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“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail. You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.” (John Wesley Powell) 

Exploration of the early American West, beginning with Lewis and Clark’s transcontinental trek at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, was not accomplished by standing armies, the era’s new steam train technology, or by way of land grabs. These came later, but not until pathways known only to a few of the land’s indigenous people were discovered, carved out, and charted in an area stretching from the eastern Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and the present-day borders of Mexico and Canada.

Even the great survey parties, such as Colonel William Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River, came decades later. The first views of the West’s enormity by white Americans were seen by individuals of an entirely different personality, in an era that could only exist apart from its home civilization. One of the men most responsible for the closing of the frontier was John Wesley Powell, arguably the best-known American explorer after Lewis and Clark. He was lionized for a long portion of his life and vilified for another.

Powell was a competent man, self-confident and able to instill confidence in his abilities to lead, and his expeditions helped Americans better understand the West, an impressive achievement for the son of English immigrants who wanted him to become a Methodist preacher. Instead, he became America’s most influential scientist, without the kind of academic training required to rise to that position today. 

As if the achievements alone weren’t enough, he managed to accomplish them despite physical handicaps. He was a schoolteacher at the age of 18, and throughout his twenties, he conducted solo voyages up and down the Mississippi, from New Orleans to St. Paul. He did the same on the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi, in addition to exploring the Illinois and Des Moines Rivers.

During the Civil War, Powell was a Union officer who rose to the rank of major, and even after he lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh, he performed critical engineering work in the Vicksburg Campaign and commanded artillery at the Battle of Nashville. After the war, he virtually created the United States Geologic Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology and brought serious scientific study to American landforms, geology, and the study of native peoples. He was also one of the founders of the influential National Geographic Society.

That said, Powell’s legacy is complex. His creation, the United States Geological Survey, continues to do important work, as it has for more than a century, and is one of the most respected scientific agencies in the world. He is seen as a forerunner by environmentalists due to his views on water use and development in the West. But Powell is also seen as something like the patron saint of the Bureau of Reclamation, which environmentalists consider an enemy.

John Wesley Powell: The Life and Legacy of One of 19th Century America’s Most Influential Explorers chronicles Powell’s dramatic life, his most important expeditions, and the impact he had on the West.

©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2020 Charles River Editors

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