Powell, John Wesley

Powell, John Wesley,

1834–1902, American geologist and ethnologist, b. Mt. Morris (now part of New York City). The family moved to Illinois, where Powell joined the Natural History Society, making collections and serving as secretary of the society. After the Civil War, in which he lost an arm at Shiloh, he was appointed professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan College, Bloomington. He led geological expeditions into Colorado and Utah in 1867 and 1868 and in May, 1869, began, under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution, a geographical and geological survey of the Colorado and Green rivers. In the course of this expedition his party passed by boat through the Grand CanyonGrand Canyon,
great gorge of the Colorado River, one of the natural wonders of the world; c.1 mi (1.6 km) deep, from 4 to 18 mi (6.4–29 km) wide, and 217 mi (349 km) long, NW Ariz.
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, a hazardous feat first described in his Explorations of the Colorado River of the West (1875) and later in his Canyons of the Colorado (1895). He was later engaged in geological and ethnological explorations in Arizona and Utah. His efforts toward the reorganization of rival surveys in the West were a factor in bringing about the establishment (1879) of the U.S. Geological Survey, of which he served as director from 1881 to 1894. In 1879, Powell founded and became the first director of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He remained there for more than 20 years, and many of his contributions to ethnology appeared in its Reports.


See biographies by W. C. Darrah (1951, repr. 1969), J. U. Terrell (1969), W. E. Stegner (1954, repr. 1962), and D. Worster (2001); E. Dolnick, Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy through the Grand Canyon (2001).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Powell, John Wesley


Born Mar. 24, 1834, in Mount Morris, N.Y.; died Sept. 23, 1902, in Haven, Me. American geologist and geomorphologist.

Educated at Illinois, Wheaton, and Oberlin colleges, Powell was a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan College in Bloomington from 1865 to 1868. He was one of the organizers of the US Geological Survey and served as its director from 1881 to 1894.

The first man to explore the Grand Canyon, Powell established the close relationship between the geological structure of the territory and the forms of relief. His major works played an important part in shaping the theoretical views of the American school of geomorphology, particularly those of W. Davis. Powell held that large stratigraphic units should be distinguished according to lithologic features rather than according to paleontological data.

Powell also studied the way of life of American Indians and proposed a classification of their languages.


Stegner, W. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Boston, 1954.
Davis, W. M. Biographical Memoir of John Wesley Powell (1834–1902). Washington, D.C., 1915.
Hunt, C. B. “John Wesley Powell: His Influence on Geology.” Geotimes, 1969, issue 14, no. 5.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Powell, John Wesley

(1834–1902) geologist, geographer; born in Mount Morris, N.Y. Moving throughout the Midwestern states with his family, he attended Oberlin College where he realized his interest was in geology. He volunteered for the Union army when the Civil War broke out and had his right arm amputated at the elbow after being wounded at Shiloh. Taking up a career as a professor of geology, in 1867 he began the first of many field trips with his students into the Rocky Mountain region. Then in 1869 he led a professional expedition, financed by the U.S. government, that climaxed with a 900-mile journey down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. He made other government-sponsored expeditions and in 1875 became director of the U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region; in 1879 this merged with the U.S. Geological Survey and he became its second director (1881–94). In his seminal work, Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878), he set forth a land classification program and a survey of irrigation potential; he was one of the first to call for the federal government to play a role in developing the western territories. In his trips he had also become a close student of the Native Americans; he was the first to attempt to classify their languages; and in 1897 he became the first director of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, which he headed until his death. He published on a wide variety of subjects and beyond that promoted publications and projects that advanced both scientific knowledge and popular awareness of the pre-Columbian American West.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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Powell, John Wesley. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyon.