2. The Dynamics of a Homemade Education

THE BOY HENRY ADAMS, appraising the careers that were open to him, felt that of all the possibilities, the West offered him least. “Neither to a politician nor to a business-man nor to any of the learned professions did the West promise any certain advantages, while it offered uncertainties in plenty.” 1 Adams could not have been expected to know in 1854 the shape of things to come, but the reminiscent Adams who was writing his Education in 1905 might have admitted that to certain politicians — Lincoln, Grant, and Garfield among them — as well as to certain businessmen — Miller and Lux, Isham, Henry Villard, Leland Stanford — as well as to numerous teachers, preachers, writers (Twain, Howells, Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, Edward Eggleston) — the West had offered not merely opportunity but golden opportunity. One did not have to like everything the West brought into the nation’s life to be aware that it had brought something, even that long before 1905 it had come to have a certain dominance in national affairs. Yet Adams, forgetful or not of how the nation’s center of gravity had shifted from the Quincy and Beacon Hill of his boyhood, was certainly right in not going west to grow up with the country. Whatever his education had prepared him for, it had not prepared him for that. That took an education of a special kind. To grow up with the West, or to grow with and through it into national prominence, you had to have the West bred in your bones, you needed it facing you like a dare. You needed a Western education, with all the forming and shaping and the dynamics of special challenge and particular response that such an education implied.

The thing that many western boys called their education would have seemed to Adams a deprivation, so barren was it of opportunities and so pitiful were its methods and equipment. Considered in any way but in terms of its results in men and women, it was a deprivation. But the men it produced over a period of several generations showed such a family resemblance that until immigration drowned them under they constituted a strong regional type, and their virtues as exemplified in a Lincoln or a Mark Twain force the conclusion that this crude society with its vulgar and inadequate culture somehow made noble contributions to mankind. John Wesley Powell, without being a Lincoln or a Mark Twain, was of that persuasion, one of a great company. It is worth looking for a moment at how he was made.

It is easy enough to summarize: he was made by wandering, by hard labor, by the Bible, by an outdoor life in small towns and on farms, by the optimism and practicality and democracy of the frontier, by the occasional man of learning and the occasional books he met, by country schools and the ill-equipped cubs or worn-out misfits who taught them, by the academies and colleges with their lamentable lacks and their industry and their hope, by the Methodism of his father and the prevailing conviction that success came from work and only to the deserving. If there were not many opportunities, if the cultural darkness was considerable, it was also true that in that darkness any little star showed as plainly as a sun.

A homemade education did something to the people who acquired it, and a homemade education was not the exclusive invention of the western settlements. Any rural area, once frontier, retained some of the stamp: the boyhood of a Thurlow Weed or a John Burroughs or a Jay Gould in upstate New York was not greatly different from the boyhood of a Lincoln or a Garfield or a John Muir in the Midwest. But in the Midwest, over immense regions of a peculiar homogeneity in climate, geography, people, and economic status, the homemade education was typical, and it was made more typical by the way in which successive westering waves repeated the whole process in new country. Ohio and Kentucky repeated the backwoods experience of Massachusetts and New York and Pennsylvania; Indiana repeated Ohio; Illinois and Wisconsin and Michigan repeated Indiana; Iowa and Minnesota and Missouri repeated Illinois and Wisconsin; the Dakotas and Nebraska and Kansas repeated, or tried to repeat, Iowa and Minnesota. 2

The bearded, one-armed young man who commanded the Rocky Mountain Exploring Expedition, and who had acquired the lifelong title of Major in the same volunteer service that cost him his arm, was almost classically a product of that special frontier education. His character, his ideas, his very weaknesses and his peculiar strengths derived from a social and intellectual climate nearly rudimentary, nearly unformed, but of a singularly formative kind. He is not comprehensible as man or as career except in the context given memorable expression by Lincoln, and containing, among Powell’s own contemporaries, such distinguished names as Garfield, Mark Twain, Howells, Eggleston, Muir, Garland and Lester Ward. These, and many others like them, at once expressed and helped to shape the emerging West. The education of John Wesley Powell is less interesting as a personal than as a regional experience. 3

Wandering was a part of it, and the wandering led always west. Born in Mount Morris, New York, the eldest son of an immigrant Wesleyan preacher, young Powell spent his boyhood in Jackson, Ohio, near Chillicothe, and knew what it was to be stoned as an abolitionist for his father’s sake, and learned something of the southern Ohio country from the reports his father brought home from the circuit, and watched a town grow up from raw beginnings around him, and had some chance to observe leading men of the town and region. By the time he was twelve he was adding the rural experience to that of the small town, taking over the major responsibility for a frontier farm in Walworth County, Wisconsin, southwest of Milwaukee. By the time he was eighteen he was helping his family to move across into Bonus Prairie, Illinois, and was ready himself to break loose on a series of summer trips and summer jobs that took him from St. Paul to New Orleans, from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, across Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, up and down the Mississippi and its tributary rivers. The principal purpose of those trips was amateur natural history, but they were adventure too — and education. The Civil War could hardly be said to have dragged him away from home; his home had been hardly more than a wharf to tie his boat to for years. And no sooner was the war over than his itchy foot led him west. His migratory family finally came to rest, long after Powell had broken away, in Em poria, Kansas.

An acquaintance with books and learning was not a thing that a frontier boy like Powell could take for granted; he had to seize it as he could. Abe Lincoln said it for every such boy with brains and dreams in his head: “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is a man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.” A frontier boy with a lust for books was not choosy. It is hard, in an age with more books than it wants, to comprehend the enduring passion for reading that kept Lincoln up half the night with his bushy head almost in the fire, and led John Muir to rise at one o‘clock in the morning to read and work on inventions, and induced Powell, hauling grain to market from the Walworth County farm, to put under the wagon seat any books he happened to have available, to be read on the slow tedious road. A frontier child who liked to read read what he could lay his hands on, and he laid hands on some peculiar things and in odd quarters. The boy who got a homemade education rarely could buy books until he was well grown, though Edward Eggleston’s father took the precaution of providing in his will for a library for the use of his sons. Generally a boy borrowed his reading, and generally there was someone whom accident or ambition had tossed out on the frontier who brought his love of books and some of the books themselves to the wilderness. Inferretque deos Latio. Acquiring learning in the rural Midwest was like an elaborate egg-hunt — but the rules were fair; there were always eggs if you hunted long and hard enough. Somebody always turned out to have a book you hadn’t read.

Quite as often, somebody in town or within reach turned out to have some sort of intellectual or professional or scientific interest or capacity, too, and that when it showed was a very bright star to tell direction by. In an extraordinary number of cases that first man of learning or enthusiasm that a frontier boy encountered gave his life a twist that it never outgrew. It happened that when Lincoln walked twenty miles to borrow books in Rockport, he borrowed them from Pitcher, and Pitcher was a lawyer. It happened too that from Dave Turnham, the constable at Pigeon Creek, he borrowed The Revised Laws of Indiana, adopted and enacted by the general assembly at their eighth session. To which are prefixed the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Indiana. And it happened that Ann Rutledge’s father sponsored a debating society, and that Abe Lincoln came. The accidents of his light-starved youth pushed him toward the law and politics just as surely as Edward Eggleston’s contacts with Julia Dumont and with his stepfather in Vevay pushed him toward literature and the ministry, or Mark Twain’s and William Dean Howells’ experience in the print shops that Lincoln called the “poor man’s university” pushed them toward a career in words.

There was more than one “poor man’s university,” and more than one profession into which a boy with a homemade education could be directed. Though free schools did not come to the Midwest until after 1848, and though illiteracy in 1840, when Powell was six years old, ranged from about 5½ per cent in Ohio to more than 14 per cent in Indiana and Illinois,4 there were forces which had some of a school’s effects. The Methodist circuit riders were one such force, both through their preaching and through the books and tracts they distributed. Peter Cartwright is said to have given away as much as a thousand dollars’ worth of reading matter in a single year, and the very character of the circuit rider’s mission took him to places where reading matter was most needed. Three fourths of the early students of Asbury (DePauw) University came from homes that were visited by itinerant Methodist preachers. What impulse toward learning and a wider world was generated by the crude culture of those men it would be impossible to measure, but it was undoubtedly great. Powell, like Eggleston, had it in his own home — though that fact probably made it less rather than more acceptable. The Powell family also had, as virtually every pioneer household had, a Bible, and they read it, and read it aloud.

Lawyers too rode a circuit, and they too were a civilizing force, though considerably more tainted with rum and broad stories than the preachers. The offices which they maintained at home, and the libraries of law books with which they stocked them, were universities just as surely as the print shops were, and more Americans than Andrew Jackson and Lincoln got much of their learning reading law with a patron. But the law never touched Wes Powell; and the Methodism of his father was so far overcome by his more secular reading that he refused to study for the ministry and by the refusal threw away his father’s help toward a college education. He wanted to study for something quite different from the ministry, and the reason he did was that in Jackson, Ohio, he had met one of those frontier men of learning who so often gave a homemade education its motive and its direction.

This man, George Crookham, was a successful farmer, an abolitionist active in the Underground Railroad, and a self-taught man of science. Crookham had a private museum filled with Indian relics and natural history specimens. He had a library of scientific works of which he was very proud. His friends among the scientific and political leaders of Ohio included William Mather, the state geologist, Salmon P. Chase, the head of the Liberty Party, and President Charles Grandison Finney of Oberlin. And he had adjoining his museum a room in which without fee he gave instruction to all young men who wanted it. When the heat of the slavery issue made the common school unsafe for young Wes Powell in that border town, Crookham undertook to instruct him.

They read Gibbon and Hume, among other things, but Gibbon and Hume were not the sources from which Powell learned most. For a boy of less than ten, even a light-starved frontier boy, those were pretty tough going. But natural history excursions into the fields and woods, sometimes with Crookham alone, sometimes with Crookham and Mather, were pure delight. Crookham, who partook of that taste for “natural philosophy” that kept the eighteenth century alive on the nineteenth-century American frontiers, was not particular in his intellectual tastes. He was botanist, geologist, zoologist, ethnologist, archaeologist, historian, philosopher, in the best tradition of the self-taught rural savant, and his life overflowed with scientific, political, agricultural, religious, and human interests. He was Wes Powell’s guide for only a short time, and the wonders of his museum and library were available for an even shorter time, for a gang of pro-slavery hoodlums burned it down. But the few years of Crookham’s company and instruction had a thousand times more immediate effect on the boy than all the years of his father’s piety and orthodoxy.

When Wes Powell began to develop grown-up interests, they were by and large Crookham’s interests. When he began to collect books, they were the sort of books that Crookham had collected, perhaps some of them those scientific treatises emanating from the Owenite colony of New Harmony, which Say and Lesueur and Troost and the rest of the “boatload of learning” made for a while the scientific capital of the Midwestern frontier. When he grew old enough to follow his own whims, his whims led him into excursions in search of natural history specimens, and at the first opportunity he began collections in pure imitation of Crookham’s — flowers, shells, reptiles, relics from the mounds, animals, especially fresh-water shells and fossils. When he came, as he almost inevitably did, to Crookham’s profession of schoolteaching — that common but often temporary recourse of the bright farm boy on the way up — he taught school Crookham’s way, with field trips and an enthusiastic emphasis on natural history. And when he came to seek mature companionship in his intellectual life he found himself active in societies similar to the informal groups of which Crookham had been the center in Powell’s Ohio boyhood. That is to say, the influence of Crookham was crucial and definitive: it was an influence calculated to make young Powell a leading citizen of some rural Athens, a member of the debating club, a lecturer on Lyceum circuits, a pillar of the crude structure that learning was building in the wilderness. He did not remain in that mold — the mold was too small for him — but he was shaped by it.

The years of the Powells’ residence in Wisconsin were from one point of view years of hardship and deprivation for the boy, for his brothers Bram and Walter, and for his two sisters. The backbreaking, stunting labor of a frontier farm was his from the age of twelve on. Starting only three years later and sixty miles farther north, a Scotch boy named John Muir would go through a virtually identical experience of the hard manual labor necessary to break a frontier farm, and in his autobiography Muir would give classic expression to those fifteen-hour working days and the stolen hours when sleep was put off in favor of books. The parallel is exact even to the religious opposition of the father, for Joseph Powell objected to his son’s museum, his natural history, his scientific interests, in the same way that Muir’s father protested against reading and invention. Both boys were confirmed in their scientific interests by the surroundings of a backwoods Wisconsin farm, by nature in its intimate variety, by wandering Indians, by the persistent, constant stream of questions that the mind proposed and clamored to have answered. Both boys broke away for long rambling excursions justified by scientific collections; both sought college at their own expense and interrupted their schooling by intervals of teaching and farm labor; and both ultimately got what the schools could give them, but never graduated.

Powell’s academic career was actually more restless and broken than Muir’s. He tried the Illinois Institute which his father had helped to organize and which after collapse and reorganization became Wheaton College, and found when he went to register that not a single scientific course was offered. He tried Illinois College at Jacksonville for a year, and left it to go on a long collecting trip across Wisconsin. In 1857 he was back at Illinois Institute in Wheaton, and in the year following at Oberlin, from which he quietly departed with a smattering of Latin and Greek after one term.

No college in the Midwest was really equipped to teach a scientist, though there were a few courses in botany and natural philosophy. Powell had taught himself geometry in order to give it to his students in the country schools he had taught in off and on since the age of eighteen. He taught himself the sciences in the same way, and supplemented what he got from books with what collecting in the field could teach him. The 1855 trip across Wisconsin kept him rambling for four months. The next year, following a road Lincoln had traveled, he went down the Mississippi in a skiff from the Falls of St. Anthony to New Orleans, and on that long lonely wonderful passage he may have met or been passed by a steamboat on the texas of which a cub named Sam Clemens was learning the river from a pilot named Horace Bixby. In the spring of 1857 Powell took the train to Pittsburgh and floated down the Ohio to St. Louis, following the classic natural history route into the West that had been followed by Lewis and Clark, Say, Schoolcraft, Nuttall, Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, and a dozen other of the West’s first scientists. That same fall he was down in Missouri in the Iron Mountain country, collecting fossils. The following spring he rowed down the Illinois River to its mouth, and thence up the Des Moines as far as the mouth of Raccoon Creek. He won prizes for his mollusk collection at the 1860 fair of the Illinois State Agricultural Society, he found time to woo his cousin Emma in Detroit, against the family’s wishes; he tried his hand in the spring of 1860 as a lecturer on geography and geology around a tank-town lyceum circuit in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, and in that same year when he cast a vote for Abraham Lincoln for President he was made principal of the public schools of Hennepin, Illinois, near the junction of the Illinois River and the Illinois and Mississippi Canal, where he had been teaching since 1858.

What distinguishes this early career of Powell’s is not its un usualness, but its intensity. He did the things that many of his contemporaries were doing, but did them with a kind of ferocity and a restless, driving will to completeness and perfection that distinguished him among local Illinois naturalists while he was still a very young man. When the State Natural History Society obtained a charter and elected its first officers in March, 1861, Principal John Wesley Powell, then aged twenty-seven, and the possessor of a homemade scientific education of more variety than depth, was made its secretary. Within little more than a month he was in the army as a volunteer; his education took a sudden turn toward military engineering, and the amateur scientist became for the next four years an amateur soldier.

He was not the kind to remain still, even in the army. He entered on April 14 as a private. By June he was a second lieutenant, by November a captain and something of an expert on fortifications, solidly enough established on Grant’s staff at Cape Girardeau to ask as a personal favor a few days’ leave to go to Detroit and marry his cousin Emma Dean. On April 5, 1862, he came out of the smoke and roar of Shiloh, mounted on General Wallace’s horse and with his right arm smashed by a Minie ball. They removed his arm above the elbow in Savannah three days later.

Losing one’s right arm is a misfortune; to some it would be a disaster, to others an excuse. It affected Wes Powell’s life about as much as a stone fallen into a swift stream affects the course of the river. With a velocity like his, he simply foamed over it. He did not even resign from the army, but returned after a leave and a stretch of recruiting duty, and served as an artillery officer with Grant, Sherman, and Thomas. On January 2, 1865, after tasting more battle at Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, Raymond, Jackson, Chara pini Hill, Big River, Vicksburg, the Meridian Raid, Nashville, and having risen to the command of the artillery of the 17th Army Corps, he resigned. His brother Walter, a lieutenant in Powell’s battery, had been captured at Atlanta and had lain for a time completely mad in Camp Sorghum. A month after Powell’s resignation Walter Powell was exchanged, a walking skeleton. His brother Wes was not much better off, for he came out of the war with a painful, twice-operated-upon stump, and weighing barely 110 pounds with a full beard.

By the fall of 1865, Major Powell had moved up to a professorship of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. What he gave his students was essentially Crookham. He taught science classes with field excursions, he lectured on natural science, he formed a chapter of the State Natural History Society. In 1866 he arranged a move to the Illinois State Normal University, practically next door. The new post gave him a fresh impetus. Between November, 1866, and February, 1867, he personally steered through the legislature in Springfield a grant in support of a museum of the Illinois Natural History Society in Bloomington. The grant provided a thousand dollars a year for the maintenance and increase of the Society’s collections, and it provided $1500 a year as salary for a curator. Curator was precisely what Major Powell wanted to be.

Considering his later success as an imaginative and tenacious bureau head in Washington, his success in this, his first minor local piece of promotion, seems a trivial thing. Yet his campaign in 1866-67 was brilliantly conducted, and it showed for the first time the politician and promoter superimposed upon the earnest amateur naturalist. Something new had been added to Crookham’s disciple, a confidence and dash and capacity to manipulate men that nothing but the army could have taught him so fast. He was a finished performer as he appeared before the legislature in Springfield, argued for and got his grant on his own specifications, took the legislature’s decision home and presented it to the Board of Education, meeting in Bloomington in March, and permitted the Board to press the curatorship upon him as an extension of his professorial duties. When he had modestly accepted this position, he told the Board about a dream he had of taking an expedition of students and naturalists to the Rocky Mountains or the Dakota badlands, where science had made only the barest beginnings and where a museum’s collections could be quickly enriched. He came out of the meeting with the Board’s promise that half the new maintenance fund of the museum could be devoted to support of the expedition, and with their almost breathless approval of everything he had asked.5 The whole operation was small, but the only thing that was minor-league about it was the modesty of Powell’s requests. He would learn to ask for more later, but he would never improve upon his performance as a promoter.

Actually, his first try for something bigger was prompt. In the latter part of April, 1867, he made up his mind to go to Washington and try for a Congressional appropriation to support his expedition. As one of that rush of office-seekers and petitioners and peddlers of schemes, that mob which the lobbyist Sam Ward likened to rutting stags, Powell did not do quite so well as he had before the Illinois legislature.6 But he did call on Grant, his old commander, who was then Secretary of War, and Grant did advise him to present a written request for army rations for twelve men, which Grant promised to provide. He also promised a military escort for Powell’s party from Fort Laramie through the Badlands of Dakota. That was the best Powell could get out of the pork barrel, and it turned out that he could not use the second part of what he did get, for when he went out to see General Sherman in Council Bluffs a month later, Sherman advised him against stirring up the Sioux, and steered him instead toward the Colorado Rockies, where things were quieter.

By enlisting volunteers eager for excitement, by playing upon the railroads’ universal desire to cultivate good will through favors to anyone with a potential grain of influence or prestige, and by gaining support from several institutions of learning, the Major managed to get his expedition to the mountains in 1867, and he and Emma climbed Pikes Peak and Lincoln Peak and took their crew up and down the Front Range and through Middle and South Parks and shipped their natural history specimens home. That limping reconnoissance was behind him now; it had demonstrated that imagination and perseverance could make a successful expedition out of very little. Now he was back at the edge of the Rockies, still with only ration-card support from Washington, still pinched for money, still depending on free railroad fares and free freight, on contributions from the Natural History Society and Normal University and the Illinois Industrial University and any other institution that wanted to buy in, but with something important on his mind. Slight, tough, well recovered from his wound and bristling with energy, Major Powell was not inclined to lament his failure both last year and this to extract an appropriation from Congress. His two trips to Washington had taught him something, made him acquainted. If he succeeded in the purposes of his expedition he could go back to Washington a third time and ask for what he wanted and get it. Weaknesses of equipment, personnel, finances, were troublesome but not fatal, and he was too busy looking ahead to worry about them. The farm boy trained in physical hardship, trained through the head and through the hands, trained in optimism and imagination as well as in a smattering of a half-dozen sciences, full of confidence and alive with ideas, was now coming face to face with the real West, and this was something he had been waiting for.

The inadequacies of a frontier education were all his: he had little formal background, he had never possessed adequate laboratory facilities and consequently did not have real laboratory skills, he had the brashness of the half educated that let him set up as an expert in a half-dozen specialized fields. By strict standards he was a “collector,” a “natural historian,” rather than a scientist. It was not pure accident that in this same summer of 1868 Othniel C. Marsh of Yale would pop off the Union Pacific train for a hurried few hours at a Nebraska station and in those few hours make discoveries of a thousand times greater importance than all the collections of Powell’s party in two years. Specifically, Marsh would pick up the first of the fossils that gave him a complete developmental history of the horse from eohippus to equus, and let him publish the clinching documentation of the theory of evolution.7 But Marsh was trained at the Sheffield Scientific School and in Germany; he was a thorough professional. He knew what he was looking for and he knew where to look and he knew what to do with what he found. Not that much could be said of Major Powell.

Nevertheless he had his strengths, and those too came largely from his border education. He had the independence, the confidence, the practical ability to accomplish things, that many better trained men lacked. He did not know enough to be discouraged. The war had given him a lesson in organization and the command of large numbers of men. It had shown him that an amateur soldier could accomplish things as well as many a professional. It had given him a taste for leadership that now responded to the challenge of a barely opened West.

Powell would have thought Henry Adams’ doubts about the West the sheerest nonsense; he would not have understood the mind from which they came, for where Powell started low and West, Adams had started high and East. Where the one was crippled with doubts and ironies, his ambition constantly weakened by a divided mind, Powell was as single-minded as a buzz saw, and as resolute, and as little bothered by the agenbit of inwyt and the pale cast of thought. He was a doer, of a kind that Adams thought he admired but did not really understand and perhaps was a little afraid of. In later years Powell and Adams were friends of a sort, and at least once Powell dined at the Adams house on Lafayette Square, and Adams was one of a group that in 1878 met in Powell’s parlor and organized the Cosmos Club, and they had a mutuality of friends and interests and a perfectly amicable relationship. But admiration and real liking apparently never flowered. Adams’ admiration went out instead to Clarence King, the brilliant and volatile athlete and connoisseur and scientist and administrator, in Adams’ opinion the best educated man in America for the job an American had to do, and engaged in a geological reconnoissance that both for science and for economics was of absolutely major importance.

But note that Clarence King, Yale educated, eastern-born, well to do, failed to live up to the extravagant predictions that Adams and John Hay made for him. He failed, Adams said, “for lack of money.” That is hardly an accurate, though it is a humane and protective, judgment. Clarence King failed for lack of character, persistence, devotion, wholeness. For that important job he seemed to Adams cut out to do, John Wesley Powell was actually much better equipped. Despite his homemade education, and just possibly because of it, he would do more than Clarence King would do and do it better.

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