John Wesley Powell

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Mount Morris,
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Mount Morris,

John Wesley Powell was an explorer, anthropologist, geologist, and soldier from the United States. He is well known for his three-month river excursion via the Green and Colorado rivers, which covered the Grand Canyon and was dubbed the “Powell Geographic Expedition.” He devoted his life to discovering and protecting the American West’s natural riches, including human, scientific, economic, and aesthetic resources. He joined the ‘Union Army’ as a captain and rose through the ranks to become a major. He made important contributions as an administrator and promoter of conservation and rigorous planning of the usage of dry western areas. He also taught at ‘Illinois Wesleyan University’ as a professor. He served as the director of a number of prestigious cultural and scientific institutions. He was the second director of the ‘US Geological Survey.’ The ‘Smithsonian Institution’ named him the first director of the ‘US Bureau of Ethnology.’ After him, a lake built on the Colorado River at the rear of the ‘Glen Canyon Dam’ was called ‘Lake Powell.’ In his honor, a peak in California’s ‘Kings Canyon National Park’ was named ‘Powell Mountain.’

Childhood and Adolescence

On March 24, 1834, on a farm in Mount Morris, New York, in the United States, John Wesley Powell was born to Joseph and Mary Powell. His father, a farmer, tailor, and ambulant preacher, had immigrated to the United States from Shrewsbury, England, in 1830. His mother was a missionary, and he grew up in a missionary family.
Powell came to Jackson, Ohio, with his family in 1838, where he met naturalist George Crookham, who sparked his interest in literature, science, and history.

His family relocated to South Grove, Wisconsin, around 1846. Powell took after the family farm when his father was away (he used to travel about preaching). His family relocated to Boone County, Illinois, in 1851, and he began teaching the following year. John Wesley Powell’s schooling grew sporadic as the family moved about. He spent roughly 7 years at ‘Illinois College’ (now known as ‘Wheaton College’) and ‘Oberlin College,’ but was unable to earn a degree. He majored in Latin and Classical Greek.

He had a keen interest in botany and natural science, which enabled him to fund his travels along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the late 1850s. He amassed a collection of fossils and specimens in order to do his own research on the geology and indigenous history of the area. His trips included a four-month trek through Wisconsin in 1855 and a four-month row down the Mississippi from St.

Anthony, Minnesota to the sea in 1856. In 1857, he rowed down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, crossing the Mississippi River, and in 1858, he rowed down the Illinois, Mississippi, and Des Moines rivers to reach Iowa. He was elected secretary of the “Illinois Natural History Society” in 1859.

Career of John Wesley Powell

Powell enrolled with the twentieth Illinois Infantry at Hennepin on May 8, 1861, when the American Civil War broke out. He rose through the ranks to sergeant-major and then second lieutenant. He led the artillery unit he recruited at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It was redesignated as ‘Battery “F” of the ‘2nd Illinois Light Artillery.’ At the ‘Battle of Shiloh,’ he lost part of his right arm when it was smashed by a minie ball when he was giving the command to fire on April 6, 1862.

He returned to service in February 1863 after a brief break and rose through the ranks to become a major. He participated in a number of military actions, including the siege of Vicksburg, the Atlanta campaign, and the Battle of Nashville. He was promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel after the war. He served as a professor of natural sciences at the ‘Illinois Wesleyan University’ in Bloomington after quitting the army in 1865. In 1866, he began teaching at the ‘Illinois State Normal University.’

He was appointed administrative chairman of the ‘Illinois Natural History Society Museum’ in 1867. After 1867, he led many journeys to gather specimens from the Rocky Mountains and the adjacent areas of the Colorado and Green rivers.

He led an expedition out of Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869, to investigate the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. His group consisted of ten guys, the most of them were fellow civil war veterans, hunters, and trappers. They carried four boats and enough food to last ten months. The trip, which ended on August 30, 1869, was beset by tragedies, food spoiling, the loss of a boat, participants abandoning the mission in the midst, and some members going missing.

On May 22, 1871, Powell launched a new expedition from Green River, Wyoming, to cross the Colorado River, following a portion of the path he had explored in 1869 to reach Kanab Creek in the Grand Canyon. This time he was accompanied by an eleven-man group, which included qualified scientists. The trip, which was funded by the United States Congress, brought back pictures by John K. Hillers, the first realistic maps of the Colorado River, and other articles. On September 7, 1872, it came to an end.

The ‘Cosmos Club,’ a gathering of intellectuals hosted by Powell at his house, was formally established in 1874. Members of the group contributed to scholarship and civic activities and campaigned for them. He wrote a book on his experiences on the two Colorado River expeditions. In 1875, the book ‘Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Tributaries: Explored in 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1872 under the Direction of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution’ was released. It was reissued in 1895 as ‘Canyons of the Colorado.’

Report on the Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains’ was published in 1876. In 1877, he released his book ‘Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages, with Words, Phrases, and Sentences to Be Collected.’ As a government official, he advocated for the conservation and planned use of dry western regions, as well as the categorization of areas for coal and mineral production, irrigation, wood, and pasturage.

In 1879, he produced a book called “Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States,” in which he proposed state borders based on water supplies and irrigation techniques. ‘Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages’ was published in 1880. In 1881, he was chosen as the second director of the United States Geological Survey, a post he maintained until 1894.

The ‘Smithsonian Institution’ named him the first director of the ‘US Bureau of Ethnology.’ He remained in that role till his death. As a director, he supported the work of several scientists, including Franz Boas, an American anthropologist who was born in Germany. ‘Indian Linguistic Families of America, North of Mexico,’ was published in 1891. ‘Truth and Error, or the Science of Intellection,’ he published in 1898.

Achievements of John Wesley Powell

He thought that potential resource usage was one of the ways a society might advance as a land conservation expert. He undertook the Irrigation Survey of the West in 1889. It was a methodical assessment of water and land resources that was eventually used as the foundation for all irrigation laws in the United States.

John Wesley Powell founded the first Museum of Anthropology at the ‘Illinois State University,’ which was regarded as the best in North America at the time. Apart from the first credible charts of the river, his two Colorado River excursions in 1869 and 1871 yielded vital information.

Personal History and Legacy

He married Emma Dean in March 1862. Mary Dean Powell, their only child, was born in Salt Lake City on September 8, 1871. John Wesley Powell died on September 23, 1902, at his family’s summer house in Haven, Maine. He was laid to rest at the officers portion of the ‘Arlington National Cemetery,’ with full military honors.

Estimated Net Worth

John is one of the wealthiest explorers and one of the most well-known. John Wesley Powell’s net worth is estimated to be $5 million, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.


In 1969, the United States published a commemorative stamp in his honor. Powellite, a rare mineral, is named after him. The ‘USGS National Center’ in Reston, Virginia, was renamed the ‘John Wesley Powell Federal Building’ after him in 1974. The ‘John Wesley Powell Award’ is the highest honor bestowed by the USGS to a non-federal government official.