John Wesley Powell: A Man For All Seasons


John Wesley (Wes) Powell wore many distinctive hats throughout his life, and his undeniable intelligence, unwavering courage, and pioneering nature served him well both during his time as an ACW soldier, and afterwards, when Powell blasted his way into the American west, gathering erudition along the way. Powell’s contributions to the ‘American dream’ are monumental, and I marvel that such a fearless man accomplished what he did, both as a soldier and post ACW, with the physical limitations that beset him after the Battle of Shiloh, when his right arm was blown off by a minnie ball. Pain would plague John Powell for the rest of his life, due to the raw nerve endings that were exposed as a result of his severe injury, but this only made Powell even more determined to satisfy his insatiable curiosity, and adventuresome spirit.

Born in Mount Morris, N.Y, on March 24, 1834, to Mary and Joseph (apropos for this time of year!) Powell, John’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Shrewsbury, England in 1830, and from N.Y., the family moved westward to Jackson, Ohio, then onwards to Walworth County, Wisconsin, finally settling in Boone County, Illinois. John’s hunger for the unknown were apparent early on in life and in 1855, Powell spent four months walking across Wisconsin. Elated by this experience, the following year John rowed down the Ohio River from Pittsburg to the Mississippi River, travelling North to reach St. Louis. Not content with these travels, in 1858 John took up the oars again and rowed down the Illinois River, up the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers, to central Iowa. In 1859, at the age of twenty-five, John Powell was elected to the Illinois Natural History Society.

While holding a teaching position in Boone County, the ambitious Powell furthered his studies at Illinois College, Illinois Institute, and Oberlin College. John acquired a knowledge of Ancient Greek/Latin during his ‘college years,’ and was also introduced to the world of botany and natural phenomena. Although John’s father supported his son in the art of higher learning, he had hoped that John would follow in his ministerial footsteps; but by this time John had become a scientific sponge and enthusiastic botanist. John Jr.’s continued studies had opened the gateway to an oasis of wonderment, and his restless character made him that much more open to new discoveries, and travelling into the unknown.

In the spring of 1860, while on a lecture tour in the South, John Powell came to the conclusion that war between the States was inevitable, and he switched gears and immersed himself in military science/engineering, in preparation for his support of the Union cause. John enlisted on May 8, 1861, at Hennepin, Illinois, as a private in the 20th Illinois Infantry and upon enlistment, he was described as “age 27, height 5’ 6 ½” tall, light complexion, gray eyes, auburn hair, and occupation – teacher.” John was elected Sergeant Major of the regiment and when the 20th Illinois mustered into the Federal army 30 days later, Powell was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. He enlisted as a “topographer, cartographer, and military engineer.” John’s quick rise within the Union army was no doubt due to his military knowledge and steadfast devotion to preserving the Union.

John Powell served first with the 20th Illinois Volunteers and while he was stationed at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, he recruited an artillery company that became known as “Battery “F” of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, Powell serving as Captain. John took a brief leave to marry his sweetheart, Emma Dean, and then it was back to the business of war, and…Shiloh.


John & Emma Powell, Detroit, 1862

While in the process of giving the order to fire, John was struck with a minnie ball and lost most of his right arm. After his recovery, Powell continued to serve and he was present at Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge, and in the siege of Vicksburg, While in the trenches at Vicksburg, John, always the geologist, studied rocks and their formation, in order to pass the time. During the Atlanta Campaign, Powell was made a Major and commanded an artillery brigade with the 17th Army Corps. After the fall of Atlanta, John was transferred to George H. Thomas’ army and he was present in the Battle of Nashville. At the end of the WBTS, Powell was made a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel but having performed his patriotic duty, he was now ready to take his education and pioneering personality on the road, and explore he did.

After 1867, John Powell led a series of expeditions into the Rocky Mountains and around the Green and Colorado rivers. One of these expeditions was with his students and his wife, to collect specimens all over Colorado. In 1868, Powell and five other men were the first white men to climb Longs Peaks and in 1869, Powell and nine other men set out to explore the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, completing his journey on August 30, 1869. In John’s published diary, he described the Utah canyons of the Colorado River as”…wonderful features – carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.” Three months after this trip, Powell authored his first book, “Powell Geographic Expedition.”


First camp of the second John Wesley Powell expedition, in the willows, Green River, Wyoming, 1871. There were no photographs taken on the 1869 expedition.

In 1871 – 1872, John Powell retraced part of the 1869 route, with another expedition that travelled the Colorado River from Green River, Wyoming, to Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon. This trip resulted in photographs, an accurate map, and various other articles/papers. On this trip, John hired Jacob Hamblin (Mormon missionary) in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, who had acquired excellent relationships with Native Americans, and acted as a negotiator to ensure the safety of his expedition from local N.A. groups.


After Powell’s second exploration into the West, in 1874 Powell hosted ‘intellectual gatherings’ that was later formalized as the “Cosmos Club.” This club continues today and members are elected to the club for their “contributions to scholarship and civic activism.” In 1875, John Powell published a book based on his explorations of the Colorado, originally titled “Report of the Exploration of the Columbia River of the West and Its Tributaries,” but that same year it was revised and reissued as “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. In 1881, Powell was appointed the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey which he held until his resignation in 1894. Powell was also director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution until his death in 1902. To add to his never ending list of accomplishments, John Powell was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.

John Powell became a champion of land preservation/conservation, an ideal that of course clashed with the railroad companies at the time. John’s expeditions into the West had led him to the conclusion that it was not suitable for agricultural development, with the exception of 2% of the lands that were near water sources. Powell’s article on “Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States” proposed irrigation systems and State boundaries based on watershed areas to avoid disagreements between the States. For the remaining lands, John proposed conservation and low density, open grazing.

Meanwhile, railway companies and robber barons were fast at work, lobbying Congress to reject Powell’s policy proposals and to encourage farming instead, as their view was to cash in on their lands. The U.S. Congress moved forward and developed legislation that encouraged pioneer settlement of the American West, based on agricultural use of land. Politicians at the time based their decisions on a theory of Professor Cyrus Thomas, who was a protégé of the infamous Horace Greeley. Thomas suggested that ‘agricultural development of land would change climate and cause higher amounts of precipitations, claiming that “rain follows the plow,” a theory that has since been hugely discredited. Powell would later 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 1920/s/1930’s, which resulted in untold suffering associated with pioneer subsistence farms that failed, due to insufficient rain.

Powell became interested in the field of psychology and philosophy later on in his long and colourful career, and he not only studied mental health issues etc., but went on to author essays/treatises on this newly discovered subject matter.

John Powell’s place in American history was honoured in the form of a U.S. commemorative stamp, in 1969. A courageous soldier, brilliant visionary, daring explorer, scientist, anthropologist, conservationist, humanitarian - author/teacher/lecturer; Powell’s accomplishments are far too many to mention in one attempt to highlight and condense this man’s fascinating life.

John Wesley Powell died from a cerebral hemorrhage at his summer home in Haven, Maine, on September 23, 1902. He was only 68 years old at the time of his passing and by our 21st century standards, this now seems so incredibly young, especially when Powell still had much to offer.


So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.


  • Vale: Excellent article about John Wesley Powell! Thank you for taking the time to put this together and share it with us. It’s amazing to see what he was able to achieve even after losing half of his right arm
  • Enjay: Taylor, that was a fascinating read. To me a few things stood out. I have been to Wisconsin. Walking around it for four months was in itself an achievement that set the stage for many of his adventures. I also found it interesting that he actually took his wife with him on one of his trips to Colorado. She must have been an interesting woman! The fact that he excelled in whatever he put his mind to was amazing. I wonder if he had kids, and did they follow in their father’s footsteps. I think what most stood out were his observations concerning water and agricultural land use. If his findings had been taken seriously, and acted upon, America might have not experienced the dust bowl. How that would have changed history is something to think about. Thanks again for giving me something to read!
  • Taylor:

    Vale & Enjay: I’m glad you both enjoyed my blog on John Wesley Powell - he was indeed an interesting man, in many ways light years ahead of his time. The Powells are two people from history that I would love to spend an evening with and be hugely entertained by John’s exploits - he was definitely a man of action and Emma seemed to have an adventuresome spirit as well. The Powells had only one child, a daughter, Mary, who was born on September 8, 1871.  And I agree,  if people had listened to John Powell’s conservation/environmental concerns, history would have turned out quite differently!

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