Powell, John Wesley

Powell, John Wesley
born March 24, 1834, Mount Morris, N.Y., U.S.
died Sept. 23, 1902, Haven, Maine

U.S. geologist and ethnologist.

Powell took many expeditions (1871–79) down the Colorado River, describing the earliest of these in Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries (1875). He developed the first comprehensive classification of American Indian languages (1877) and was the first director of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology (1879–1902). In 1881 he became director of the U.S. Geological Survey, where he worked extensively on mapping water sources and advancing irrigation projects.

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▪ American geologist
born March 24, 1834, Mount Morris, N.Y., U.S.
died Sept. 23, 1902, Haven, Maine
 American geologist and ethnologist who published the first classification of American Indian languages and was the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology.

      After fighting in the American Civil War, Powell joined Illinois Wesleyan University as professor of geology. In 1867 he became a lecturer at Illinois Normal College (now Illinois State University at Normal) and began a series of expeditions to the Rocky Mountains and the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. From 1871 to 1879 he directed a federal geologic and geographic survey of western lands in the public domain and encouraged the government to initiate land-utilization projects. During this period he published three major works. In Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries (1875; rev. ed., Canyons of Colorado, 1895), he originated and formalized a number of concepts that became part of the standard working vocabulary of geology. His Introduction to the Study of Indian Languages (1877) firmly established him as an anthropologist. It contained a linguistic classification of Indian languages and grouped words according to use and emotion. Powell's Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878; reprinted 1962) is regarded as a landmark in conservation literature.

      When the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., was established in 1879, Powell became its first director and remained with it until his death. Continuing the study of Indian ethnology and languages, he published the first complete and still-authoritative classification and distribution map of 58 language stocks of the United States and Canada (1891). Powell also served as director of the U.S. Geological Survey (1881–92), working extensively on the mapping of water sources and advancing irrigation projects.

Additional Reading
Marian T. Place, John Wesley Powell (1963); Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954, reprinted 1982).

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Universalium. 2010.

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