1. 1877: The Problem of Survival

AT THE BEGINNING of 1877 the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, J. W. Powell in Charge, was the least of the official surveys operating in the West. It had not been recognized and accorded an appropriation until King and Hayden were well established and Lieutenant Wheeler had made his first field trip. Its annual appropriation had ranged from $10,000 to $45,000, less than any of the others had enjoyed. Its published results looked meager beside King’s solid series, now about half completed, and the grab-bag releases, amounting to a general scientific magazine, by which Hayden had gained credit not only for his own work but for some done independently. The area trian gulated by Powell’s topographers was small by contrast with the sweeping coverage of Wheeler’s reconnoissance.1 In January, 1877, the Powell Survey could produce as evidence of its worth only Powell’s own reports on The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and The Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains, the latter with an atlas, plus three brief progress reports and some magazine articles and photographs produced for private profit. It was not enough to impress a Congress interested in practical results useful to mining corporations, land speculators, and settlers2 — particularly since Powell’s chosen region showed neither mineral nor agricultural potentialities. The reports then in preparation, Gilbert’s Henry Mountains, Dutton’s High Plateaus, and two volumes of Contributions to North American Ethnology, had the impractical sound of pure science, and though Powell had projected for himself a study of the history, resources, and uses of the Public Domain, that study was hardly begun. Outside the Uinta atlas and a map and diagram accompanying the Exploration, the Survey had published no maps.

Moreover, the Congress that convened in January that year had its eye on the inauguration of a new President, Rutherford B. Hayes, in March. At least until the politicians had tried out the new ground, this Congress would be reform-minded. It had two full Grant terms, a chain-reaction of scandals, and the splitting of the Republican Party for warnings. It had investigated the Western surveys without clear result in 1874,3 haling Wheeler, Hayden, and Powell before its committees and airing all the private jealousies and public rivalries of the War and Interior Departments. The rivals were certain to come under scrutiny again. If Congress did not itself raise the question of consolidation and reform, Hayden or Wheeler would, for both were ambitious and had powerful friends, and Hayden in particular was beginning to have his withers galled by competition.4

During the hearings back in 1874, Powell had alienated Wheeler by advocating consolidation of all the surveys under control of the Department of the Interior, but his temporary alliance with Hayden on that issue broke down the moment Hayden began to view him as a dangerous rival for appropriations, publicity, or the directorship of the combined surveys. King was not a true party to the rivalry: he had completed his field work along the 40th parallel and was still in business only to finish and publish his series of reports. Though an employee of the War Department, he was personally friendly to Powell and to Powell’s ideas. But from either Wheeler or Hayden, Powell could expect only the knife.

It was in the interest of simple survival that he spent much of 1877 mending his fences, trying to insure the continuation of his own survey, balk the ambitions of Hayden and Wheeler, and at the same time bring some system into the chaos of the geological and geographical surveys. This last, since he had no power to reorganize and could work only by influencing members of Congress, was only a hope, but it was not a dim one. He had a powerful organizing mind. It hurt him, quite apart from his own survival, to see dissension, duplication, and waste in an area where there was important work to be done. When Hayden’s field parties clashed with Wheeler’s in the Colorado mountains and precipitated a disgraceful squabble about priorities, all the surveys suffered. Such influence as Powell had, and such experience and information and persuasiveness as he could bring to bear, he would use in the direction of unification. Whoever ran them, and under whatever jurisdiction, the surveys had to be raised out of their year-by-year, hand-to-mouth, unco-ordinated and competitive state, and brought into some sort of permanent system.

The wider and less personal interest in the future of government science led him to expand a simple struggle for survival into something much larger. Events and the development of his own ideas pushed him that way, and so did his contempt for Hayden, his passion for order, his knowledge and experience of the West and his swiftly clarifying vision of what the West must do to grow into a strong part of the American commonwealth. What perhaps began as mere opportunistic tactics shortly became grand strategy.

The general engagement to which he finally forced the reform party and the Western Congressmen adamant against change or planning resulted eventually in a stalemate, or at best in the most limited sort of victory, but the way in which he fought it showed Major Powell already cunning and effective in behind-the-scenes political maneuver, and with a very clear idea of his objectives. As Henry Nash Smith has remarked,5 his activities during 1878 and 1879 indicated a voluntary acceptance of public responsibility rare in public life at any time. In the Gilded Age it was close to unprecedented.

He was David against Goliath, Beowulf against Grendel’s dam. He challenged odds and he met the enemy on his own ground. Behind him was none of the automatic support that many of his contemporaries, including some of his opposition, could count on. He was not wealthy and well placed like O. C. Marsh, socially prominent and much-befriended like Clarence King. He had not Hayden’s well-developed lobby and no long-term friends in high places, and he could count on the backing of no university. From the only university with which he had had important contacts — and that a one-horse college in the West — he had departed abruptly in 1873, looked upon as one grown too big for his breeches.6 What he had to fight with was what he had always had: his clarity of understanding and his personal vigor, plus the general support of disinterested scientific men. He could also depend upon a few interested ones, especially the personal enemies of F. V. Hayden. His campaign of 1877 and 1878 he ran as he had run the Colorado, by a combination of foresight, planning, and calculated risk.

First things first. Feeling the cold breath on his neck when Congress convened in January, 1877, Powell wrote a good many letters, including notes to King, Julius Bien, John Strong Newberry of Columbia, and F. W. Putnam of Harvard,7 begging help in getting his appropriation for the continuation of the Powell Survey the next year. The tone of these notes is perturbed, almost desperate. The day after he dictated them to his secretary, James Pilling, he hurried into the hands of Eugene Hale of the House Appropriations Committee a summary of the work and publications of the Powell Survey, and he also sent Hale as a gift a set of Jack Hillers’ Grand Canyon photographs and some proof sheets from Gilbert’s coming monograph on the Henry Mountains. At the same time, for reasons not exactly opaque, he requested a personal interview.

Whatever the effect of his conversations with Hale, his letters brought results. Newberry, formerly one of Hayden’s collaborators but now his bitter enemy, wrote as Powell requested to Representatives Garfield and Hewitt, champions of the liberal wing in the House, and he not only praised the scientific work of Powell and Gilbert but he went out of his way to denounce Hayden as a power-mad lobbyist no longer worthy the name of scientist.8 Putnam and others of the scientific fraternity gave Powell, in less vehement terms, the letters of character he needed.

Their help was enough, just enough. The weight of presumably disinterested Science applied to interested Politics got the Powell Survey continued life, but on minimum terms. Congress dropped the appropriation for 1877-78 from $45,000 to $30,000, a reduction that hurt at a time when Powell was hoping to strengthen himself for the eventual showdown with the other surveys. As a matter of fact, he had already incautiously committed himself to things that would cost money. Dutton, Gilbert, and Thompson were all, in addition to topographical and geological work, gathering data on water and irrigable lands in Utah for the use of the General Land Office and Powell’s projected report on the Public Domain. The Dutton and Gilbert monographs, as well as the two volumes of Con tributions to North American Ethnology, were all partly completed, and their publication, an expensive matter if one were to compete with Hayden’s lavish reports full of illustrations and plates,9 was essential as a lever under Congress. A map of,Utah containing the hydrographic data his parties had gathered languished for lack of funds to print it. And now early in 1877 came a golden opportunity to acquire some easy credit and win the approval of most scientific men if he could only find the money to take advantage of it.

As a consequence of the gold strikes in the Black Hills in 1874, Congress had authorized still a fifth Western survey, under the direction of W. P. Jenney and Henry Newton. The resulting report had been practically finished but never published, and there was now no apparent intention on the part of Congress to appropriate funds for it. The strong suspicion on Science Street was that Hayden’s jealousy of intrusion upon a territory he considered his own had led him to block the printing of the report. Newton, as it happened, was a student and protégé of John Strong Newberry. And Newberry was convinced that Hayden blocked the report because he feared the exposure of his own geological incompetence.

Newberry had been a stout ally in the matter of the appropriation. On March 17, 1877, again at Powell’s request, he wrote Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz asking that the Black Hills report be authorized as a publication of the Powell Survey. On that same day he put in a requisition for a chunk of Powell’s budget to finance a fossil-hunting trip to Colorado,10 but money at that time was more than Powell could grant, even when the quid pro quo within the austere walls of Science had been satisfactory. To gratify Newberry then would have ruined him. Fortunately,. Newberry was good-natured, and could wait.

Meantime, Powell was moving much faster than Schurz. The Secretary had hardly had time to receive Newberry’s letter before the Major had calculated his risks and plunged. He arranged to pay half of Newton’s expenses for a trip back to the Black Hills to clean up doubtful points, and without authority to do so he guaranteed publication of the report. If deficiency appropriations could be had later, Newton would also be compensated for his time. Even while scientific gentlemen under the nudging of Powell or Newberry were bombarding Schurz with letters urging publication of the Newton-Jenney monograph, the arrangements had all been made. It was the end of May before Schurz got around to approving the deal, which by that time he could have repudiated only at the expense of a squabble with the Major.11

Immediately there were additional drains on the Powell Survey purse, first an engraving bill for the Newton book for $1840, and next a proposal that Professor R. P. Whitfield, who was to analyze the Black Hills fossils, be permitted to publish a preliminary pamphlet establishing his priority in the matter of new species. New species were the breath of life to paleontologists. Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Cope, the two great rivals in vertebrate paleontology, controlled their own avenues of publication and were sometimes in print with preliminary descriptions within a few weeks of the time the bones came out of the ground. Whitfield’s request had to be granted, though it strained the already overstrained budget. With the engraver Powell arranged time payments; the office correspondence for that year is loaded with importunities for money from tradesmen and instrument makers and lithographers and engravers, and equally loaded with Pilling’s inspired replies stalling them off.

Henry Newton died of typhoid in the Black Hills before the money for his book had even been transferred to the Powell Survey account. By that time the Major was after Schurz for funds for other purposes: $600 of General Land Office funds to print the map of Utah, $4000 for office furniture and rent, hitherto not supplied by law for his bureau. That whole summer saw him trying to get his entire program through with only two thirds as much money as he had hoped for.

And he did not get through the summer without running afoul of Hayden, who had eyes and ears working for him throughout official Washington12 and who could not have helped comprehending to the full the meaning of Powell’s adoption of the Newton report. The two had words in Schurz’s office on May 19, and the words on Hayden’s part were mainly about duplication, undercutting, and waste. The argument brought, three days later, a careful letter from Powell to Schurz, a long, scrupulous, and almost weary letter. Powell gave Hayden credit for great contributions (more than he actually believed he had made) and suggested a division of labor within the two Interior Department surveys.13 Let Hayden have the whole field of natural history, for which he had built up an elaborate organization, and leave to Powell the whole field of ethnography, in which he was already collaborating with the Smithsonian. The yeast of this letter worked in the fermenting pot until November, 1877, when the Department approved it in principle and Hayden concurred, with the difference that he wanted all the geology and geography as well as the natural history, leaving Powell only his Indians.14

Thus the season of 1877, a lean year moving toward an uncertain future, and with a hectic pressure perceptible in its field work and its office work and its rushing of publications to catch up with the wordier surveys and impress skeptical lawmakers. Despite his amputated appropriation, Powell managed to finish the season much stronger than he had started it. The field parties in Utah had made great headway both in topography and hydrography. Volunteer and part-time ethnologists in every part of the West and South were. busy on a hundred Indian languages in preparation for the general study of the Indian tongues that Powell planned. Gilbert’s Henry Mountains was out, a solid and original contribution certain to reflect great credit on the Survey in scientific if not in political circles. Whitfield’s preliminary bulletin on the Black Hills fossils was out. Volumes I and III of Contributions to North American Ethnology, The Tribes of the Extreme Northwest and The Tribes of California, were out, tying the Powell Survey more closely than ever into the Smithsonian, with which its relations had always been close. Working closely with Professor Henry, Powell had well under way for the use of his workers among the tribes a Manual of North American Ethnography to replace the outgrown ones of Schoolcraft and Gallatin. 15 And he had much additional data for his study of the Public Domain.

More important than these, and including them all, was the broad plan for future action that was coming into focus, growing in clarity, precision, and urgency. Early in November, 1877, Powell requested that the War Department transfer Captain Dutton from the Department of the Platte for detached winter duty in Washington. Dutton came as a mounted officer, thereby getting a little extra pay for the expenses of his horse. But he did not come to take care of any horse, or even to hasten the preparation of the High Plateaus monograph. He came to help the boss in putting over the “general plan,16 which from this time on began swiftly to evolve out of the realm of abstract thinking and into the realm of practical — and explosive — politics.

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