John Wesley Powell : biography
John Wesley Powell (March 24, 1834 – September 23, 1902) was a U.S. soldier, geologist, explorer of the American West, professor at Illinois State University, and director of major scientific and cultural institutions. He is famous for the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers that included the first known passage through the Grand Canyon.
Powell served as second director of the US Geological Survey (1881–1894) and proposed policies for development of the arid West which were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. He was director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications. Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River, was named in his honor.
Early life and education
Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, in 1834, the son of Joseph and Mary Powell. His father, a poor itinerant preacher, had emigrated to the U.S. from Shrewsbury, England, in 1830. His family moved westward to Jackson, Ohio, then Walworth County, Wisconsin, before settling in Illinois in rural Boone County.
Powell studied at Illinois College, Wheaton College and Oberlin College, acquiring a knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin. Powell had a restless nature and a deep interest in the natural sciences. As a young man he undertook a series of adventures through the Mississippi River valley. In 1855, he spent four months walking across Wisconsin. During 1856, he rowed the Mississippi from St. Anthony, Minnesota, to the sea. In 1857, he rowed down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to St. Louis; and in 1858 down the Illinois River, then up the Mississippi and the Des Moines River to central Iowa. At age 25 he was elected to the Illinois Natural History Society in 1859.
Civil war and aftermath
Powell’s loyalties remained with the Union and the cause of abolishing slavery. 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. He enlisted in the Union Army as a cartographer, topographer and military engineer.Weiner, Americans Without Law (New York University Press, 2006).
During the Civil War he served first with the 20th Illinois Volunteers. While stationed at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, he recruited an artillery company that became Battery "F" of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery with Powell as captain. On November 28, 1861, Powell took a brief leave to marry the former Emma Dean.Worster, Donald. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2001.pp. 89. At the Battle of Shiloh, he lost most of his right armCurtin, Jeremiah. Creation Myths of Primitive America http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/39106 when struck by a minie ball. The raw nerve endings in his arm would continue to cause him pain the rest of his life.
Despite the loss of an arm, he returned to the Army and was present at Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge on the Big Black River and in the siege of Vicksburg. Always the geologist he took to studying rocks while in the trenches at Vicksburg. He was made a major and commanded an artillery brigade with the 17th Army Corps during the Atlanta Campaign. After the fall of Atlanta he was transferred to George H. Thomas’ army and participated in the battle of Nashville. At the end of the war he was made a brevet lieutenant colonel, but despite this he continued to be referred to as "Major".
After leaving the Army, Powell took the post of professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. He also lectured at Illinois State Normal University for most of his career. Powell helped found the Illinois Museum of Natural History, where he served as the curator. He declined a permanent appointment in favor of exploration of the American West.