5. Half-Victory

SO CONCENTRATED and vigorous a sponsorship as Powell’s could not be kept secret, especially when advocates of the reform in Congress depended upon its creator for ammunition. As the implications of the Academy’s recommendations began to percolate through the Congressional bone there was sure to be a violent reaction from Western members involved through sentiment, personal interests, or venality in the old fixed rectangular survey system, the 160-acre freehold, and the cobbled legal structure of Pre-emption Act, Homestead Act, Swamp Lands Act, Desert Land Act, Timber and Stone Act, and the other improvisations. No sooner had the report been referred to the House Committee on Public Lands than the lines were drawn. On December 19, 1878, Representative P. D. Wigginton of California, one of the few Western Congressmen favoring land-law reform, wrote to Powell saying that he, Abram Hewitt, and Thomas M. Patterson of Colorado had been named a subcommittee to study the subject. Both Patterson and Hewitt, Wigginton said, “are opposed to us.” He wanted Powell to write up a full, thorough, and unanswerable report, since he was sure the two in opposition would submit something in writing and would be aided by Hayden and perhaps others. 1

Wigginton’s letter is a sign of how confused even a supporter could be at that stage. He was entirely wrong about Hewitt’s opposition, for though Hewitt had at first leaned toward War Department direction of a consolidated survey, and had perhaps been astonished to see how many other issues had got attached to a simple problem of consolidation, he later made it clear that he had been convinced by the Academy’s report, which he specifically attributed to Powell.2 As for Hayden, his position was obscure. Though he might out of spite assist the enemies of consolidation and reform; he was personally an advocate of consolidation under the Department of the Interior, and he had a strong candidate for the directorship: himself. Shut out from the inner councils, misinformed by his Washington scouts,3 Hayden had already been unhorsed, but neither he nor Congress knew it yet.

Perhaps because of the fear of losing its bill in the Public Lands Committee, which had been known to sit on reform measures before, the reform group suddenly changed its attack. Schurz wrote to Powell asking the precise wording of the legislation he proposed for embodying the Academy’s suggestions (by now even Schurz was coming to headquarters for his data) and on the 23rd Powell sent back drafts of four items: a bill specifying the duties and salary of the superintendent of the combined Coast and land-parceling surveys; specifications of duties and salary of the director of a consolidated United States Geological Survey; the authorization for a commission to study and codify the land laws; and a proposed system for handling the publications of both the Coast-Land Parcelling Survey and the Geological Survey. But he prepared only the first of these as a separate bill. The second was to be attached as a rider to the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Appropriations Bill, the third and fourth as riders to the Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill.4 That way, the Public Lands Committee would be by-passed, and the drafts would go instead to the Appropriations Committee, chaired by John D. C. Atkins of Tennessee, a strong supporter of the reforms. Of this committee too Abram Hewitt was a member - as it turned out, its most important member. To Hewitt, it appears, must be traced the last-minute parliamentary maneuvering, some of it distinctly dubious, by means of which such important legislation found its way onto the floor of the House hidden behind the skirts of an appropriation bill.

In introducing the first appropriation bill for discussion on February 10, Atkins remarked that he thought the survey and land clauses the most important items in it. Events swiftly proved him right. Western Congressmen of the tribe of Gilpin sniffed the bill and smelled heresy, for the major premise of the land clauses and the Arid Region report upon which they were based was that a point had been reached in Western settlement where neither natural resources, especially water, nor social institutions were any longer adequate. To the Gilpin mind, here were people trying to talk the Great American Desert back into existence just after it had finally been established as a garden. Inadequate rainfall, sir? Why I can show you statistics, figures taken on the spot in Dakota....

This was the high tide of the late seventies when homesteaders were tearing up the buffalo grass of Kansas and Nebraska and Colorado. These were years of big rains and fat crops, the years when facts and myths clashed sharply along the 100th meridian.5 II A wishful public and political consciousness had already accepted the doctrine of a climate changing for the better as settlement turned the sod and planted crops and trees.6 That doctrine would persist through every plains frontier, into the Dakotas and Montana, across the international line into the Peace River country and all across the prairie provinces where it was gospel as late as World War I. In 1878 that folk belief matched a whole people’s hopeful optimism, which had had none of the calamities of the eighteen-eighties to correct it, though the 1871 drouth in Kansas had temporarily discouraged extension of the farm frontier. No wonder Western legislatures angrily protested the proposed reforms. The reforms were aimed at the wheat belt, a region with a one-crop economy, and wheat farmers knew better than any politicians what was best for the country. And behind the incompre hension of the average man there was a somewhat less innocent resistance from landowners who did not want the convenient exist- , ing laws changed. They were doing fine with the laws already on the books.

Upon the flames of regional disgust the copies of the Arid Region that Powell had sent to western newspapers fell like gasoline. Though Godkin’s Nation reviewed him seriously and with respect, Powell got no support from the western press. But though the hookups between land speculators, local land offices and surveyors, and the politicians were important in his opposition, what we have called the Gilpin mind was quite as important. To the Gilpin mind facts are not essential, though they are sometimes useful. What is more essential is vision, and the vision of Western politicians representing commonwealths eager for population and pressing for statehood was full of settlers, full of trainloads of immigrant farmers, full of new tracks, new roads, new towns rising on the prairie. The novel of settlement which classically ended with the first train chuffing into a bare western town between lanes of cheering farmers would emerge a little later as the dramatization of an abiding faith. Politically and economically the West as a boom market depended on vision far more than on facts; the facts could be taken care of later. Now here came Powell and the reform group with insinuations that were bad for business. The colonial bumptiousness of the lands they called the Arid Region grew violent at intimations of deficiency. Gilpin had said that the Mississippi Valley between the Alleghanies and the Rockies could support a population of 180,000,000. There were Corigressmen who would probably have raised him, at least for rhetorical purposes. 7

They made the most of the fact that this reform movement was sponsored by “scientific lobbyists” and supported mainly by representatives of states outside the so-called Arid Region. They squawked like captured ducks at the way in which the reformers had tried to slip their measures through by tying them to appropriations bills. They put the finger of ultimate responsibility squarely on Powell, where it belonged. Representative Patterson of Colorado called the whole program the work of one man, “a charlatan in science and intermeddler in affairs of which he has no proper conception.” 8 The Hayden-Cope group circulated privately a defamatory report on Powell, and spread rumors of dissension within the Academy. The tearful defenders of the little man with 160 acres and a plow misconstrued the intention of the proposal completely and either through misunderstanding or malice pictured it as the preamble to landlordism. Somewhat more rationally, they attacked it as a step toward paternalism in government, though how the attempt to protect the small freeholder from speculators, the forces of Nature, and the manifest failure of the current public land laws could be considered a vicious undermining of the free American spirit is not quite clear. Still, Patterson and his fellows thought they recognized an enemy when they saw one, and these “new-fledged collegiates” and “scientific lobbyists” had all the ear-marks.


The Camera’s View



U. S. Geological Survey

Marble Canyon. The boat is the Emma Dean Second, flagship of the second Colorado River expedition. The armchair, bolted to the deck, was Major Powell’s point of vantage for conning the river ahead. The photograph was taken by J. K. Hillers in late August, 1872.


Geological Survey

Grand Canyon, looking downstream toward the mouth of Prospect Canyon, just above Lava Falls rapid. Powell first saw this district in 1870, Hillers began photographing it in the winter of 1871-72. The second Colorado River expedition quit at Kanab Wash, a little above this point.


Smithsonian Instity

The mirror case. Major Powell poses in the Uinta Valley of Utah with a woman of the Ute tribe which first stimulated his interest in the Indians. The photograph is by Hillers, 1873 or 1874.


mithsonian Institution

Picturesque America, 1873. Thomas Moran, (center) and his writer J. E. Colburn on Moran’s first trip to the Grand Canyon country. The photograph was taken by Hillers near Kanab. The boy is a Paiute.

The winds blew through the halls of Congress and the myths were invoked and the shibboleths spoken and the gospels reasserted. Like some Civil War battles, the struggle went on to the point of exhaustion, and beyond exhaustion to stalemate and compromise. It was February 18, 1879, after nine days of bitter debate, when the House voted by 98 to 79 a gutted measure consolidating the surveys and appointing a public lands commission, but dropping out entirely any actual alteration in the land laws or the surveying system. This would have been acceptable as something between defeat and victory, but the Republican Senate turned it into an absolute defeat, and incidentally attested the continuing potency of Hayden’s lobby in the upper house, by repudiating the whole thing and writing in an amendment discontinuing every survey but Hayden’s.

Active and astute as he had shown himself, Powell was at that point powerless to avert the complete ruin of his plan. What was saved was saved by Hewitt, who hung on tenaciously through the conference committee meetings on the appropriation bill, and at the last minute managed to write into the Sundry Civil Bill the clauses consolidating the three Western surveys under the Department of the Interior and authorizing a commission to study the problems of the public lands. The clauses thus returned to the condition the House had left them in, and in that condition were passed by Congress.

At the point when the Sundry Civil Expenses Bill passed on March 3, 1879, silence should have settled upon the field. Immediate attempts to reform the land laws were blocked; Western Congressmen had no real interest in the survey and little to fear from an investigating commission, whose report could easily enough be covered over with dead leaves when it appeared. But silence could not fall until a director had been picked for the joined surveys. That directorship was intensely and persistently sought by Professor Hayden. Apparently, with Wheeler and the War Department out, he feared only Powell as a rival. But Powell had been sincere in his offer the previous May to pull out of geology and devote himself to ethnology. By his own specific request to Atkins, there was in the same Sundry Civil Expenses Bill that created the United States Geological Survey 9 an almost-unnoticed item:

For completing and preparing for publication the contributions to North American ethnology, under the Smithsonian Institution, twenty thousand dollars: Provided, that all of the archives, records, and material relating to the Indians of North America, collected by the geographical and geological survey of the Rocky Mountains, shall be turned over to the Institution, that the work may be completed and prepared for publication under its direction....

That changed the Powell Survey into the Bureau of Ethnology 10 and made it again an adjunct of the Smithsonian, out of the political wind. Pilling’s question, “What will become of we poor ethnologists?” was answered while everyone was looking in another direction. There was no need for Major Powell to spoil his look of impeccable, though somewhat political, rectitude by becoming a candidate for the directorship of the united surveys. Nevertheless, his refusal to enter the competition did not mean that he intended to keep hands off. He threw his weight solidly behind Clarence King for the job; he took pains, from motives that were a peculiar mixture of personal dislike and concern for science and public probity, to denounce Hayden to Representative Garfield, to Atkins, and to President Hayes. He smoked out King’s friends — Marsh, William Brewer, Hewitt, and others — to intercede with Hayes in King’s behalf. He or his office clerks kept nudging scientific correspondents to work on their Senators to confirm if King were appointed.11

King was nominated on March 20 and confirmed by the Senate, without incident, in April, 1879. The scientific battlers wiped their blades. King wrote Powell a letter of deep gratitude for his support. “I am sure you will never regret your decision [presumably the decision to eliminate himself as a candidate] and for my part it will be one of my greatest pleasures to forward your scientific work and to advance your personal interest.” 12 “The best and brightest man of his generation” was thus established at the head of the bureau whose potential for the future so stirred Henry Adams.13Lieutenant Wheeler was out, scheduled to go on disgruntledly attacking civilian surveys and chewing the bitter weed of the Powell-Hewitt coup for a good many years.14 Hayden was down. To retain anything at all of what he had had he was forced to accept a position as a geologist under King, and that position he would fill in taciturn obscurity until failing health drove him to retirement shortly before his death in 1887. And Powell was snug in his Bureau of Ethnology, securely wedged between friends at the Smithsonian and friends in the United States Geological Survey. Consolidation itself could not have turned out better. In the struggle for public land law reform, the Gilpins had won, but they knew they had been in a fight. At the very least, system and organization in government science had benefited, and that could lead to other gains, as could the Public Lands Commission to which Powell, Thomas Donaldson, and Alexander Britton had been appointed to assist Clarence King and Commissioner Williamson of the General Land Office. There was no doubt at all that the report finally brought in by that group of men would echo the thesis and at least some of the proposals of the Arid Region report and the report of the National Academy.

It did, a year later, and it was acknowledged and ignored by the Public Lands Committee of Congress as Powell expected it would be.15 But it was on the record, and like a spore that lies around for years awaiting the chance to germinate, it might come to something in the future. It couldn’t help doing so. The fat report compiled by Thomas Donaldson from the committee’s investigations is a complex and not always statistically correct volume, but it was the first systematic study of the public domain and it has been indispensable to scholars and planners ever since. In a cumbersome and inadequate way it represents the completion of Powell’s plan for a comprehensive study of the public domain and its needs and laws and history. Like so many of his projects, he had had to delegate it instead of finishing it himself.

But in the meantime it must have been some satisfaction to provide ideas for the nation’s great men, and play politics for stakes vital to two fifths of the United States, and have the ear of Presidents. A self-taught Illinois schoolteacher could have done worse.

He stood, as a matter of fact, near the top of the scientific society in which he had chosen to conduct his life. Professor Hilgard of the Naval Observatory was already pushing his nomina tion to the National Academy.16 He was an active member of the Philosophical Society of Washington which included practically every notable scientist in the capital. He had been once, briefly, a kind of national hero, and he had established a solid reputation as a geologist and ethnologist. On November 16, 1878, busy as usual in a dozen directions, energetically persuading Congressmen, directing research, pursuing his own studies, providing opinion for the National Academy, drawing up sample bills, trying to convert Western editors to his land policies, and circumventing Hayden’s lobby, he had taken another step calculated to enhance and insure all his other activities and at the same time consolidate his gains. On that evening he invited over to his home on “M” Street a group of friends and colleagues that included Henry Adams, Dutton, Captain Garrick Mallery, Fred Endlich, James Kidder, and some others, and before they broke up they had organized the Cosmos Club — ever since that night the closest thing to a social headquarters for Washington’s intellectual elite — and elected Powell its temporary president.17

Despite his innocent and non-political station as head of a bureau of the Smithsonian, he was already a man with power in his hands. Only a little more growth and two more years of extending his acquaintance and his influence would make him in fact the most powerfully situated scientist in America.

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