John Wesley Powell

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First camp of the John Wesley Powell expedition, in the willows, Green River, Wyoming, 1871

John Wesley Powell (March 24, 1834 - September 23, 1902) was an U.S. explorer of the American West. He is famous for the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers that included the first passage through the Grand Canyon.


He was born in Mount Morris, New York, the son of Joseph Powell and Mary Powell. His father, a poor intinenary preacher, had emigrated to the US from Shrewsbury, England in 1830. His family moved westward to Chillicothe, Ohio, then Walworth County, Wisconsin, then finally settling in Illinois in rural Boone County. He gained an education in at Wheaton College and Oberlin College, acquiring a knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin but never graduating. Powell had a deep interest in the natural sciences, with a restless nature. As a young man, he undertood a series of adventures through the Mississippi River valley. In 1855 he spent four months walking across Wisconsin. In 1856 he rowed the Mississippi from St. Anthony 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. He was elected to the Illinois Natural History Society in 1859.

During the Civil War, he enlisted in the Union Army, serving first with the 20th Illinois Volunteers. At the Battle of Shiloh, he lost most of one arm by a steel ball. The raw nerve endings in his arm would continue to cause him pain the rest of this life. Despite the loss of an arm, he returned to the army and was present at Champion Hill and Black River Bridge. Further medical attention to his arm did little to slow him, he was made a major and served as chief of artillery with the 17th Army Corps. In 1862 he married Emma Dean.

After leaving the Army he took the post of professor of geology at the Illinois Wesleyan University. He also lectured at Illinois Normal University, helping found the Illinois Museum of Natural History, where he served as the curator, but declined a permanent appointment in favor of exploration of the American West.

From 1867 he 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 and the Grand Canyon. He gathered nine men, four boats and food for ten months and 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. One man quit after the first month and another three in the third, only days before the group reached the mouth of the Virgin River on August 30, after traversing almost 1,500 km. Powell retraced the route in 1871 with another expedition, producing an accurate map and various papers.

In 1881 he became the second director of the US Geological Survey, a post he held until 1894. He was also the head of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution until his death. In 1895 he published a book based on his explorations of the Colorado originally titled Canyons of the Colorado, now known as The exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons. Powell was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

As an ethnologist and early anthropologist, Powell subscribed to a particularly rigid form of cultural evolutionary theory. In his writings, he divides all societies into "Savages," "Barbarians," and "Civilizations." For the savages, Powell clearly had in mind the Native Americans he encountered in his travels; for the barbarians he probably was thinking of the Huns and other European chiefdoms that had conquered Rome in antiquity. By civilization, Powell clearly had his own society in mind. In his view, all societies naturally progress toward civilization; those who have not have not fulfilled their potential. His view is held as typical of the nineteenth-century cultural evolutionists and is now wholeheartedly rejected by anthropologists.

Lake Powell is named after him.


  • Powell, John Wesley (1895). Canyons of the Colorado. Flood & Vincent. (Reissued 1961 as The exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons. New York: Dover Press. ISBN 0-486-20094-9.)

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