John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell; drawing by David Levine

Donald Worster has devoted most of an impressive career to writing about American water—or the lack of it. His book Dust Bowl (1979) is still the best study of that catastrophe; his Rivers of Empire (1985) offers a somber but solid assessment of what water management—or, rather, mismanagement—has done to the West. He concludes, correctly, that the Colorado River has essentially died as a part of nature, to be reborn as money. The Colorado may be the most exploited river in the West, but it is not the only one. Much of the fabled Missouri, river of Lewis and Clark, has been impounded too.

Professor Worster has now gone to the headwaters of American riverine policy in this large biography of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed geologist who twice ran the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River and lived to fight long and difficult bureaucratic battles in his efforts to promote a sane water policy for the arid lands of America. One hundred and thirty years of continuous litigation over water rights, with no end in sight, suggests that Powell didn’t succeed.

An awkwardness Professor Worster tries to deal with right up front is that Wallace Stegner—one of Donald Worster’s strongest advocates—happens to have written an especially brilliant book about Major Powell. It’s called Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954); here’s Donald Worster’s reasons for trying to go beyond it:

Stegner’s book now ranks as one of the most influential books ever written about the West, and more than any other work its publication explains Powell’s resurrection to sainthood after World War Two. Yet Stegner’s biography was based on limited research into its subject or the nation’s development. And it laid such strong claim to Powell as a Man of the West, a prophet for the arid region, that it obscured the fact that he was, above all, an intensely nationalistic American.

There’s no reason at all why Donald Worster shouldn’t write a book about John Wesley Powell, and he’s written a good book; but if he is trying to pump himself for the task by picking chinks out of Stegner’s book, he’s chosen the wrong chinks. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian carries seventy pages of intelligent notes on Stegner’s research, and the notion that Wor-ster’s Powell is somehow more “nationalistic” than Stegner’s Powell is hard to credit. Both Stegner and Worster keep Powell in the West as long as possible, because that’s where the portrait gets its color. Both men know that Powell and his wife, Emma, moved into a house on M Street in Washington, D.C., in 1872, and that Powell spent the rest of his working life as a bureaucrat. And, as writers, both Stegner and Worster know that long rehashes of a one-hundred-thirty-year-old bureaucratic battle are not likely to pull many readers to the edge of their seats.

John Wesley Powell was a man of vision—we’ll get to that—but, as a bureaucrat, what he could never ignore was the necessity of getting funded. He won some battles, he lost some battles, he tied some battles, but he was never free of the struggle to secure adequate appropriations. When in 1890 his enemies, led by Senator William Stewart of Nevada, the so-called Silver Senator, finally defeated his well-thought-out plan for land classification and irrigation studies in the arid region, they beat him by cutting off his money. Indeed, until late in his career, when his two fiefdoms, the Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology, were on secure footings, Powell could never relax about money. His first trips west in the 1860s, to collect specimens and artifacts for a tiny natural history museum he had helped create at Illinois State Normal University, would not have been possible had he not managed to persuade General Grant, his old commander, to allow his party to secure food cheaply from army posts. One lesson he learned thoroughly during his long years in Washington was that the canyons of the US Congress were no less perilous than the canyons of the Colorado had been.

Wallace Stegner did say, on the first page of Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, that he wasn’t interested in Major Powell’s personality, but he could hardly have written 438 pages about Powell’s achievement without giving some glimpses into the personality that produced the achievement. Donald Worster has now supplied much of the biographical material that Wallace Stegner chose to avoid. That Worster might have been wise to skimp on family matters himself is attested to by this rather hang-dog effort to say something about Powell’s marriage to Emma:

How the Powells managed domestic life is hard to determine in detail. Emma, it is clear, ran the place as a stay-at-home housewife, though her maternal responsibilities remained small. They had only the one child, Mary, who grew to adulthood in this house. Why there were no more children must be left to mere guesswork—was it due to infertility or incompatibility? How Emma passed her days, year following year, is also a mystery. She had charge of the

budget for clothes and furnishings. She had friends who regularly came for tea and conversation, but it is beyond knowing what they talked about or whether the Major joined them in a laughing circle or retreated to his office.

That way lies tedium. Both Stegner and Worster know that there’s only so far one can go with Major Powell as a personality. He sat in many pub-lic hearings, he worked closely with a number of fellow geologists—Clarence Dutton, Karl Gilbert, and the bon vivant Clarence King for three—but it is not evident that anyone thought he was easy to know, though all would have agreed that he was intensely ambitious. When editors finally got their hands on the manuscript of Powell’s book about his run through the Grand Canyon, they were troubled by the vague sense that something was missing from this great American adventure story. Powell was missing, or at least the passionate Powell that the editors wanted to hear from. The major was a tenacious leader; he meant to survive the canyon and he did survive it, twice. But it wasn’t really the adventure he sought, it was the geology. Land forms, not white water, interested Major Powell. Why had the river cut this vast ditch? Or had the river been there before the land rose to form the ditch?


John Wesley Powell’s passions were moral. What was the right thing to do about the great rivers and the arid lands? The most moving part of Powell’s story—Donald Worster tells it admirably—is his struggle, as a poor boy in rural Wisconsin, to get an education, particularly an education in science. Like his idol Lincoln, he would walk miles for a book. He had to teach school in order to get money to go to school, and what training he got, mostly at small Midwestern church schools, was inadequate, particularly in the science where he ended up making his name: geology. Powell was always aware of his limitations as a geologist; part of the thrust of his fund-raising was to get superior geologists such as Dutton and Gilbert on his survey teams.

Powell was wounded at Shiloh; the lower part of his right arm had to be amputated. For the rest of his life he did his best to ignore the fact that he no longer had a right hand. He kept on soldiering, fought at Vicksburg, and, once or twice in the great canyon, even tried one-handed rock climbing. At one point a crew member had to take off his underwear and twist it into a kind of rope in order to rescue Major Powell.

Powell didn’t discover the Grand Canyon—Cardenas, one of Coronado’s officers, glimpsed it as early as 1540. Escalante and Father Garcés were on the south rim in 1776. Various mountain men had been in the vicinity and Joseph Ives had come up the river partway in 1853. And, of course, there were the Indians, Walipi, Havasupais, Paiutes. Powell, who hadn’t supposed anyone could live in the canyon, was startled to discover that the Old Ones, the Anasazi, had been there long before. After his 1869 voyage he became Powell of the Colorado, as surely as Kitchener became Kitchener of Khartoum or Mountbatten Mountbatten of Burma. His celebrity rather annoyed Powell’s crew mates, who felt he gave their efforts insufficient acknowledgment. They were right; the major was not much of an acknowledger; but in tracing the Green River down from Wyoming into the Colorado he did eliminate an area of vagueness from the map.

Also, one of the least ambiguous of Powell’s achievements was his ethnology. The annual volumes he edited for the US Bureau of Ethnology remain important, and his efforts to secure tribal vocabularies kept hundreds from being lost. Here too he had intelligent assistance.

Powell thought seriously about erosion; he thought seriously about how, or whether, our arid lands could be irrigated. Both Stegner and Worster set up William Gilpin, the boosteristic first territorial governor of Colorado who never met an acre of the West he didn’t like, as a straw man and then both shred him; but in fact even in the middle of the nineteenth century there was perplexity about the West. Was it garden or was it desert? The early explorers contradicted one another on this point. The common-sense answer—that some (Lewis and Clark) traveled in wet years and others (Pike and Long) in dry years—was eventually confirmed by tree-ring studies. An army surgeon named George F. Will found a cedar tree near the Little Missouri River that had sprouted around 1339; nearby were some oaks dating from the sixteenth century, and climatological prehistory began to be revealed.


Major Powell didn’t have this data, but his experience as a struggling Wisconsin farm boy convinced him that the standard, quarter-section, 160-acre homestead—adequate in well-watered regions—was, in the arid lands, only a slow road to starvation.

Powell had struggled against long odds to become a scientist, and it was in science that he put his faith. He believed that once the problems of aridity were correctly understood, and the possibilities of irrigation correctly estimated, then the people could apply solutions based on scientific fact. If there was only so much water then it was important to decide how best to use it. Powell was a close student of irrigation methods. He admired the water-sharing methods of the New Mexican villages—they have worked for centuries and they still work. He admired the Mormons’ cooperative irrigation methods, as well as the successful agricultural practices of the desert Indians, who had less water than anybody but used it brilliantly.

What Powell tried to encourage, through intelligent planning, was what most parents try to teach their children first: sharing. If there was cooperation, if there was sharing, then some of the arid lands could be watered and sustainable settlement made possible. What all the various Greens of our day—the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, monkey-wrench gangs, etc.—owe to Major Powell is finally an attitude, a conviction that collective stewardship of the earth’s resources is possible. To survive we must share, and the sharing needs to be planned.

Though Powell had many bureaucratic rivals, he worked in a time when our bureaucracy was still small. Had he lived into the 1950s and seen what monstrous engines the agencies responsible for sharing these resources had become he might have been shocked. The Bureau of Reclamation was just coming into being when Powell died; by the 1940s its rivalry with the equally aggressive Army Corps of Engineers had changed the face of the American earth to an extent that Major Powell could not have anticipated.

Powell operated in the era of the monopolists, when big speculators, not small bureaucrats, were the enemies of intelligent land classification and water distribution. Powell wanted study to come before settlement, which meant a withholding of public lands, which was anathema—and not merely to the big boys. He thought he could check the monopolists with facts—the major was always a big one for facts. He even tried to reduce the Grand Canyon to a fact—a geologic fact. He underestimated American impatience, and assumed—wrongly—that large interests and small would naturally prefer fact to fable when it came to the arid lands. Surely folks would look at the rainfall statistics and do the right thing. He thought that, in an age of science, people would get enough of romanticizing the West; even in the 1950s Stegner was still harping on the follies of romanticizing such a place:

It is perhaps unkind to observe that the romanticizing of the West also led to acute political and economic and agricultural blunders, to the sour failure of projects and lives, to the vast avoidable waste of some resources and the monopolization of others, and to a long delay in the reconciling of institutions to realities.

We’re nearly fifty years on, and it’s not evident to me that institutions and realities are much closer to being reconciled. Certainly they weren’t in 1890, when Major Powell’s big proposed survey of agricultural and irrigable lands was defeated. The bitter fact the major had to face was that it wasn’t just the monopolists who had beaten him, it was in part the dirt farmers too. The American yeomen, the very people who ought to have known better, preferred fable to fact themselves. The major kept his own emotions under such tight rein that he failed to notice that pioneering wasn’t rational; it had an emotional component, too. Yes, the arid plains were severe, but so what? The haunting tragic figures of Great Plains literature, Willa Cather’s Antonía, O.E. Rölvaag’s Per Hansa, Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules, would none of them have listened to Major Powell: they were going anyway, to get their land and test their character against that huge challenge.

It’s surprising that John Wesley Powell would have failed to understand this fierce defiance of fact, since he himself, after Shiloh, had fiercely defied it in the matter of his missing right hand. Though a realist on the surface, the major was an idealist underneath. His defeat in 1890 wasn’t total—he still had the Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology—but it was bitter nonetheless, because it cut at that idealism which was the wellspring of his life. His neighbor Henry Adams, the Magus of Lafayette Square, would not have been surprised at the major’s comeuppance. Here is Henry Adams in Democracy, the novel he chose to publish anonymously in 1880:

…A delicate mist hangs over Arlington, and softens even the harsh white glare of the Capitol; the struggle of existence seems to abate…. Youthful diplomats, unconscious of their danger, are lured into asking foolish girls to marry them; the blood thaws in the heart and flows out into the veins, like the rills of sparkling water,…as though all the ice and snow on earth,…all the heresy and schism, all the works of the devil, had yielded to the force of love and to the fresh warmth of innocent, lamb-like, confiding virtue. In such a world there should be no guile—but there is a great deal of it notwithstanding…. This is the season when the two whited sepulchres at either end of the Avenue reek with the thick at-mosphere of bargain and sale…. Wealth, office, power are at auction. Who bids highest: who hates with most venom? who intrigues with most skill? who has done the dirtiest, the meanest, the darkest, and the most, political work? He shall have his reward.

This Issue

April 12, 2001