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The Science of Water: Message in John Wesley Powell’s approach to nature is difficult to swallow

It seems a shame to ask such a question in the great state of Illinois, where Powell grew to maturity and developed the values and ideas that shaped an incredible career. Unfortunately, the question will prove a poser to the vast majority of the state’s residents, who know nothing of this pioneer scientist, heroic war veteran, steely eyed explorer, consummate Washington bureau chief and visionary environmentalist. 

Illinois has much to learn from this foster child of the prairies. Yet we have forgotten him.

True, John Wesley Powell was not born in Illinois. He arrived here in his late teens, freed himself from the onerous demands of his parents and taught himself the skills that proved critical to his adult career. His service in an Illinois military unit was valorous, but in no way unusual. 

The subsequent exploits that made him famous took place elsewhere, mostly in Washington, D.C. 

His story pretty much parallels that of another frontier immigrant, one Illinois has claimed for its own (read the license plates). But there are no monuments to Powell anywhere in Illinois — no official historic sites, no streets or buildings dedicated to his memory. State Historian Thomas Schwartz says the village of Hennepin, where Powell taught school, honored him with a brief celebration in 1994, but that’s about it. 

John Wesley Powell is Illinois’ forgotten son. Far be it from me to suggest that the reasons behind the neglect were his rejection of traditional religion, his embrace of Darwin’s lessons and his determined efforts to make people understand that nature’s bounty is not limitless. Powell’s trajectory was very different from that of the prairie president, and some important messages can be difficult to swallow.

Powell was born in upstate New York in 1834, the fourth child of evangelical Wesleyans freshly emigrated from England. His family moved frequently, following the American frontier westward, exploiting the opportunities to acquire wealth while spreading the Good Word. They passed through Illinois in 1846 and later returned and settled in Wheaton.

Wes Powell’s education was sporadic at best; he spent too much of his youth laboring on farms while his parents preached. Somehow he managed to scrape enough knowledge from private reading to establish himself as a schoolteacher. Growing knowledge inspired confidence and independence. Soon Powell was deeply involved in the state’s fledgling system of higher education, both as a student and as a professor. 

Science and democracy wenthand in hand in Powell's vision of the future. Only half of that future came true. The nation did eventually absorb Powell's view about Western aridity. Government responded with massive dam projects.

Struggling against his parents’ desires, he sought a career as a natural scientist when science was scarcely recognized as a respectable profession. He taught at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, and Illinois Normal (now Illinois State University in Normal) hired him as one of their first science professors, as did the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.

Attracted by the wild world, the questions posed by the tallgrass prairie, John Wesley Powell rapidly developed a purely rational approach to nature study, very unorthodox for his time. To teach geology, he actually dared to lead students out of the classroom and into the river gorges, where they might view firsthand the evidences supporting the theories of Charles Lyell and Georges Cuvier. He collected widely, carrying innumerable fossils, specimens and pressings back to Normal, where he served as the first curator of the Illinois Natural History Society Museum, forerunner of today’s museum in Springfield. Field study would remain an important component of his approach throughout his career. 

Powell was making a minor name for himself when the Civil War broke out. To make an oft-experienced story short, he became an officer, proved himself heroic, got wounded at Shiloh, lost an arm and nearly died. He also made firm contacts in important places, positioning himself to become a political wheel after the war.

The twist in this story is that Powell wasn’t really interested in political power for its own sake, but rather was looking to further his scientific interests. He pulled enough strings to convince the Illinois Natural History Society to finance an expedition to explore the Colorado, the last unmapped river drainage in the American West. To spend money out of state, Powell had to accept a bunch of political appointees, mostly wounded war veterans, as members of his crew.

Powell was a little bandy rooster of a guy, with a big black beard and a stump of an arm, which pained him severely for the rest of his life. He was a more than suitable leader for a wild expedition into the unknown in 1869. The crew lost a boat over a falls, momentarily lost Powell over a cliff face and, on several occasions, nearly lost lives to sudden rapids. The food ran out, but as long as there was coffee, they were OK. Three members of the group split off to hike back to civilization, but they never made it. Local Indians, thinking they were sheep rustlers, didn’t wait to ask questions. Two days afterward, the rest of the expedition found a way out of the Grand Canyon and floated to safety. 

Powell was the last of the great American adventurers in the spirit of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

He told the story of his trip in a surprisingly poetic book titled The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, written at the behest of his friends in Congress. He would not have liked being called poetic, being a scientist. And much of the book is devoted to geology and to ethnographic observation of American Indians. But there is just enough swashbuckling adventure, no matter how dryly told, to accuse Powell of romantic tendencies. The book is a classic.

The Colorado adventure became his springboard. Dissatisfied with the scientific results of the 1869 mission, he took another crew in 1871. The resulting maps were accurate enough to stand until satellite mapping replaced them. Powell spent much of his time gathering firsthand information from local Indian bands, developing a scientific approach to the study of culture. His data would provide the foundation for American ethnological studies. The expeditions may have been spirited adventure, but they were scientific to the core.

Powell used the reputation derived from his expeditions to pry money out of friends in Washington, including Illinois Sen. John A. Logan of bloody shirt fame. Powell moved to Washington to become director of the Bureau of Ethnology, studying Native American cultures, and the second director of the United States Geological Survey, which he helped to establish. It was in these two capacities that Powell made his crucial contributions to America’s understanding of its own environment.

As Powell did his exploring, America’s population was preparing to move out from the prairies onto the last of the country’s unclaimed regions, the Great Plains. The pioneers carried with them the same cultural assumptions that had guided the establishment of the first colonies, the expansion across the Appalachians, the taking of the Great Lakes, the peopling of the Pacific coast. The land did not belong to nomadic Indians, natural resources were there for the taking, and God wanted the lands fenced and tamed. Railroads would only accelerate a familiar process.

Powell understood that these assumptions were built on a false supposition, and he tried his best to say so. He knew, none better, that the plains and the lands drained by the Colorado received only one-fourth the average rain of the East. To settle these lands with the expectation of establishing Eastern-style farms was insane. The land would be ruined, and the settlers too. Nationally managed irrigation systems were the only possible answer. Rather than the willy-nilly rules that had governed Eastern settlement, Powell in his reports to Congress advocated a scientific management plan for the arid West.

The plan, among the first of its kind, was an attempt to establish a relationship between human beings and their environment on a rational footing. Powell wanted survey teams not merely to draw boundary lines, but to evaluate the economic capacity of the land — its potential for crop agriculture, for grazing, for mining, the feasibility of irrigation. Surveyed lands would be zoned according to best use, parceled into appropriately sized commodities and distributed to settlers prepared to pursue such activities. 

Here was an attempt to classify and manage the public lands — the nation’s most precious commodity — on a scientific basis, acknowledging the role of the environment in shaping people’s fortunes. Powell calculated that the waters available could irrigate just 40 million acres in the West, a figure remarkably close to current federal estimates. Congress ignored him, of course, holding the Great Plains open to all comers. A period of unusually heavy annual precipitation raised false hopes. The droughts of the 1890s and the 1930s followed.

Despite occasional rhapsodic descriptions of the Grand Canyon and the West, Powell was no preservationist. He saw the transformation of the Western deserts into a land of fertile and productive farms as an absolute good. He differed from most of his fellow citizens only in method: Scientific management was going to have to replace individual pluck if the enterprise was to succeed. The federal management of the water supply was to be a highly organized means to a democratic end, a West flourishing in small, individually owned farms. Science and democracy went hand in hand in Powell’s vision of the future.

Only half that future came true. The nation did eventually absorb Powell’s point about Western aridity. Government responded with massive dam projects directed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. These busy beavers have now dammed just about every river running in the West. As the author, historian Donald Worster, observed, “The Colorado River is a part of nature that has died and been reborn as money.” The desert has indeed blossomed in places — Tucson, Las Vegas, California’s Imperial Valley. 

In the haze of all this activity (which has drowned much of the canyonland Powell described in his book), only one thing was forgotten: democracy. In the place of the small, independent farms Powell envisioned, we have vast holdings owned and managed by a small, wealthy elite who become richer off the backs of migrant laborers while the rest of us foot the tax bills to maintain the dams that make them rich. There is nothing more elusive than democracy, especially when it is possible for a small coterie to manage a single, irreplaceable resource. Federally managed Western water has made a few folks rich, and lots of people poor.

John Wesley Powell became the first truly powerful and influential scientific bureaucrat in American history. He remained director of the U.S. Geological Survey until 1894, and retained his position at the Bureau of Ethnology for a few years thereafter, despite nagging pain and new surgeries on the remains of his arm. He did much to educate America about its own treasured landscape, publishing maps and highly polished government reports, and was instrumental in founding the National Geographic Society. America mourned his death in 1902.

I have not the foggiest idea why Illinois does not claim him as a native son, but the fact is we do not. Despite the universal respect afforded his book on the exploration of the Colorado, his name does not appear on lists of Illinois authors. No cities are named after him, nor streets, nor even buildings, so far as I know. Too much science — too much environmental science — and not enough hardball politics, I suppose. Not being much for monuments myself, I do not really care.

Still, I would rather John Wesley Powell be remembered here in Illinois. As gasoline prices rise, the world’s weather warms and the West looks greedily to the water resources of the Great Lakes, there are some lessons from Powell’s experience we need to recall. 

John Wesley Powell tried hard to establish a rational approach to the politics of scarcity. When an essential resource dwindles — be it water, or petroleum, or arable land — a lot can happen, most of it bad. Powell’s two watchwords were science and democracy; he firmly believed that these two concepts must work in harmony if American liberty was to survive. Powell’s vision did not survive the destruction of the Colorado. We got scientific management, but no real democracy. As it becomes necessary to manage more and more of our natural resources, we had best shepherd our human resources and make certain that the greedy few do not steal everything for themselves. Without economic freedom, there is no democracy. John Wesley Powell understood that well enough.If we have no other means to honor his memory, let us at least try to remember what he said about water and democracy. 



A River Running West
Donald Worster, 2001
W.W. Norton and Company

Robert Kuhn McGregor, an environmental historian at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is a regular contributor to the magazine.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2001

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