2. Geography

ONE OF MAJOR POWELL’S first services to geography was to explore a region previously little known. One of his next, after he obtained federal assistance for his expedition, was to divide the mountain West into three physiographic regions, which he called the Park Province, the Plateau Province, and the Great Basin Province.1 The first included the Colorado and northern New Mexico ranges and the great parks between them. The second included the great region of flat-bedded plateaus and mesas stretching from the western slope of Colorado to the east rim of the Great Basin in Utah, and from approximately the 40th parallel to the Painted Desert. The third began at the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and their southern extensions, and took in all the tormented ranges and great valleys and dead sea bottoms from there to the Sierras.


It is the Plateau Province, comprising all of eastern and southern Utah, part of western Colorado, and part of northern New Mexico and Arizona, that concerns us, since it is what primarily concerned Powell. Its boundaries are precise on the north and west, less certain on east and south. Essentially the province follows an ancient shoreline of Mesozoic times, when the Great Basin, the Wasatch, and part of what is now Arizona were islands or parts of the mainland, and what is now the Plateau Province was a great loop of sea. The region of plateaus with which the Powell Survey was chiefly concerned reaches from the Uinta Mountains southwestward to the Colorado River. It is mainly in Utah but includes the slice of Arizona north of the Grand Canyon, and it laps over on the east into Colorado and on the west into Nevada. It is scenically the most spectacular and humanly the least usable of all our regions.2

Here geological and human history have at least a poetic similarity. Here the earth has had a slow, regular pulse. It rose and fell for millions of years under Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic oceans, under Cretaceous seas, under the fresh-water lakes of the Eocene, before it was heaved up and exposed to rain and frost and running water and the sandblast winds. Mountains were carved out of its great tables and domes, river systems cut into it and formed canyons, elevations were weathered and carried away. What had accumulated pebble by pebble and grain by grain, cemented with lime and silica, folding into itself the shells of sea life, scales of fishes, the compacted houses of corals, began to disintegrate again. Vast cyclic changes have left only traces. Though the geological record in the Plateau Province is probably as clear as it is anywhere on earth, the boundary between ignorance and knowledge, between speculation and certainty, is often no more than a line of ancient fracture almost obliterated, or an enigmatic unconformity between two layers of rock, or a slight but significant change from salt water to brackish water fossils.

Human history in that country is almost as tentative, and to our foreshortening eyes nearly as long. A vague sort of knowledge, with plenty of speculation to accompany it, reaches back to that all-but-Eozoic time when the Ho-ho-kam in the southwestern desert and the Anasazi among the plateaus built their mortared houses and granaries, and lived for certain years whose remoteness is measurable by the fading radioactivity of their dead campfires, and were driven out by certain causes including drouths known to us by the starved growth rings of ancient trees. Gradually, over several generations, we have sorted out a kind of stratigraphy of the plateau peoples: Basket-Maker I, Basket-Maker II, Post-Basket-Maker, Pre-Pueblo, Pueblo I, II, or III. We can distinguish among their artifacts and compare what we know of them with what we know of their cultural heirs, the Pueblos, including the Hopi and Zuñi. We can mark the unconformities between strata of human history, and knowledge broadens down, not quite from precedent to precedent, but from inference to inference, toward historical time. By the same sort of taxonomy that classifies and groups and separates fossils, we classify and group and separate peoples and their leavings, and read history of a kind from them. Though we may be often and for long periods on solid ground, we are never quite out of sight of the half-effaced shorelines of speculation. Knowledge extends in promontories and bays; or to put it vertically rather than horizontally, the strata from remote to recent never lie so unbroken that we cannot find some line of unconformity where the imagination must make a leap. There are so many horizons, geological and human, where the evidence is missing or incomplete.

Ever since the coming of white men, the region has gone through cyclic emergence and subsidence. It emerged hotly and briefly in the sixteenth century, when tales of golden cities, the antique and seductive Cibola, drew Coronado and Cárdenas northward through the wastes only to show them, at the extreme stretch of their journey, the appalling barrier of the Grand Canyon. It went through an uneasy up and down period from 1540 to 1781, when the death of Padre Garcés ended the great period of the entradas whose horizons were marked by Onate, Kino, Garces himself, and Escalante.3 What comes to us from that period of the entradas is a mixture of fact, fantasy, and folklore; the continent of knowledge is infirm and unstable. And from 1781 to the eighteen-twenties the region was submerged completely again. The Spanish maps used by Zebulon Pike in making his own chart of his 1806 explorations had a heavy mixture of speculation among their facts.

In some ways even less dependable is what comes to us from the era of the fur traders, that all-but-obliterated age when Jed Smith, General Ashley, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, and the other partisans, French, American, and British, spread like a thin abrupt lava over the West from the Marias to the Gila, and the Missouri to the Pacific. They spread very thin in the Plateau Province, where neither country nor climate was generally favorable for beaver except in the north, and only an impatient itch for travel justified the hardships. Fragmentary fossils, little more, remain from their passage — the ruins of Antoine Robidou’s fort in the Uinta Valley, D. Julien’s name on a canyon wall, James Ohio Pattie’s embroidered Odyssey, the late-discovered narratives of Ashley and Jed Smith.4 But there is no unconformity between the horizon of the trappers and that of John Charles Frémont, who with trapper aid became the Pathfinder for the thousands destined to sweep westward from the forties on, though in fact he was more Path-publicizer than Path-finder. In geological terms, if the trappers were Pleistocene, Frémont marks the transition to the Recent. At about this level, modem knowledge begins; it was enormously strengthened by the Pacific Railway Surveys of 1853 and after. But though both Frémont and the Railway Surveys pierced the Plateau Province, their real results were found elsewhere. Offering neither opportunity for settlement, promise of mineral wealth, nor routes for travel, the Plateau Province lay like an unknown and forbidding island across two thirds of the state of Utah and down into Arizona, between what would one day be Highway 30 and what would be Highway 66, or roughly between the line of the Union Pacific and that of the Santa Fe.

There was a thick crust of fable over this region, and as the country was lifted slowly into knowledge the layers of fable lifted with it, bending upward at the flanks like sedimentary strata along the axis of a great earth-flexure. It would take a long while for these to wear away; until they did, this could still be part of the Land of Gilpin. Lieutenant Gouverneur Warren, summarizing on his map of 1857 the aggregate of existing knowledge,5 had to splash the word “Unexplored” across almost eight degrees of longitude, and leave a good part of the middle plateau country hatched in with mountains that represented less information than an unwillingness to leave the paper white.

The state of knowledge, or rather of ignorance, properly demanded blankness without even hachures. Ignorance covered the geography of the region, its topography, landforms, drainage, and scenery, its geological and orographic history, its inhabitants both vanished and extant, its products, resources, and potential usefulness. The few fixed points, the small amounts of verified information, were only enough to whet the appetite either of fabulist or scientist. To make this island a province of human knowledge, to reveal it clear and make it contribute to the sum of verified information, to extract from it what it could offer to the practice of legitimate inference, was a job that Powell individually began in the winter of 1868 and that the government-supported Powell Survey between 1870 and 1879 at least roughly completed. A chapter that had begun with the beginning of the century when Robert Livingston and James Monroe took a chance and bought vaguely-defined Louisiana from a harried French Empire,6 ended approximately in 1872 when a party of Powell’s men discovered and named the last unknown river and explored the last unknown mountains in the United States. From that time on, the Plateau Province has been an increasingly firm part of dry land. By the time they were through, Powell and his colleagues had given it a map, boundaries, many of its names. They had painstakingly worked out its geological history, and incidentally illuminated one whole division of the science. They had recorded it in drawings, paintings, and photographs. They had extracted from it a number of rules that became a kind of decalogue of dryland agriculture and dryland. social institutions. They had even given it a rudimentary aesthetics, used it as a starting point for a curious and provocative inquiry into the sublime and beautiful, and strengthened the affinity that Turner and Ruskin had established between geology and art.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!