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John Wesley Powell: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist

John Wesley Powell.

John Wesley Powell . . . was one of the few who believed in evolution by endeavor and who fought for intelligent and scientific planning for the development of society. He believed that progress comes by increasing cooperation among men, and he dreamed of developing a science that would provide the knowledge whereby men could live together in peace and mutual cooperation.
William T. Pecora, Director
U.S. Geological Survey
August 1969

In 1869, John Wesley Powell and nine adventure-seeking companions completed the first exploration of the dangerous and almost uncharted canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. By this trip, Powell, a 35-year-old professor of natural history, apparently unhampered by the lack of his right forearm (amputated after the Battle of Shiloh), opened up the last unknown part of the continental United States and brought to a climax the era of western exploration.

Powell was not an adventurer, nor did he consider himself just an explorer. He was a scientist, motivated by a thirst for knowledge and a firm belief that science was meant to further the progress of mankind. He endeavored at all times to put his beliefs into practice.

Powell's exploration of the Colorado River led to the formulation of some of the fundamental principles of land sculpture. He went on to develop an understanding of the natural conditions that control man and society in the arid lands of the Western States and to develop guidelines for the orderly development of the region. He had a keen and sympathetic interest in the Indians who inhabited this western land and made fundamental contributions to the new sciences of anthropology and ethnology. His talent for organization has left its mark on agencies and programs for the development and conservation of the natural resources of the world.

running rapids in boat

John Wesley Powell was born in 1834 in Mount Morris, New York, the son of Joseph Powell, a Methodist preacher who had emigrated from England 4 years earlier. A restless man, Joseph Powell gradually moved his family west across New York State and in 1838 settled in Jackson, Ohio. There the Powells became embroiled in one of the most controversial issues of the day—abolition. Reverend Powell's vigorous stand against slavery was met with hostility by many of the townspeople. Young Powell was frequently stoned by his classmates and had to be removed from public school and placed under the tutelage of a neighbor, George Crookham, a farmer and self-taught scientist. Crookham emphasized learning nature firsthand, and Powell's interest in natural history grew during their numerous junkets to collect specimens of plants, animals, birds, and minerals.

When Powell was 12 years old the family moved to a farm in Wisconsin. With his father away much of the time, the boy assumed management of the farm, an experience that helped develop physical stamina and moral character.

A typical farm of the 1800's similar to that on which John Wesley Powell was born.

Emma Dean Powell (nee Harriet Emma Dean) wife of John Wesley Powell.

Though he attended school irregularly, he was determined to pursue his studies in science over the objections of his father who wished him to become a minister. When he was 18, Powell began teaching in a one-room country school to earn money for college. The next 7 years were spent teaching school, attending college, and exploring the Midwest. At various times he attended Illinois College, Illinois Institute, and Oberlin College. In 1858, he joined the newly formed Illinois State Natural History Society, and as curator of conchology, made a fairly complete collection of the mollusks of Illinois. He began teaching at Hennepin, Illinois, in 1858 and in 1860 became superintendent of its schools.

While on a lecture tour in the summer of 1860, Powell realized that a civil war was inevitable. That winter, he studied military science and engineering. A strong abolitionist, John Wesley Powell was one of the first to volunteer when President Lincoln issued a call for troops.

On May 8, 1861, he enlisted at Hennepin, Illinois, as a private in the 20th Illinois Infantry. He was described as "age 27, height 5' 6-1/2" tall, light complected, gray eyes, auburn hair, occupation—teacher." He was elected sergeant-major of the regiment, and when the 20th Illinois was mustered into the Federal service a month later, Powell was commissioned a second lieutenant. The regiment was sent to Camp Girardeau near St. Louis. Because of his knowledge of engineering, Powell was directed to prepare and carry out a plan for the fortification of the camp and town. In November, General Grant authorized him to recruit and train a company to manage the siege guns.

That same month Grant allowed Powell a short leave for a hurried trip to Detroit to marry his cousin, Emma Dean, who accompanied him back to camp after the ceremony.

Powell was made captain of Battery F, 2d Illinois Artillery Volunteers at the end of the year. A few weeks later, he and his battery were ordered to Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. During the Battle of Shiloh, on April 6, as Powell gave the signal to fire, a Minie ball struck his wrist and plowed into his arm. The wound was so severe that his arm had to be amputated below the elbow.

The Battle of Shiloh. A drawing from the Matthew Brady collection.

Despite his injury, Powell returned to active service within a few months. On General Grant's orders, Mrs. Powell was given a pass to be with her husband wherever he went, thus enabling him to remain in the service where his engineering and artillery knowledge were sorely needed. During May and June 1863, Captain Powell's battery participated in the Siege of Vicksburg, and while in the trenches he examined the rocks and made a collection of fossil shells that was later deposited in the Illinois State Museum. In late 1863, Powell was made an inspector of artillery for the Department of the Army of Tennessee. He served as commanding officer of the 17th Army Corps Artillery Brigade and took part in several operations after the fall of Atlanta, including the Battle of Nashville.

Major John Wesley Powell in uniform, about 1863.

By January 1865, Powell had risen to the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel (although he preferred to be called major). With the end of the war at hand and his term of enlistment having expired, Powell asked to be mustered out of service.

Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, who was later with Powell on his second expedition down the Colorado River, wrote:

As a soldier his career was marked by a thorough study and mastery not only of the details of military life; but of military science. Especially was he apt in utilizing materials at hand to accomplish his ends—a trait that was also prominent in his civil life. Bridges he built from cotton gin houses, mantelets for his guns from gunny sacks and old rope, and shields for his sharpshooters from the moldboards of old plows found on the abandoned plantations. All this time, whenever possible, he continued his studies in natural science. He made a collection of fossils unearthed in the trenches around Vicksburg, land and river shells from the Mississippi swamps, and a large collection of mosses while on detached duty in Illinois. He also familiarized himself with the geology of regions through which armies passed to which he was attached.

"Our Works before Vicksburg—Battery Powell." It is likely that John Wesley Powell is shown erroneously in this illustration. Although Powell had lost his arm in the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862), he is shown uninjured at the Siege of Vicksburg (May-July 1863).

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Last Updated: 28-Mar-2006