USGS Logo Geological Survey Professional Paper 670
John Wesley Powell and the Anthropology of the Canyon Country


Powell's first acquaintance with the Indians of the Canyon Country came in 1868. He was then leading his second expedition of volunteer students and friends on a natural history expedition into the Rocky Mountains. In the fall, the party journeyed to the White River in northwestern Colorado. Most of them turned northward and returned home via the railroad at Green River Station, Wyo., but Powell, his wife Emma, and three men remained on the White River for the winter.

Powell's purpose was to determine the feasibility of a boat expedition down the then largely unknown Green and Colorado Rivers, and he spent much of the winter making reconnaissance trips along the rims of the Green River and its tributaries.

He did not devote all of the winter of 1868-69 to geology and reconnaissance, however. A band of Tabuats Ute Indians, led by Chief Douglass, was also camped on the White River near Powell's camp. Powell spent many long winter evenings learning the language and observing the customs of the Indians. His knowledge of the Ute-Southern Paiute language, which he continued to study in later years, served him well during his work in the Canyon Country. The Utes dubbed him Kapurats, meaning "arm off," a name still remembered by some of the Indians of southern Utah and northern Arizona. In 1967, an old Kaibab Paiute woman from northern Arizona told one of the authors that Kapurats was remembered by her people as the man who many years ago tied rags on trees (apparently referring to the surveying tape used by Powell and his men in mapping the area), and now, "those rags are way up high in those trees."

The Tabuats Ute were one of the "Northern" Ute bands (a term used by anthropologists to distinguish the Ute bands of eastern Utah and northwestern Colorado from the "Southern" Ute bands of southern and southwestern Colorado. (See fig. 15.)) The Tabuats, like other Northern Utes, were excellent horsemen. They lived in skin tipis and ventured annually out onto the High Plains east of the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo and sometimes to contest for the buffalo grounds with the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other Plains tribes.

In later years, Powell again worked briefly with various Northern Ute. During a horseback trip from the Uintah Indian Agency to Gunnison, Utah, Powell fell in with a Ute band, travelled with them, and spent the evenings around the campfire learning more of their language. In the summer of 1874, after he had completed his geological studies in the Uinta Mountains, he went to the Uintah Agency for a few days to gather more information on the Ute language. In the winter of 1875 he brought Richard Komas, a Northern Ute youth who was a student at Lincoln College in Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., for a time to continue his studies of the language.

In 1870, Powell, accompanied by Jacob Hamblin, the famed Mormon missionary to the Indians, visited the Kaibab, Uinkarets, and Shivwits bands of Southern Paiute who lived on the plateaus along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. These peoples were close linguistic relatives of the Ute but had few horses or guns and were still living the old, pre-horse way of life.

Later the same year, Powell and Hamblin crossed the Colorado River and visited the Hopi mesas, or the Province of Tusayan, as Powell (1875b) called it in an article he wrote a few years later. During the same trip, Powell and Hamblin met with various Navajo Indians in an attempt to bring peace between them and the Mormons (Creer, 1958).

During the winter of 1871-72 and again in 1872-73, Powell's party camped near Kanab, Utah. Their primary task was to establish a base line for their planned topographic map of the Utah-northern Arizona region. But there was a band of Kaibab Indians nearby (figs. 1, 16, and 17), and at every opportunity, Powell recorded myths and tales and vocabulary items and took down other information about the customs of the people (figs. 2 and 17). When he could, he took Indians along as guides and packers on his trips across the country and continued his inquiries around the fire in the evenings.

FIGURE 1.—Kaibab Paiute Indians. Left: Woman making basket, Kaibab Plateau. Right: Man posed working on chipped stone knife, near Kanab, Utah. Photographs by J. K. Hillers, 1878, from Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.

FIGURE 2.—Powell (on right) meeting with Kaibab Plateau, 1873. White man to left of Powell may be Jacob Hamblin. Photograph by J. K. Hillers, from Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.

In 1873, Powell and G. W. Ingalls were appointed Special Commissioners for the Department of Indian Affairs to investigate the "conditions and wants" of the Indians of the Canyon Country and the adjacent Great Basin (Powell and Ingalls, 1874). In the course of this investigation, lasting from May until early November 1873, Powell was able to contact representatives of most of the Indian groups in Utah, Nevada, and northern Arizona. Many of them came to a meeting held outside Salt Lake City, Utah, in May. Later in the summer, Powell and Ingalls travelled through central and southern Utah and met with various Indian bands or their representatives. In September, a second general meeting was held outside St. George, Utah (fig. 3). Powell and Ingalls then continued southwestward to Las Vegas and into southeastern California before turning back to Salt Lake City.

FIGURE 3.—The Powell-Ingalls Special Collection meeting with Southern Paiutes near St. George, Utah, September 1873 (Powell standing on left). Photograph by J. K. Hillers, from Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.

In addition to learning of the "conditions and wants" of the Indians, Powell collected a good deal of ethnographic and linguistic information. From Naches (fig. 4), a son of the famed Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute (Paviotso) of Nevada, Powell collected stories, vocabularies, and data on kinship. From others, such as Seguit, a Gosiute from Skull Valley, Utah, and from Kanosh, the chief of the Pahvant Ute near Fillmore, Utah, Powell collected vocabularies, lists of leaders of Indian bands, myths, and tales (Fowler and Fowler, 1969b).

FIGURE 4.—Naches, one of Powell's Northern Paiute informants, 1873. Photograph from National Archives, Bureau of Indian Affairs Collection.

John K. ("Jack") Hillers accompanied Powell and Ingalls during their investigations. Hillers had joined Powell's second river expedition as a boat man. After E. O. Beaman, the photographer for the party, left at Kanab in 1872, Hillers became the official photographer for the Powell survey. He was to remain associated with Powell as photographer for the Rocky Mountain Survey and, later, the U.S. Geological Survey until 1900.

During the 1873 trip, Hillers took photographs of the Indians, especially of the Southern Paiute. Many of the photographs, now in the Smithsonian Institution, show authentic details of Indian customs and have been studied with profit by anthropologists (Steward, 1939; Euler, 1966b). On the other hand, some of the photographs are not ethnographically accurate. Powell was interested in producing stereopticon views for sale. Apparently in order to appeal to easterners' preconceptions of what Indians "ought" to look like, Powell had brought with him various articles of clothing which he had earlier collected from the Ute of the White River area. These clothes, together with some feather headdresses, apparently made to order for the occasion by the Indians under Ellen Thompson's5 direction, were used to dress up the Southern Paiute to look more like "Indians." In addition, many of the poses are very stylized (fig. 6). The women in figure 5 are Southern Paiute from the Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona, but the dresses are of Northern Ute manufacture from northwestern Colorado.

5Ellen Thompson was Powell's sister. Her husband, Almon H. Thompson, served for several years in the 1870's as Powell's chief cartographer and second in command. He later worked for the U.S. Geological Survey.

FIGURE 5.—Southern Paiute women wearing Ute dresses. Women are wearing baskets for seed gathering and are carrying winnowing trays. Photograph by J. K. Hillers, 1873, from Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.

FIGURE 6.—Left: Posed group of Kaibab Paiute men. Chuarumpeak, leader of Kaibab band who accompanied Powell on a number of trips, is on left. Right: Powell, dressed in Indian clothing, with Ute woman, probably in Uinta basin. Photographs by J. K. Hillers, 1873 (left) and 1874 (right), from Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Collection.

Powell had a number of such pictures made into stereopticon views, which were very popular items in 19th-century American drawing rooms. He sold many sets of the views showing the Indians and the geological features in Utah and Arizona. A rumor among Powell's employees in Washington, D.C., in the 1880's was that the mortgage on the Powell home at 910 M Street, N.W., was largely paid off by the sale of the views. Powell also gave away many sets to Congressmen and other Government officials. Thus, many people in the East learned something about the Indians of the Canyon Country, even though the Indians were sometimes dressed in other people's clothing.

During the latter half of the 1870's, Powell devoted most of his time to administration. He found little time to continue his studies of the Indians, but his interest in Indians continued and broadened. He envisioned a Government agency devoted to the study of American Indian cultures, past and present. He began moving in that direction in 1876 by hiring the Reverend J. Owen Dorsey and Albert S. Gatschet as "philologists" attached to the Rocky Mountain Survey. Dorsey had been a missionary to the Ponca Indians of Iowa. Gatschet had earlier worked for the Hayden survey. Both men continued to work with Powell on anthropological matters for many years.

Throughout the 1870's there had been increasing agitation to do away with the overlapping work of the four "great surveys." Finally, in 1879, the Powell, Hayden, and Wheeler surveys were abolished and the United States Geological Survey was established. Fieldwork by the King survey had been completed in 1873. At this time, Powell got his chance to form an "ethnological" bureau to study the American Indians. The bill that created the Geological Survey also contained a clause providing for the completion of the unfinished ethnological work of the Powell survey. This was to be carried out under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and Powell was named to direct the work. In succeeding years, new appropriations were forthcoming. Thus, the Bureau of Ethnology (after 1894, the Bureau of American Ethnology) was created. Powell remained Director of the Bureau until his death in 1902.

After 1879, Powell was able to make only one brief trip to study the Indians in the West. In the fall of 1880, he journeyed to eastern California to collect myths and tales from the Wintun Indians. On his way back to Washington, D.C., he stopped at Pyramid Lake, Baffle Mountain, and Winnemucca in Nevada to gather data on the Northern Paiute and Western Shoshoni (Fowler and Fowler, 1969b).

In 1881, Powell became the Director of the Geological Survey, while retaining his position in the Bureau of Ethnology. After that, his increasing administrative duties precluded any further fieldwork, although he did manage to visit his men in the field occasionally and to accompany them on brief visits to archeological sites or to various Indian villages.

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Last Updated: 13-Jan-2009