Article: 18820101015


Popular Science
PROFESSOR JOHN W. POWELL, better known as Major Powell, Ph. D., founder and director of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, and present director of the United States Geological Survey, is a pattern of the American self-made man, and well illustrates in his life and achievements what may be accomplished with honest, steady adherence to a definite purpose.


PROFESSOR JOHN W. POWELL, better known as Major Powell, Ph. D., founder and director of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, and present director of the United States Geological Survey, is a pattern of the American self-made man, and well illustrates in his life and achievements what may be accomplished with honest, steady adherence to a definite purpose. He was born at Mount Morris, Rew York, on the 24th of March, 1834, a short time after the arrival of his parents from England. His father was a Methodist clergyman, and was required to lead a very unsettled life. In his early childhood the family removed to Ohio ; eight years afterward, to Wisconsin ; and again, when he was fifteen years of age, to Illinois, where young Powell remained most of the time until the breaking out of the war.

It was during this latter period that his mental characteristics were developed. He was eager for knowledge, and used every opportunity to pursue such courses of study as were accessible to him, or appeared to be adapted to his case. He studied for a time at Illinois College, Jacksonville, and subsequently entered Wheaton College. Unable to attend school continuously, he alternated between teaching in the public schools and studying, and in 1854 he went to Oberlin to pursue a special course of two years.

From the first he was strongly attracted to the natural sciences, and particularly toward natural history and geology. He was fond of making collections, which he studied for their own sake. He commenced with botany, to which he has made some valuable contributions. Being much interested in nature, he acquired a roving disposition, and lost no opportunity of making scientific excursions, sometimes extending to long journeys. Having already made journeys on the Mississippi to St. Paul and across the State of Wisconsin to Mackinaw, in 1856 he descended the Mississippi River in a skiff and alone from the Falls of St. Anthony to its mouth, making collections, which he gave to the various museums of the State institutions. The next year he rowed from Pittsburg to the mouth of the Ohio, and spent the fall in Missouri, studying the geology and mineralogy of the Iron Mountain region. In 1858 he made a trip from Ottawa, Illinois, down the Illinois River to its mouth, and later ascended the Desmoines River, returning laden with specimens.

The various institutions of the State of Illinois, and some of other States, soon came to depend upon his collections for illustrating their courses of scientific lectures, and the Illinois State Natural History Society elected him its secretary, and extended to him facilities for prosecuting his researches, now recognized as of high value. The funds necessary for conducting these operations he was obliged to obtain by teaching a portion of each year.

The breaking out of the rebellion put a temporary check upon Professor Powell’s scientific adventures. He enlisted as a private in the Twentieth Illinois Infantry. Having been made a lieutenant, he was transferred to Battery F, Second Illinois Artillery, and was afterward promoted to be captain of the battery, then major of the regiment, and finally lieutenant-colonel. In the last days of the war he received a commission as colonel, but, having no desire to follow war as a profession, declined it.

At the battle of Shiloh he lost his right arm. As soon as he had sufficiently recovered from his wound he returned to his post, and continued to serve to the end of the war.

His passion for collecting did not forsake him even while in the army, and wherever he was stationed for a sufficient length of time he found means of studying the geological formations, and of shipping from time to time to the State Museum large invoices of valuable material.

On his return from the army he was offered a lucrative civil position in his owTn town of Wheaton, but he preferred to accept the comparatively unremunerative one of Professor of Geology and Curator of the Museum of the Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington. This he afterward exchanged for a similar post in the Illinois Normal University.

In the summer of 1867 Professor Powell, taking with him his class in geology, visited the mountains of Colorado for the purpose of study. This excursion was the first attempt of its kind in this country, and to Professor Powell is therefore due the credit of having inaugurated a practice of the highest value to science and to education, which has been continued by many eminent teachers at leading institutions, until a certain amount of field-study has become recognized as a necessary part of a course of instruction in all branches of natural science.

Professor Powell saw more in the parks and canons of Colorado than a mere training-school for students. He saw, stretching far westward and southward, a vast unexplored region, hitherto represented on all maps by an utter blank, and through which at some point must flow an immense river, the Colorado of the West, whose upper tributaries and lower portion were alone known to civilized man. That such an unexplored region should exist within the limits of the United States seemed to him almost a reproach to the boasted enterprise of our people, and he began to lay plans for its exploration.

In the summer of 1868 he organized a party of men, some of whom were mountaineers, and, starting from Middle Park, followed down the Grand River to the head of Cedar Cañón, thence over the Park Range through Gore’s Pass to the White River, one hundred and twenty miles above its mouth. Here the party went into winter-quarters, and during the winter made reconnaissances, and completed their preparations for an early expedition in the spring.

Proceeding, in the spring of 1869, to Green River station, on the 25th of May the expedition launched its four small craft in Green River, the largest of the tributaries of the Colorado.

We have not space to follow them through their perilous voyage of over three months’ duration, or to describe the succession of hardships, disasters, and hair-breadth escapes, by which almost every day of this period was characterized. All this has been written by the hero of the expedition. We can only say here that it was not until the 20th of July that the brave party reached the junction of the Grand and Green, or the head of the Colorado River proper ; that on tho 13th of August they entered the Grand Cañón, from which they did not emerge until the 29th ; and that on the 30th of that month they at last arrived at the mouth of the Rio Virgen, where, for the first time, they saw the faces of white men.

After having been two weeks in the Grand Cañón, already for some time reduced to half-rations, three of the men refused to go farther, and endeavored to induce Major Powell to turn back. He explained to them that they wTere very near the end of their journey, but was himself almost tempted, in view of the scarcity of provisions, and the probable nearness of Mormon settlements, to yield to their arguments. He passed a sleepless night, and expresses the result of his reflections in the following words : “ But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the cañón which I can not explore, having already almost accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.” The three men undertook to reach the settlements by a journey across the country, and were murdered by Indians ; the boatmen emerged the next day in safety from their granite prison.

This daring voyage was not a barren adventure. In many respects it was a scientific expedition, and as many instruments as could be taken were carried, and determinations were made wherever practicable, the accurate records of which were kept in duplicate, so that one set was safely brought through. The importance of Professor Powell’s labors, and their thorough and scientific character, made it apparent that they should be followed up, while their national bearing suggested to Professor Henry, of the Smithsonian Institution, the propriety of asking the Government to lend its assistance.

Accordingly, a topographical and geological survey of the Colorado River of the West and its tributaries was inaugurated by Congress and placed under Professor Powell’s direction.

With these added facilities the exploration was pushed from year to year with great energy and success, and a systematic survey was conducted, until all the streams, mountains, plateaus, and other physical features of the Colorado Valley, embracing an area of nearly one hundred thousand square miles, have become thoroughly known topographically and geologically, and there is no longer an unexplored region within the confines of the United States. In 1875 Professor Powell published some important chapters “ On the Physical Features of the Valley of the Colorado,” which, while dealing largely in the physical geography of the country, were in the main geological, and set forth for the first time the fundamental principles that underlie the structural formation of a large part of the Rocky Mountain region. The next year appeared his “ Geology of the Uintah Mountains,” which is likewise a model of clearness, and consists in a careful analysis of the laws which have operated in the formation of these masses ; while much of the consistent reasoning from the closely observed phenomena of this region is equally applicable to all parts of the West.

So great was the general interest at this time in acquiring an accurate acquaintance with the Western portion of the country, that no less than four authorized surveys were operating simultaneously in the different Territories. These were : 1. The special survey of the fortieth parallel, under the War Department, in charge of Mr. Clarence King, organized in 1867 ; 2. Dr. F. V. Hayden’s geological and geographical survey of the Territories, organized and operating under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior since 1867 ; 3. A military and topographical survey, conducted by Lieutenant G. M. Wheeler, under instructions from the Chief of Engineers of the War Department, organized in 1869 ; and 4, and last in chronological order, that of Major Powell, which received its first national aid in the year 1870, although, as we have seen, it had been in the field as a private enterprise since 1868.

These various expeditions became to a great extent rivals, and, being not only independent of each other, but conducted by different departments of the Government, it was impossible to avoid the duplication of much of the work, or to prevent the growth of discordant methods. Occasional collisions occurred between parties of different surveys in the field, bitter feelings were engendered, and the two departments under which the parties were serving found themselves called upon to defend their jurisdiction and claims to the right of conducting public surveys.

The attention of Congress was called to the matter, and on the 15th of April, 1874, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution asking information from the President respecting the surveys that were operating in the same and contiguous areas of territory west of the Mississippi, and whether it would not he practicable to consolidate them under one department, or to define the geographical limits to be embraced by each.

The President’s message in reply to this resolution was accompanied by a report from the Secretary of War, who transmitted the views of the Chief of Engineers, and one from the Secretary of the Interior, transmitting in like manner sub-reports from the heads of the respective surveys under his superintendence, viz., Hayden and Powell. Upon the question of consolidating all the surveys then in operation under one department, but one opinion was expressed, all being in favor of such a measure ; but, as to which department should control them, the views were discordant—the President, the Secretary of War, and the Chief of Engineers, urging the claims of the War Department, and the Secretary of the Interior and both the heads of surveys under his direction as firmly advocating the fitness of that department to administer them. The War Department claimed this right by a sort of prescription, as it was under its protection and control that all the early explorations, including the celebrated expedition of Lewis and Clarke, had been conducted, and by it the leading object was declared to be the accurate mapping of the country for military operations. It also claimed a higher scientific training and discipline for performing the work.

The Department of the Interior, on the other hand, connected the surveys primarily with the public domain, and showed that they were chiefly ancillary to the operations of the Land-Office, which had always been under that department. It also maintained that even in the expeditions under the Engineer Corps civilians had always performed the bulk of the scientific work.

The committee to which the reports were referred recommended that the surveys under the War Department should be continued, so far as they were necessary for military purposes, and that all other surveys for geographical, geological, topographical, and scientific purposes should be continued under the direction of the Department of the Interior.

This report left matters nearly where they were, and was not satisfactory to either party. A second inquiry was ordered by the House in March, 1878, and the officers immediately charged with the surveys were again called upon to express their views on the subject. Major Powell, in his statement, pointed out the essential vices of the multiple surveys ; proposed that each branch of natural history should be prosecuted wholly by some one of the divisions, "which should be in possession of all the materials ; offered to turn over to Dr. Hayden all the matei'ials in his possession relating to any or all of these branches, or to receive and elaborate tbe materials collected by other surveys ; and pointed out the different methods by which the work of surveying was performed by the parties of the War and those of the Interior Department, and the impossibility of ever completely harmonizing them. He also presented a map, showing the amount and location of the duplicated work. His paper concludes with these remarks : “ If the surveys of both departments are carried on over the entire region, there will be two general atlases of the whole area, and the work will be twice done. If the surveys are confined to different areas, there will be an Interior Department atlas of one region and a War Department atlas of the other, and neither atlas can be completed for the entire region without reconstructing the maps of the other. In view of these facts, it is manifest that the work should be unified and a common system adopted. This may be accomplished either by an act of Congress, by executive direction, or by placing the work under one management.”

The improbability that, in case of consolidation, Professor Powell would be called to the head of the surveys, as well as the known sincerity of his personal character, precluded suspicion of any other motive for such an expression of views than that of concern for the interests of the service.

A provision was inserted in one of the appropriation bills, requiring the National Academy of Sciences to take into consideration “a plan for surveying and mapping the Territories of the United States on such general system as will secure the best results at the least possible cost.” Professor O. C. Marsh, president of the academy, and chairman of the committee appointed by it to consider the subject, requested the Secretaries of War and of the Interior to furnish the committee with any data at their disposal to aid it in performing the duty thus imposed upon it. Both secretaries responded through their chosen representatives, Professor Powell, with Dr. Hayden and Commissioner Williamson of the Land-Office, appearing for the Interior Department. Professor Powell’s paper was even a more clear and complete statement than the one he had made before the congressional committee, of the necessity of consolidating the surveys and making a division of the labor on a scientific basis. On the 26th of November the National Academy submitted its report, on the basis of the one that had been made to it by its committee, recommending the establishment, under the Department of the Interior, of an independent organization, to be known as the United States Geological Survey, to be charged with the study of the geological structure and economical resources of the public domain, the director of which should be appointed by the President. A provision organizing the survey, in accordance with these recommendations, was passed by Congress in an appropriation bill.

Professor Powell supported Mr. Clarence King, who was appointed for the position of director of the survey, and was himself placed upon the commission on the codification of existing laws relating to the survey and disposition of the public domain.

The labors of this commission concluded, Professor Powell was glad to be able to turn his attention once more to science. The one field which now most deeply interested him was that of American ethnology. From the very beginning of his Western explorations, the aborigines had strongly engrossed his thoughts, and among all his scientific collections and investigations which he had been enabled to make none had received more careful attention than those relating to the Indian tribes. While the other surveys had devoted much attention to the collection, study, and illustration of the various departments of natural history, he had made ethnography, next to geology and topography, the chief object of his expeditions. Prior to the date of the consolidation, three volumes relating to ethnology had been published by the Powell Survey, and eight more were in different states of preparation, while in addition to this the material collected and deposited in the Anthropological Hall of the Smithsonian Institution was sufficient for several other volumes, and demanded elaboration. The study of Indian languages had especially interested him, for he saw that, whatever success might be attained in preserving the Indians themselves from extermination, the fate of their languages was already settled, and in a short time the primitive stocks would have inevitably become so badly corrupted that the philologist would find it impossible to deal with them in a scientific manner.

Efforts were made by the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the Secretary of the Interior to prevent the discontinuance of this work, and an appropriation of twenty thousand dollars was secured in March, 1879, for completing and preparing for publication the “ Contributions to North American Ethnology,” under the Smithsonian Institution, with a provision that all the material collected in the surveys that bore on that subject should be turned over to that institution.

Professor Powell was put in charge of this department, and has prosecuted it with great vigor and success to the present time. A Bureau of Ethnology grew up under the Smithsonian Institution, which has become the recognized center of ethnographic operations in this country.

When, in the spring of 1881, Mr. Clarence King retired from the work of the surveys, there seemed to be no rival candidate to Professor Powell for the vacant position, and it fell to him as the most obviously suitable person to fill it.

Without mentioning particularly the numerous official reports into which important scientific matters have often found their way, the principal literary contributions of Professor Powell are the following :

1. “ History of the Exploration of the Cañons of the Colorado.” This work, which was published in quarto form and illustrated, as Part I (Chapters I to IX) of the original volume of “Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries, explored in 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1872, under the Direction of the Smithsonian Institution ” (1875), consists of the personal narrative, from Professor Powell’s diary, of the celebrated voyage down the unexplored river.

2. “ On the Physical Features of the Colorado Yalley.” This forms Part II of the same work.

3. “Geology of the Uintah Mountains, with Atlas” (1876).

4. “Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages, with Words, Phrases, and Sentences to be collected ” (1877).

5. “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, etc., with Maps ” (1879). This is a highly important public document, and one with the contents of which the country generally should be familiar. Though containing able chapters by Mr. G. K. Gilbert, Captain C. E. Dutton, Professor A. II. Thompson, and Mr. Willis Drummond, Jr., it is, in its general plan and in the chief part of its matter, the work of Professor Powell.

6. “Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages, etc. Second edition—with Charts” (1880). We enter this work as distinct from the first edition, published in 1877 under the same title, because, with the exception of the schedules, notes to collectors, and remarks on the alphabet, its matter is wholly new. Though small, it is one of the most important of Professor Powell’s contributions to science.

Professor Powell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and presided over the Biological Section of the latter in 1879. He has been the President of the Anthropological Society of Washington since its organization, and his annual addresses before it are published in its “ Transactions.”

Personally, he is of most agreeable manners, frank, genial, and cordial under all circumstances, and possessed of great individual magnetism. Though social by nature, he has a strong preference for persons of culture, and especially of independence of thought, as his friends, and seems to possess the tact of securing such without giving offense to others. It is a favorite theory of his that, to observe well, one must also think deeply, and that observation without theory is necessarily sterile ; and these ideas he carries into practical affairs in the selection of his assistants in all branches of his service. His mind is in the highest degree realistic, and he looks upon all classes of phenomena from the objective point of view. In anthropology he belongs to the strictly scientific school, represented by Mr. Lewis H. Morgan, which rejects the imaginative and poetical accounts of the lower races. He accepts the doctrine of evolution, but has not failed to perceive inadequacies in the systematic developments which some of its disciples have sought to make of certain of its minor details.