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John Wesley Powell

soldier, geologist, explorer, anthropologist

John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, on September 23, 1834, the son of an itinerant Methodist preacher who was also an avid abolitionist. The family moved westward to Jackson, Ohio, then to Walworth County, Wisconsin, before settling in rural Boone County, Illinois. When he was 18, Powell began teaching in a one-room country school to earn money for college. The next seven years were spent teaching school, attending college, and exploring the Midwest. At various times he attended Illinois College, Illinois Institute, and Oberlin College.

First Adventures

In 1855, Powell spent four months walking across Wisconsin. During 1856, he rowed the Mississippi from St. Anthony, Minnesota, to the sea. In 1857, he rowed down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi River, traveling north to reach St. Louis. In 1858 he rowed down the Illinois River, then up the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers to central Iowa. As curator of conchology at the Illinois State Natural History Society, he made a fairly complete collection of the mussels of Illinois. He began teaching at Hennepin, Illinois in 1858, and in 1860 became superintendent of its schools.

Civil War

On May 8, 1861, Powell enlisted at Hennepin, Illinois, as a private in the 20th Illinois Infantry. While stationed at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, he recruited an artillery company that became Battery "F" of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, of which he was made Captain.

On November 28, 1861, Powell took a brief leave to marry Emma Dean.

At the Battle of Shiloh, Powell lost most of his right arm when struck by a minie ball while in the process of giving the order to fire. Despite the extent of his injury, he returned to the Army after his release from the hospital and subsequently participated in actions at Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge on the Big Black River, and Vicksburg. As a Major, he commanded an artillery brigade during the Atlanta Campaign and participated in the Battle of Nashville. At the end of the war he was made a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel, but always insisted on being called "Major."

After leaving the Army, Powell took the post of professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. He also lectured at Illinois State Normal University for most of his career. The Illinois State Legislature provided a small endowment for the museum of the State Natural History Society, and Powell was named curator.

First Trip to Colorado

In the summer of 1867, Powell led a party of students to the Rocky Mountains to collect specimens for the museum. Funds for the trip came from various sources, including the Museum of Natural History, Illinois Industrial University (later the University of Illinois), and the Chicago Academy of Science. In return, Powell agreed to supply them with specimens of the animals, plants, and any other materials collected. Scientific instruments were loaned by the Smithsonian Institution, and Powell agreed to give the Institution the topographic measurements made by his party. He made arrangements to procure rations for the group from Army posts at Government rates and to obtain free transportation from the railroads, and Powell contributed his own salary to help finance the trip. The expedition, which included Mrs. Powell, traveled by train, wagon, and horseback across the plains to Denver and on to a valley known as Bergens Park on the west side of the Rampart Range north of Pikes Peak. After climbing Pikes Peak they traveled west to South Park where they camped for several weeks, exploring the mountains and hot springs and making a variety of natural history collections. Most of the group returned east in September, but the Powells and a few others remained to explore Middle Park and the headwaters of the Grand River, as the upper part of the Colorado River was then called.

Second Trip to Colorado

In the summer of 1868, Powell returned to Colorado with his wife and about 20 others, mainly neighbors and students. They collected more specimens for the museum, explored the Colorado mountains, and climbed 14,000-foot-high Longs Peak. In October, the party reached a point on the White River about 120 miles above its mouth, where they built cabins and established winter quarters. During the winter of 1868-69, Powell traveled south to the Grand River, down the White and Green Rivers, north to the Yampa River, and around the Uinta Mountains. Along the way he befriended a tribe of Ute Indians and studied their language and customs.

Trip Down the Colorado River

On May 24, 1869, Powell and nine men headed down the Green River from Green River, Wyoming. One of the men left the expedition after about a month, by which time the party had already lost one boat and most of their supplies to rapids. The remainder of the party continued down the Green River to where it merged with the Grand River to form the Colorado River. During the next two months on the Colorado, the men encountered a number of rapids that had to be either skirted or portaged around. Three more men deserted when the expedition reached what is now called Separation Canyon, after trying unsuccessfully to convince Powell to abandon the river. Powell and the remaining four men reached the mouth of the Virgin River (now under Lake Mead) on August 30, and were met by settlers fishing from the river bank.

Return to the Colorado River

Almost immediately after returning to Illinois as a hero, Powell began raising funds for another expedition on the Colorado River, this time with a photographer (John K. Hillers). This expedition, which took place in 1871-72, traveled the Colorado River from Green River, Wyoming to Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon. Thanks to a Mormon guide named Jacob Hamlin, Powell was able to make peace with the Shivwits, whom he suspected had killed the men who had left him at Separation Canyon. Instead of demanding retribution for the deaths of his men, which would have been usual in those days, Powell smoked a pipe with the warriors.

Post-Expedition Career

In the spring of 1873, Powell was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the "conditions and wants" of the Great Basin Indians. Photographer John K. Hillers accompanied him, and while Powell collected and recorded the myths, tales and vocabularies of, among others, the Ute, Paiutes and Nevada Shoshoni, Hillers captured their lives on film.

In 1879, Powell helped convince Congress to establish the Bureau of Ethnology, of which he then became director. Under his guidance, the agency sponsored much important anthropological research. This included bibliographic compilations of all previous writings about American Indians, a "Synonymy" or dictionary of Native American tribes, a classification of Native American languages, and many new field studies. In March 1881, he assumed the directorship of the U.S. Geological Survey, in which capacity he proposed policies for development of the arid West that were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. He retired from the Geological Survey in 1894, but continued as director of the Bureau of Ethnology until his death.

John Wesley Powell died at his summer home in Haven, Maine, on September 23, 1902. In recognition of both his Civil War service and contributions to knowledge of the American Southwest, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Due to his genuine respect for Native Americans, insatiable curiosity about their language and institutions, and a belief that they had a right to live their lives according to their own traditions, Powell never felt the need for a military escort during his explorations, and didn't even carry a gun.


American Experience: Lost in the Grand Canyon
Arlington National Cemetery
Powell Museum

See Also

Civil War
Grand Canyon

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This page was last updated on 09/23/2018.