John Wesley Powell


John Wesley Powell : biography

March 24, 1834 – September 23, 1902

Beliefs and ideas

As an ethnologist and early anthropologist, Powell was a follower of Lewis Henry Morgan. He classed human societies into "savagery," "barbarism" and "civilization". Powell’s division was based on levels of technology, family and social organization, property relations, and intellectual development. In his view, all societies progressed toward civilization. He was a champion of preservation and conservation. It was his conviction that part of the natural progression of society included a combination of efforts to maximize and make the best use of resources. Powell created Illinois State University’s first Museum of Anthropology and it was called the finest in all of North America at the time.

Powell is credited with coining the word "acculturation", first using it in an 1880 report by the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnography. In 1883 Powell defined "acculturation" to be the psychological changes induced by cross-cultural imitation.

Powell’ s expeditions led to his belief that the arid West was not suitable for agricultural development, except for about 2% of the lands that were near water sources. His Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States proposed irrigation systems and state boundaries based on watershed areas (to avoid squabbles). For the remaining lands, he proposed conservation and low-density, open grazing.

The railroad companies, who owned vast tracts of lands () granted in return for building the lines, did not agree with his opinion. They aggressively lobbied Congress to reject Powell’s policy proposals and to encourage farming instead, as they wanted to develop their lands. The politicians agreed and developed policies that encouraged pioneer settlement based on agriculture. They based such policy on a theory developed by Professor Cyrus Thomas and promoted by Horace Greeley. He suggested that agricultural development of land causes arid lands to generate higher amounts of rain ("rain follows the plow").

At an 1883 irrigation conference, Powell would remark: "Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land." Powell’s recommendations for development of the West were largely ignored until after the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in untold suffering associated with pioneer subsistence farms that failed due to insufficient rain.

Legacy and honors

  • In recognition of his national service, Powell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
  • Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River, was named in his honor. It straddles the border between Utah and Arizona. It is the second-largest man-made reservoir in the United States behind Lake Mead. It is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a popular summer destination.
  • Powell, Wyoming Major Powell never explored the Powell flats given his name.
  • In Powell’s honor, in 1974 the USGS National Center in Reston, Virginia, was dedicated as The John Wesley Powell Federal Building. In addition, the USGS’s highest award to persons outside the federal government is named the John Wesley Powell Award.
  • The Criminal Justice Services Department of Mesa County in Grand Junction, Colorado, named their residential building after John Wesley Powell.

Adventures and expeditions


From 1867 Powell led a series of expeditions into the Rocky Mountains and around the Green and Colorado rivers. In 1869 he set out to explore the Colorado river and the Grand Canyon. Gathering nine men, four boats and food for 10 months, he set out from Green River, Wyoming on May 24. Passing through dangerous rapids, the group passed down the Green River to its confluence with the Colorado River (then also known as the Grand River upriver from the junction), near present-day Moab, Utah and completed the journey on August 13, 1869.