6. Physiography: Birth of a Science

THE DELEGATION of powers that was forced upon Powell by his own incapacity to keep out of ever newer and wider activities did not end with Hamblin and Thompson. The Powell Survey was not five years old before its director had turned over to assistants practically all the geological studies he had blocked out for himself. Before he was through, he had delegated himself almost completely out of the Plateau Province and out of the science of geology. But what he let go of there, he seized elsewhere; what geology lost, ethnology and Indian policy and public land policy and the structure of government science gained. The ripples started by his first plunge into the West in 1867 widened to include the whole nation. And his distribution of the work of his survey was one of the surest signs that he had outgrown the amateurism and localism of his first years. He was too intelligent a man to delegate to an incompetent a job that really excited him, and when he had turned over a task to a capable assistant he knew enough to let him alone. As he was carried out of arm’s reach of his center he split his survey among three men, each of whom left a mark upon the history of American science and the history of the West.

One of them was his acidulous but dependable brother-in-law, the second was Grove Karl Gilbert, and the third was Captain Clarence E. Dutton of the Ordnance Corps, U.S. Army. Thompson, as we have seen, inherited and completed the job of exploration and mapping. Gilbert took over some of the great physiographic problems, especially as they were revealed in the Henry Mountains and in the Great Basin. Dutton became the interpreter of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and of the High Plateaus that stepped back northward from the Vermilion Cliffs into central Utah.

In an odd way Gilbert and Dutton were like opposed or complementary sides of Powell himself; they were extensions of him, a right hand and a left, a cool observer and an enthusiast. The three worked together in a collaboration so close that none of them knew precisely which one had suggested a particular idea.1 During the years they worked together, they were probably the most brilliant geological team in the business. But however close the collaboration and the friendship, and however brilliant the contributions of the two assistants, there is no overlooking the fact that Powell’s greater experience and bolder generalizing imagination provided Gilbert and Dutton with many of their basic concepts, built them a foundation, gave them their stance. The combined work of the three over many years represents a substitute, a richer substitute undoubtedly, for the comprehensive work on the Plateau Province that Powell had first planned to do by himself. To that co-operative effort Powell gave early and much, and what he gave illustrates, like his choice of collaborators, that the Major at least in the years of the early eighteen-seventies was an unstable mixture of scientist and enthusiast, observer and adventurer, realist and romantic.

What he found time to say on geological matters he said in two books, the Report on the Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries, published in 1875, and the Report on the Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains, published in the next year. He wrote them during the winters in Washington, out of the notes and observations of every summer since 1868, working on them in the spare time of days devoted to planning the next field season, promoting appropriations, making friends of Congressmen by gifts of photographic packets, reading papers and delivering lectures, and presiding over meetings of the Washington Philosophical Society. The latter half of the Exploration and all of the Uinta Mountains are sober geological discussion of great importance; the first half of the Exploration, though of equal importance, is to some extent a work of the imagination.

A day-by-day account of the first run down the Colorado, it contains some peculiar suppressions, alterations, and additions of fact that would be thoroughly justified in fiction or in a book of popular travel, but that have a sinful and hangdog look in a scientific monograph. Moreover, the Exploration so consistently and effectively exploits the dramatic elements of the trip that it is impossible to read it except as a tense adventure story.

By the side of an impersonal factual record such as that, say, of Lieutenant Emory, parts of Powell’s Exploration seem lush and sensational. Other sections have a bare intensity that is the product of considerable literary skill. In still other passages, such as that climactic scene in which he reports getting rimmed on the granite above Separation Rapid, there is some reason to suspect that he is romancing with facts, or at least transposing them. There was a good bit of John C. Frémont in Major Powell. When he wrote the Exploration he had his eye partly on scientific results and the scientific reader, partly on the persuasive power the narrative might have on appropriations committees, and partly on the public impression he would make. It is hard to say which motivation worked on him most, but it is possible to risk a guess.

The facts are that the Exploration, not published until almost six years after the completion of the first voyage, draws upon a considerable number of observations made not by that expedition but by the second. It uses a good many place names conferred by the second expedition as if they were conferred by the first, and some that were, like Bright Angel Creek, invented between voyages to adorn a tale. Yet the Exploration mentions the second trip only in an oblique reference in Chapter IX, and it gives no credit to and makes no mention of any member of the second expedition except Thompson, whose journal of the exploration to the mouth of the Dirty Devil in 1872 is reproduced as part of the report.2

Presumably the second river trip was unmentioned because of Powell’s avowed intention to report only original explorations. He never tried to conceal the fact that there had been a second voyage, for his preliminary report of 1874 3 discusses it, and his preface to the Exploration itself, as well as the title page, indicates that the river was explored “in 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1872.” It was perhaps ungracious not to give even a passing mention to the men who had served him faithfully for two years or more, but the omission is further evidence of how little the second voyage really enlisted Powell’s own interest. Still, it did add and did clarify a good many things. He put them in without bothering to complicate his story, or name their true date and source, and got himself into something embarrassingly close to manipulation of the facts.

Stranger even than his failure to credit the second expedition is the alteration of dates in Chapter X. This is made up principally of the story of Powell’s trip with Jacob to visit the Uinkarets and Shivwits. But onto the record of that journey of 1870 he tacked the record of another, down the Parúnuweap Canyon from the roof of the Markágunt Plateau into what is now Zion National Park — a piece of original exploration like the others, but made in 1872, not in 1870 when Powell said it was. He could not have made that mistake unwittingly. There were too many ways he could have been reminded; the events themselves were recent and important to him. His was not the kind of mind in which the observations made on original explorations floated like unattached weeds. Undoubtedly he deliberately altered the date of the Zion exploration to bring into something more like unity the scattered explorations of his party — and just possibly to insure priority for his visit to Zion, since Lieutenant Wheeler’s parties were working in the same region in 1871 and 1872, and Wheeler was an empire builder eager to claim everything he could.4

The literary reason is almost certainly the proper one. The whole first half of the Exploration indicates a literary intent. Those em purpled descriptions written from a crag above the Gate of Lodore and from the camp at the mouth of the Yampa are transplanted little altered from the Chicago Tribune, and there are plenty more like them. Though the journal and field notes on which the Exploration is presumably based are singularly curt and bare, the Exploration through a good part of its length has the tone of the Tribune letters, the tone of the nineteenth-century literary traveler with an expanded and throbbing capacity for sensations.

Powell’s literary style was always self-conscious, whether in his flowery beginnings or in his later years when his prose became crabbed and riddling and salted with coined words of his own. His young taste ran to the romantic poets; on the second river expedition he brought along volumes of Scott, Tennyson, and Longfellow, and through Brown’s Hole and on other calm stretches he read them aloud to the crews of the lashed boats floating together. In the Exploration his writing is marked by effusiveness, poetic inversions and contractions, sweeping and panoramic effects, the exploitation of every chance for dramatics, but also by precision of line and considerable associative imagination. And he had justification for a high tone. He was in truth engaged in a hazardous and exciting voyage, and the country through which he passed was calculated to stir the superlatives out of almost anyone.5 Heightened or not, the Exploration is an extraordinarily thrilling story, good enough to have been reprinted twice from its official format and to have had several magazine versions.6

This fact of magazine publication is the main reason for the “literary” and “unscientific” tone of the first half of the book. Major Powell was no more capable of writing a single-purpose manuscript than he was of conducting a single-purpose field expedition. The publication of the Exploration in 1875 involved a complexity of double-duty deals, in which both text and illustrations were called upon to serve several purposes.

Inquiries from magazine editors had come early after his return in 1869, but though he was always in need of money, and though he very energetically undertook the sale of stereographs and views in partnership with Thompson and Hillers,7 it was several years before he tried to write anything. When he did, he seems to have been jogged into it by his ex-photographer Beaman, who during 1873 was peddling his own reminiscences of the second voyage. Beaman had never been a favorite with the party. They had all considered him lazy, and Clem Powell, his assistant, found him unwilling to teach what he knew. Whether he quit before he was fired or was fired before he quit in Kanab early in 1872 is a tossup,8 but he had gone down to the Moki towns on his own and taken pictures, and now he had a book of his experiences there and on the river.

On March 6, 1873, H. O. Houghton of H. O. Houghton and Company, Boston, wrote to Powell expressing interest in Powell’s book, some chapters of which had evidently been submitted to him for publication.9 In the same letter he indicated that his firm had just turned down Beaman’s book, a fact which would have pleased Powell, quite apart from his feelings about Beaman, because to have an account of the second expedition published — and by the least reliable member of the party — before any account of the original exploration appeared, must have seemed an unhappy chance. The possibility that Beaman might succeed before he placed his own manuscript seems to have spurred Powell to activity. His manuscript was still with Houghton and Company early in April,10 but within less than a week it was in the hands of Henry M. Alden of Harper’s. Alden on April 12 cautiously asked for a full manuscript, or a plan thereof, before making a decision,11 but definitely requested two articles for Harper’s Magazine, one on the canyons and one on the “Aztec” civilization of the Southwest, at fifteen dollars per page.

Nothing came of that, neither book nor articles. Either Powell had no time then to write them, or decided to wait until he could satisfy the request that both Houghton and Alden had made for a full-sized manuscript. On April 13 Alden returned the manuscript12 and photographs and Powell apparently did nothing more about them for over a year, leaving the field to Beaman. Beaman’s book eventually landed in Appleton’s Journal, which printed it in seven installments during April and May, 1874. Its appearance may have had something to do with Powell’s decision to omit all mention of the second expedition from his own book.

But it did not discourage him from trying to publish in a popular journal. On July 17, 1874, he signed an elaborate contract 13 with Richard Watson Gilder of Scribner’s which did credit both to Gilder’s eye for publishing innovations and Powell’s knack of carrying water on both shoulders. Scribner’s agreed to pay Major Powell $500 for three or four articles plus twelve engravings on wood which Powell was to supply. But in addition to these twelve pictures, Scribner‘s, at that moment moving to revolutionize the art of magazine illustration, would spend $2000 for others, which after use in the magazine would become Powell’s property. By this stroke the Major not only made himself a modest sum, but he assured himself a spectacular spread in the magazine, and obtained besides an excellent collection of illustrations for his projected report.

So the scientific report was first written as a popular adventure story of original exploration and illustrated lavishly for a popular magazine. It was written, moreover, after Beaman had already published a highly-colored account, so that there may have been some inclination to outdo what had already been made public. To some such combination of motives are due the persistent height enings and dramatizings that make the Exploration exciting reading but weaken its accuracy: the tendency (the opposite of what Bradley had grumbled at) to overestimate the drop of rapids, to dwell ominously on the dangers ahead, to “touch up.”

As if to make amends for literary license in the first part, the second half of the Exploration is sober treatise entitled “The Physical Features of the Valley of the Colorado.” It was serialized too, but not in a general magazine: The Popular Science Monthly was not popular in that sense.

Some river historians, notably Stanton and Chalfant and Julius Stone, have taken a good deal of delight in pointing out inaccuracies or distortions of fact in Powell’s account. Some of their criticism is legitimate, some a part of that curious jealousy which seems to persuade every man who ever ran the Colorado that he invented it. The distortions are there, most of them traceable to this literary motive and the complex circumstances under which his all-purpose narrative was written and published. But it is not possible to accuse Major Powell of the ordinary sort of inaccuracy-through-ignorance that fills the travel writing of his time or any other. He was no nature faker. He did not distort natural laws or misinterpret natural scenery. In his own way he was part of that inevitable slow movement toward realism whose local literary beginnings in John Hay and Edward Eggleston were almost precisely contemporary with his own beginnings as a scientist. Writer and scientist in that tradition do not differ so widely: Powell’s method of observing natural phenomena did not differ in kind from Mark Twain’s — especially that Mark Twain who lampooned so mercilessly the romantic inaccuracies of Fenimore Cooper. But both Powell and Twain, realists and even factualists, might on occasion be led to follow Twain’s own advice to Kipling: “Young man, first get your facts and then do with them what you will.” In literature, if not in science, an unintentional lie is worse than a deliberate one.

The element of the spectacular in Powell’s story is therefore not remarkable. He had shown before then that he was a vigorous and sharply intelligent young man on the make, with a considerable instinctive and some trained knowledge of the arts of self promotion. But the Exploration is the last real demonstration of any such motive — a kind of last fling, a farewell to his Wanderjahre. After 1876 he delegated both his geological speculations and his scenic and dramatic enthusiasms and settled down to organize government science. But first he firmly clinched the reputation as a geologist that the second half of his first book had established.

Many of the generalizations that Powell made in the Exploration and in the Uinta Mountains have at this date an air of the obvious; yet when he made them they were either new or newly emphatic. His homemade education fitted him to grasp the obvious and state it without embarrassment — he had not been educated into scholarly caution and that squidlike tendency to retreat, squirting ink, which sophisticated learning often displays. He was intellectually a plunger, not a retreater. As it turned out, the obvious clearly stated, and combined with new observations, was some times close to revolutionary. And the obvious in the Plateau Province was so much more obvious than it was anywhere else that it demanded statement and at the same time presented incontrovertible proofs.

As a single example, consider his remarks on the behavior of streams. He observed that often they paid no attention to the terrain through which they ran. The Yampa, the Green, the Escalante, with valleys at hand to run through, chose instead to cut straight into massive ridges or mountain ranges. Since water does not run uphill, he had to conclude that these rivers were older than the mountains, and that as the mountains rose across their path they rose slowly enough to be cut like a log held against a revolving saw. Out of that simple observation arose a whole complex of ideas: that mountains were relatively ephemeral earth features, that nature abhorred an elevation almost as fiercely as it was said to abhor a vacuum, and persistently cut it down and carried it away; that in this case at least, and probably in most, earth movements were slow, not catastrophic as Dana and King and some other geologists held; and in particular that drainage upon this slowly altering earth-surface could be divided into three classes which he called antecedent, consequent, and superimposed. In the first, a previously existing river such as the Green cut through a rising mountain range as fast as the range rose, and held its course; in the second, an obstruction that rose too fast ponded the rivers, or diverted them to new channels established by the new topography; in the third, a drainage produced by the topography of one age held its course while erosion leveled and obliterated all those elevations and valleys it had been born among, so that the rivers were “superimposed” upon an entirely different topography exposed underneath.

These general classifications seem simple and obvious enough; they have become the alphabet of the study of drainage, in the Plateau Province or anywhere else.

Working from the same observed facts, Powell made certain generalizations about erosion, which he instantly recognized as the prime agent in the land forms of the region. He put together things already well known: That the corrasion of a stream’s bed was relatively swift, and increased with the declivity by a much more than arithmetical ratio. That the weathering away of elevated country proceeded much more slowly, so that a stream would cut a deep, narrow canyon before its walls or the surface of the country back from them would be much affected by erosion. That the erosion of low country was near a minimum, and that this minimum was always being approached. He called it the “base level of erosion” and gave another fundamental concept to the science. He noted the way in which cliffs were eaten back by the weathering out of soft layers and the caving in of the undermined hard strata, and he gave it a name; the recession of cliffs. Dutton would elaborate the idea, and point out among other things that the profile of such a retreating cliff would, once established, remain constant. But the original observation and the rubric were Powell’s.

The characteristic flat crest lines and the vertical cliff-edges of butte and mesa and plateau Powell noted as the product of horizontal strata and arid climate, and he isolated a good many of the effects of climate upon the processes of erosion. His conclusions began to reach outside the area of the obvious when he insisted that this region, where the rivers had cut gorges sometimes more than a mile deep, and where weathering had demonstrably swept away thousands of feet of solid rock from a territory totaling thousands of square miles, was actually not a region of maximum erosion, but one of minimum. With an incorrigible lust to put things into categories, he classified the types of mountain and plateau structure found in the Plateau Province and found that some of them had never been revealed or studied elsewhere, and had no relation to the Appalachian structure and the tight plica tion that the textbooks thought characteristic of all mountains. These mountains — the Uintas, say — were not folded and tangled; they were simply a great arch, like an asymmetrical Quonset hut, carved and furrowed by the erosional processes eager to reduce it to a plain again. The plateaus of the Grand Canyon region and northward were sometimes arches, or half arches, and sometimes flat blocks sheared upward along fault lines. Sometimes the shear of a fault broke into a series of step faults, and sometimes into a simple monoclinal fold. He arrived at the conclusion that there was no essential difference between fault and monocline, and his evidence was so plain, revealed along bare exposed fronts that could be traced for dozens of miles, that there was no disputing it. These generalizations too Gilbert and Dutton would amplify, document, and elaborate, but not alter. From the time of their publication, first in the American Journal of Science14 and later in the Exploration and the Uinta Mountains, they were part of the basic textbook of geology.

Though he collected fossils, Powell was no paleontologist; though he took geological sections, he was no stratigrapher; though he had a lively and even excited interest in the historical geology of the Plateau Province, what most took his eye and his imagination was the land forms, the plateaus, mesas, buttes, canyons, cliffs, the fantastic erosional remains that simply by their shapes and their positions on a denuded plain told of the forces that had created them. Quite alone, his generalizations about earth movements (with his support of uniformitarianism when it was still widely disputed), about the character of rivers and the forms of earth sculpture and the laws that govern erosion, would more than justify his years of work in the West. In his two monographs, according to Emmons,15 was born the modem science of physical geology.

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