the voyage, and hundreds of pictures. Powell also gained a new understanding of geologic principles and better explanations of erosion, sedimentation, and uplift that would forever change modern geology.

In 1878, Powell completed what has been called one of the most important books written about western lands, Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. The book concluded that most of the West was unsuitable for agricultural development and proposed creating state boundaries on the basis of watershed areas. Powell’s conclusions flew in the face of the theory that “rain follows the plow,” a position that was being advanced by interests seeking to encourage the settlement of the West. In the end, Congress embraced policies that encouraged pioneers to settle western lands because of their agricultural potential, ignoring Powell’s recommendations. These recommendations remained largely ignored until the Dust Bowl.

From 1881 until 1894, John Wesley Powell served as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, which published a brief account of Powell’s life and achievements. Powell died in 1902 and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.