John Wesley Powell The Great Surveyor


Born in 1834 in Mount Morris, New York, John Wesley Powell was a monumental American explorer, geologist, and anthropologist. After receiving a very basic early education, Powell attended Illinois College, Illinois Institute (now named Wheaton College), and Oberlin College. However, he surprisingly did not earn a degree at any of the schools. As a young man, Powell gained his passion for exploration and nature after a series of adventures he embarked on throughout the Mississippi River. After his early expeditions, Powell enlisted as a soldier in the 20th Illinois Infantry for three years. While serving as a private in the Union Army, Powell lost his right arm during the Battle of Shiloh. Although Powell was eventually promoted to Colonel, he resigned as Major, electing to use that title for the rest of his life. After the war had ended, Powell began teaching at Illinois State Normal University, leading student trips to Colorado in 1869 (known as the Powell Geographic Expedition) which inspired his later personal studies. In 1879, after years of research and exploration, Powell released the "Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States" which is now considered a landmark in conservation and science research. From 1881- 1892, Powell served as the director of the U.S. Geological Survey in which he was able to propose numerous ideas sparked by his personal research. During his tenure at the U.S. Geological Survey, Powell also became the first director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, adding to his list of accomplishments as one of America's most influential explorers and researchers.

Original Interpretation of Western Environment

Following the Civil War, a prolonged period of unusually wet weather caused many Americans to head West. Urged by scientists who declared that this ample rainfall would be permanent in the West, Americans "forged into the region under the delusion that moisture would increase in proportion to population" (Steinberg 116). Even up to 1884, one reputable Chicago reporter wrote "'Kansas was considered a droughty state, but that day is past, and her reputation for sure crops is becoming widely known'"(116). Clearly, Americans were under the assumption that the environment in the West was not only healthy and consistent, but also an ideal area for farming. Though John Wesley Powell's thorough studies were released in the same period when settlers had these misconceptions about the environment, both the American government and general population paid no attention. When the drought returned in the 1890s, people finally realized the original assumptions about the West were severely incorrect.

Powell's Studies and Research

In 1878, John Wesley Powell's studies and research were compiled into one document titled "Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States." Widely hailed as the peak of Powell's career, the Report explained all of his studies from his explorations, disproving the original interpretations of the Western environment. Powell revealed the limits of Western resources and provided the first accurate representation of Western environment in the long run. In his report, Powell writes that although the Eastern portion of America is provided with ample rainfall for agricultural purposes, westward, precipitation decreases in a general way until the climate is so arid that agriculture is impossible without irrigation. His research shows that rainfall in the West would generally be less than twenty inches per year, which he declares is not well suited for sustainable agriculture. In addition, Powell states that the unpredictability of the rainfall pattern would act unfavorably to farming, as crops would not be able to grow in prolonged periods of drought. If it suddenly rained, they could easily be destroyed due to the harsh, volatile conditions.


When John Wesley Powell advocated for reclamation in 1878, his research and work was not accepted immediately. Only in 1902, when the Reclamation Act was passed, did Powell's work finally make a clear, lasting impact. Powell realized that the topography of the West was very well suited for a system of irrigation, as elevated lands surrounded lower regions of land where farming would occur. He declared that "There are two considerations that make irrigation attractive to the agriculturalist. Crops thus cultivated are not subject to the vicissitudes of rainfall; the farmer fears no droughts; his labors are seldom interrupted and his crops rarely injured by storms" (Powell 330). He declares that all lands that adopt the system of irrigation would be highly cultivated and quite productive. Most importantly, crops would not be affected as severely by the hand of Mother Nature. When his work was finally accepted by the general consensus, the Reclamation Act of 1902 was passed. The Act declared that Western lands were now subject to new water resource projects, and most significantly, irrigation would be adopted. Because of his lasting influence, his work is now honored in the John Wesley Powell Monument in the Grand Canyon.


Created with images by Grand Canyon NPS - "17228 Grand Canyon Powell Expedition 1873"

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