3. The Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, J. W. Powell in Charge

AN AUTHORIZATION and a $10,000 appropriation granted casually for one year only by a Congress preoccupied with the Alabama Claims, Cuban insurrection, Fenian threats to invade Canada, tension between Southerners and Carpetbaggers, and Grant’s expansionist adventure in Santo Domingo, did not automatically insure either the continuation or the scientific maturity of Powell’s work. Not even a happy clerical error that removed his new survey from the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, where the Sundry Civil Bill of July 12, 1870, had put him, and subordinated him to the learned and non-political Smithsonian Institution,1 could remove from his project the lingering look of the amateur. Only Powell’s own intellectual maturing could do that, and that had not yet come, despite gratifying notoriety and publicity, a successful lecture tour, the jealousy of his Normal colleagues, and a greatly increased acquaintanceship in Washington, whence all power flowed.

Scientifically, Powell had not yet done anything. He had gathered data to correct an empty or inaccurate map, but he had produced neither map nor report of his own, and the scientific results of two expeditions to the Rockies and a hundred days on the river amounted to little more than an incomplete and crude reconnoissance marked by inadequately checked latitudes and longitudes, some tables of elevation and barometric fluctuation, some geological sections of the cliffs, and some boxes of miscellaneous collections, still mainly unclassified and unlabeled. He had published only letters to the newspapers, much more literary than scientific. The one short account of his river trip that he had so far written was intended for a book that would not even be published in the United States.2

For all that, the process of self-education never stopped in him. He learned in his sleep. He learned from every book, acquaintance, experience; facts stuck in his mind, and not like stray flies on fly-paper but like orderly iron filings around magnetic poles, or ions around anode and cathode in an electrolytic bath. Order was part of his very learning process, a function of his capacity to discriminate; and what he said later in tribute to Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian might even more truly have been said of himself: that in the world of modern science which was “almost buried under the debris of observation, the records of facts without meaning, the sands of fact that are ground from the rock of truth by the attrition of mind,” he could “walk over the sands and see the diamonds.” 3 But none of this was clear yet. There were numerous things John Wesley Powell had not caught on to. How to staff a scientific expedition, for example.

In both 1867 and 1868 he had signed up volunteers; if he wanted an expedition at all, he had no other choice. They were students, recent graduates, relatives, friends, members of the Natural History Society, bird watchers and botanizers willing to come along for the excitement. The river boatmen of 1869 were recruited about as haphazardly as Falstaff picked up his squad of ragamuffins, and they were equipped almost off the hedges. The one indispensable qualification of courage they all had, but though that would serve for purposes of exploration, it was not enough for purposes of scientific surveying. Yet now in 1870, authorized to continue the exploration of the Colorado River, and provided with backing and money and the chance to pack his expedition with brains and skill, Powell followed his old pattern of picking up local amateurs. Of all the people he would hire in the next four years, only three would be professionals. Two of those three, with help from developing amateurs, would remake the Survey.

To take charge of the topographical work Powell selected his brother-in-law Almon Thompson (a far better choice, actually, than most of the brother-in-law appointments of Grant’s time) who had returned from acting as entomologist of the 1868 expedition to resume the superintendency of schools in Bloomington. From Bloomington also came Thompson’s two assistants, Walter Graves, a cousin of the Howlands, and F. M. Bishop, a Union veteran and recent graduate of Normal. A third topographical assistant, S. V. Jones, was principal of the Washburn, Illinois, schools, and a friend of Thompson’s. As artist, Powell selected one of Thompson’s remote relatives, a self-taught boy of seventeen named Frederick Dellenbaugh; as assistant photographer he hired his own young cousin, Clement Powell. The cook and handy man, Andy Hattan, was an army acquaintance; the second handy man, later assistant photographer and finally photographer, was a German immigrant named Jack Hillers, picked up by accident in Salt Lake City. The photographer, E. O. Beaman of New York, was the only real professional in that early crowd, and he turned out to be something less than first class. Powell passed over available trained geologists in favor of J. F. Steward, an amateur with whom he had hunted fossils in the trenches before Vicksburg.4

These, with a few pickups in the field, constituted the Powell Survey between 1870 and 1874. Though several of them were men of real ability and all but one gave devoted service, they would not have enriched Who’s Who. Nepotism and an acquaintance among the schoolteachers of Illinois explained them all. There was not a real scientist in the lot except the leader, and he was un-proved.

The amateurish condition is more apparent when one compares the Powell Survey with the other three surveys which since the end of the war had been established to produce information about the opening West. These were the United States Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel, the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, and the Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, known, from their leaders, as the King, Hayden, and Wheeler Surveys.5

The Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel, promoted and directed by Henry Adams’ meteoric friend Clarence King, under the supervision of the War Department, had in its party during 1870 not only King, who was a product of the Sheffield Scientific School, but Arnold and James Hague and S. F. Emmons, all of them far better trained than Powell or any of his group. There was no photographer that year, but for the three preceding years King had had the services of T. H. O‘Sullivan, one of Matthew Brady’s most spectacular combat photographers during the Civil War, and one of the great recorders of the frontier. That survey ,was small, select, and well heeled. It concentrated on economic geology, especially deposits of minerals, along a hundred-mile-wide strip centering on the 40th parallel, roughly the line of the Union and Central Pacific. It had certain eccentricities, such as the sybaritic camp life affected by its leader, but it was a highly competent outfit.

The Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, established like the King Survey in 1867, but under the Department of the Interior, was led by Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, a man of extraordinary and excitable energy, considerable imagination, some learning, and an experience on the western frontiers that had been consecutive from 1853, when he had explored the Dakota Badlands with F. B. Meek, the noted paleontologist. Hayden’s 1870 group included a good geologist, J. J. Stevenson; a botanist, Cyrus Thomas, later a famous archaeologist; a zoologist, C. P. Carrington; a mineralogist, A. L. Lord; and an artist, Henry Elliott. It also included, for the first of several years, W. H. Jackson, whose frontier photographs over a long period, including the first pictures of Yellowstone and Mesa Verde, would earn him a reputation as one of the finest of his kind. In addition to his actual field party, Hayden could count on the collaboration of such eminent men as E. D. Cope, Joseph Leidy, and F. B. Meek to interpret his fossils, Leo Lesqueraux to oversee the paleobotany, and John Strong Newberry of Columbia University to act as consultant on the ancient lake bottoms of the West. Hayden’s appropriation was more than twice that of Powell, his training and experience were much longer, his acquaintance reached everywhere, his publications and the publications that he controlled were extensive. Though his work seemed more impressive than it actually was, there is no doubt that his survey was in many ways the most imposing of the four. To Hayden, as much as to any other man, we owe the creation of Yellowstone National Park, which in 1872 became the foundation for all the future development of the park system.

Finally there was Lieutenant George M. Wheeler’s Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, supported by the War Department, as was King’s survey. Wheeler was not interested in geology; he didn’t even take a geologist along until 1871, his third field season, when G. K. Gilbert and A. R. Marvine joined him. His interest was almost wholly topographical, looking toward a master atlas of the western states and territories. Later evidence would demonstrate that Wheeler’s methods of mapping were inadequate and his results not always sound, but his survey was the direct inheritor of the prestige of the Corps of Topographical Engineers which had given the country most of its accurate information about the West. It did dabble in some of the all-purpose natural science that both Hayden and Powell had interested themselves in, and its actual and projected publication of maps looked impressive. It was sometimes accompanied, like Hayden’s and King’s parties, by a clanking escort of cavalry.

Among that company the Powell Survey was a shabby, late-come, and only semi-official Cinderella, but there is no indication that its director knew it, or if he knew it, cared. He was of a kind that goes about its business and keeps its end in view. His immediate end, as defined in the Sundry Civil Bill which created him, was “a geographical and topographical survey of the Colorado River of the West.” At this stage he seems not to have had any ambitions beyond that. The tentativeness of his governmental connection is indicated by the fact that he still drew his salary from Illinois State Normal University rather than from his government appropriation. But it is pretty certain that his plans did not include much future time in the classroom. With his crowd of eager amateurs and teachers he would take out again into the West until the process of self-teaching would be complete. Some of his assistants would drop out, some would fail to develop, some would be replaced by key professionals. A few, notably Thompson, Hillers, and Powell himself, would acquire distinguished competence the hard way, in the field.

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