Powell Publishes His Report on the American West

One of the most influential recommendations for government land management and disposition in the American West came out of an 1879 report made by scientist and explorer John Wesley Powell. He insisted in the report that most of the West was unsuited for settlement and farming as practiced in the humid East, and his work led to the idea of water management, including the use of dams and irrigation projects, as key to Western development.

Summary of Event

John Wesley Powell achieved national fame through his pioneering voyage down the Colorado River Colorado River in 1869. Born in 1834 on a frontier farm in New York, he showed an early interest in education and was introduced to science by a farm neighbor in Ohio. He further developed his scientific interests as a student at colleges in Illinois and Ohio. His career as a schoolteacher and lyceum lecturer was interrupted by the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). A wound that Powell received at Shiloh (Pittsburgh Landing) resulted in the amputation of his right arm, after which his wife and first cousin, Emma Dean Powell, accompanied him in the field. Mustered out of the Army, Powell joined Illinois Wesleyan College as a professor of natural history. Exploration;American West
Powell, John Wesley
[kw]Powell Publishes His Report on the American West (1879)
[kw]Publishes His Report on the American West, Powell (1879)
[kw]Report on the American West, Powell Publishes His (1879)
[kw]American West, Powell Publishes His Report on the (1879)
[kw]West, Powell Publishes His Report on the American (1879)
Exploration;American West
Powell, John Wesley
[g]United States;1879: Powell Publishes His Report on the American West[5040]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1879: Powell Publishes His Report on the American West[5040]
[c]Exploration and discovery;1879: Powell Publishes His Report on the American West[5040]
[c]Geography;1879: Powell Publishes His Report on the American West[5040]
Geological Survey, U.S.

In 1867, after raising money from various state and federal institutions and private business, he set out on an exploratory trip to the Rocky Mountains Rocky Mountains;exploration of . Powell and his wife climbed Pikes Peak and explored the Grand River (now the upper Colorado River Colorado River ) in Colorado. The next year, he returned to climb Longs Peak, explore the White River Valley, and visit Green River, Wyoming.

John Wesley Powell.

(Library of Congress)

In early spring, 1869, faced by threats of desertion from his crew, Powell had to curb his wife’s managerial efforts. She never again accompanied him in the field. During 1869, Powell began collecting artifacts from the Utes, recording Ute legends, and compiling a Ute dictionary. In 1869, he descended the Colorado River from Green River, going through the Grand Canyon to the mouth of the Virgin River. Only two days before the trip’s end, three discouraged men left the canyon, only to be killed by Paiutes. Paiutes

On July 12, 1870, Congress had established the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, with Powell in charge. Powell’s survey spent ten years mapping the Colorado Plateau in Utah and Arizona, publishing reports on natural history and indigenous tribes. Powell became alarmed by many of his observations and by events elsewhere in the West. Many farmers on the Great Plains, deceived by a series of unusually wet years during the 1860’s and early 1870’s, settled too far West, beyond the hundredth meridian, where normal rainfall, fewer than twenty inches per year, was insufficient to grow crops. When the weather cycle turned dry, many farmers were bankrupted and driven from the land. Much agricultural land also was eroded severely by wind and water. In the Rockies, irrigation companies were gaining control over water supplies, and timber cutters were denuding the mountainsides.

As early as 1873, Powell expressed concern about future settlement in the arid West and recommended changing the land classification system of the United States. In 1879, he published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. (An earlier version of the report was submitted to Congress in 1878 but was corrected and finalized by Powell; it was published as a second edition by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1879. The second edition is considered definitive.) Because two-fifths of the United States was arid, Powell urged closing public lands to entry until they were topographically mapped and reclassified. Thereafter, the lands were to be distributed to the people according to regulations adapted to Powell’s five proposed classes: mineral, coal, pasturage, irrigable, and timber lands.

Powell’s report included two proposed laws for organizing irrigation districts and pasturage districts in the western lands. Groups of farmers were to be urged to locate together and form cooperatives, sharing the expense of building dams and ditches to conserve and use water resources. Land units in irrigation districts were to be eighty acres, rather than the accustomed 160. Water rights would inhere in the land, title to the water passing with the land.

Powell recommended abandonment of the rectangular system of survey so that irrigable land could be parceled out, giving each person access to water. He proposed organizing grazing units of twenty-five hundred acres, each unit to include water sufficient to irrigate twenty acres of winter hay or farm crops. Settlers would be allowed to file for holdings without charge, but if the water were not utilized within five years, the land and water rights would revert to the public domain. Powell also insisted that riparian rights under English common law, allowing land owners to take all the water they wished from streams crossing or bordering their property, would have to be modified or abrogated in the arid region. Thus, water rights would be limited to the amount required or used on land to be irrigated.

The report also described the lands of Utah Utah;Mormon settlement and their development as directed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Saints (the Mormons) as an example of how his recommendations might be implemented. This part of the report was written by members of Powell’s survey: Irrigable Lands of the Salt Lake Drainage System by Grove Karl Gilbert, Powell’s chief geologic assistant; Irrigable Lands of the Valley of the Sevier River by Clarence Edward Dutton, the geologist responsible for geologic reports on the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau; and Irrigable Lands of That Portion of Utah Drained by the Colorado River and Its Tributaries by Powell’s brother-in-law Almond H. Thompson. Thompson was a map maker and the chief topographer for the Powell surveys. Willis Drummond, Jr., contributed Land Grants in Aid of Internal Improvements.

Powell’s proposals were unpopular with westerners. Many small farmers, too impatient to wait on government land reclassification, thought his program closed the door to opportunity. Others thought large land units for grazing favored big cattlemen. His reforms also were opposed by railroads, prospectors and mining companies, cattle associations, land companies, and irrigation companies. Thus, Congress failed to act on Powell’s recommendations.


Although Powell was ignored by Congress, he continued his efforts to reform land policy in the arid lands. He was instrumental in consolidating western geological exploration in the U.S. Geological Survey, which, starting in 1879, continued the topographic mapping he had recommended. He also organized and became director of the Bureau of Ethnology to study American Indian cultures. In 1881, he also became director of the Geological Survey.

In 1887, a decade of drought Droughts began, bringing disaster to arid-land farmers and demands for federal irrigation projects. Powell, with the aid of Senator William Stewart of Nevada, secured a congressional resolution in 1888, establishing an Irrigation Survey within the Geological Survey. This resolution also closed entry into most public lands until the irrigable lands had been identified and surveyed. In 1890, however, political opposition drastically reduced funds for the Irrigation Survey. Powell then retired from the Geological Survey and devoted the remainder of his life to the Bureau of Ethnology, which he served as director for twenty-three years.

More of Powell’s 1879 proposals were enacted under conservation-minded administrations in the twentieth century. In 1902, the Newlands Act Newlands Act of 1902 , creating the Bureau of Reclamation, provided for irrigation districts, dams, and canals more or less according to Powell’s 1879 recommendations. The Soil Conservation Service, later the Bureau of Land Management, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), enacted in 1932, incorporate part of Powell’s 1879 proposals. Opposition, however, persisted in the 1990’s as Republicans called for selling the TVA and western public lands.

Further Reading

  • Darrah, William Culp. Powell of the Colorado. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1951. The first and best full-length biography of John Wesley Powell.
  • Dellenbaugh, Frederick S. A Canyon Voyage. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962. The most complete published narrative of Powell’s second expedition along the Colorado River.
  • Goetzmann, William H. Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and the Scientist in the Winning of the American West. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. A chapter on Powell as an explorer and reformer is included in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
  • Powell, John Wesley. Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. Edited by Wallace Stegner. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962. A reprint of the second (1879), corrected edition, with an introduction by the editor.
  • _______. Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. Edited by William de Buys. Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2001. A collection of Powell’s writings, including selections from A Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, and writings expressing his ideas about civilization, western settlement, and allocation of natural resources. Selections are annotated and have introductions placing them within the proper context.
  • Stegner, Wallace. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954. This book abounds with special pleading for causes and people, lacks unity, and has a shaky conceptual framework, but is delightful reading and highly informative.
  • Udall, Stewart L. The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation. Salt Lake City, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1988. Discusses Powell’s work as part of the conservationist and preservationist movements in the United States.
  • Watson, Elmo Scott. The Professor Goes West. Bloomington: Illinois Wesleyan University Press, 1954. Emphasizes Powell’s first western expedition in 1867 and reprints the reports of expedition member J. C. Hartzell.
  • Worster, Donald. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Thorough, detailed account of Powell’s life from his childhood through his years directing the Bureau of American Ethnology.

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Powell, John Wesley