John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell (March 24, 1834 – September 23, 1902) was a U.S. soldier, geologist, explorer of the American West, professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and director of major scientific and cultural institutions. He gained national recognition for his three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers, including the first known passage by an American to travel through the Grand Canyon.

Powell studied at Illinois College (which later became Wheaton College) for seven years both as a student and teacher. He knew that a Civil War was inevitable and so he decided to study military science and engineering.

Powell’s loyalties were with the Union cause and so he enlisted as a private in the 20th Illinois infantry. He soon advanced in rank and was then commissioned a second lieutenant. His main contribution to the Union was as a cartographer, topographer and military engineer.

During the Battle of Shiloh, he lost most of his right arm when struck by a bullet while in the process of giving the order to fire.

Despite the loss of an arm, he remained in the Army and was involved in a number of battles.

After leaving the Army, Powell taught geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. He also lectured at Illinois State Normal University for most of his career. However, he declined a tenured position in favor of exploring the American West.

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After 1867, he explored the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. On May 24 he and a group of men passed through dangerous rapids down the Green River.

In 1881, Powell was appointed the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, a post he held until his resignation in 1894. He also was appointed as an expert in his field by the Smithsonian Institute, a position he held until his death.

Powell was a champion of land preservation and conservation. It was his conviction that part of the natural progression of society included making the best use of natural resources. Powell created Illinois State University’s first Museum of Anthropology, and it was called the finest in all of North American at the time.

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. He proposed that the remaining land not being used for growing crops be used for conservation and low-density open grazing by cattle.

In 1883 irrigation conferences, 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 were ignored and this resulted in the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in untold suffering associated with pioneer subsistence farms that failed due to lack of rain to supply the needed water.

In recognition of his national service, Powell is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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