John Powell

John Wesley Powell was born at Mount Morris, New York, on March 24, 1834.  He found an interest in natural history at a young age that grew into a life-long study and pursuit.  As a younger man, he travelled through Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and along the Mississippi River.  On his explorations, Powell gathered organic matter, such as plants and minerals.  These collections later provided him with connections to colleges in Illinois.


John Wesley Powell, 1869. Image Source:

At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Powell enlisted into the Twentieth Regiment of Illinois with the Union, and received commissions that eventually promoted him to Major.  While commanding the artillery lines, during the Battle of Shiloh, a minié ball struck his right forearm and shattered the bone, causing him to lose a great portion of that arm.  Powell experienced pain from that arm for the rest of his life.  While recovering from his injury at home with his new wife, Emma Dean Powell, he served as a recruiting officer.  Once sufficiently recovered, Powell continued to fight and command in the siege of Vicksburg, the Atlanta Campaign, and the Battle of Nashville.  Throughout all the Civil War, Powell continued to collect natural history samples for later study.  After the war, Powell became a professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois, and a later geology lecturer in Normal, Illinois.  Later he would become a curator for the Illinois Natural History Society Museum.

Powell went on several expeditions in his life–perhaps his most famous being the first excursion down the Green and Colorado Rivers, and through the Grand Canyon.  The journey started out with four boats and then men on May 24, 1869.  However, at Lodore Canyon, Utah, a boat holding scientific instruments and a quarter of the expedition’s supplies was lost to the rapids.  They entered the Grand Canyon on August 5th, but soon thereafter abandoned another boat because of a near-sinking which spoiled much of the remaining food and supplies.  Three members of the party left the expedition due to low morale from the distressing situations of dealing with the dangerous rapids and misfortunes with the boats.  The departing members set out for a nearby settlement, but were killed by members of the Shivwits band of the Paiute Indian people who believed the three to be a part of a group of miners who had killed a woman of their tribe.  Powell learned of their misfortune a year later.  The expedition ended the day after the tree men left, on August 28, 1869.  Throughout his life, Powell led additional excursions on and near the Grand Canyon, creating maps and writing books about the experiences.

Powell's second Grand Canyon expedition.  Image source:

Powell’s second Grand Canyon expedition. Image source:

In all his travels, Powell strived to make sure he had the best possible relations with the Native Americans.  He spent much time with them and learned how to speak several of their languages.  When tensions were high between the white settlers and the Natives, Powell did what he could to bring peace to both sides.  He even did this between himself and the Shivwits band that killed the three men who left the first Colorado River expedition.

Towards the end of his life, Powell became the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, which was founded in 1879.  He held this position until his death.

John Wesley Powell died in his home in Haven, Maine on September 23, 1902 at the age of 68.  He is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Lake Powell, Powell Plateau at Grand Canyon National Park, and Powell Mountain at Kings Canyon National Park in California all commemorate the explorer’s name.

Powell in 1873 presenting a mirror to a Ute woman; an 1873 meeting with the Paiute people.  Image source:

Powell in 1873 presenting a mirror to a Ute woman; an 1873 meeting with the Paiute people. Image source:

John Wesley Powell authored a number of books contained in this library, including
Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah: with Maps (SPC USR HD 1671.U5 A4 1879)
Down the Colorado; Diary of the First Trip through the Grand Canyon, 1869 (Oversize F788.P886)
The Exploration of the Colorado River (F788.P886-1969)
The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons (F788.P88 1961)
Feel free to ask an employee for assistance in finding these items.

The House Miscellaneous Documents of the Annual Reports of the Bureau of Ethnology in the Special Collections Reading Room were published while Powell was director of the Bureau.  Powell was one of several contributors to the reports.  A majority of the contents consist of information on American Indian culture, their way of life, tools and weapons used, music and art, hunting and fishing methods, religion and sacred rites, folk tales, traditions, and the actions thereof.  Research and images on petroglyphs throughout numerous parts of the world are also presented.  Other information in these reports come from expeditions and explorations of various people in the Bureau of Ethnology and their related field work and study.


Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, s. v. “John Wesley Powell,” accessed March 30, 2014,

Science, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 406 (Oct. 10, 1902), pp. 561-567



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