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The Legacy of John Wesley Powell

The name and legendary stature of John Wesley Powell permeate the U.S. Geological Survey. Powell had towering accomplishments as an explorer, scientist, and environmentalist. He was both director of the USGS and founder and director of the Bureau of Ethnography (now part of the Smithsonian Institution). The USGS National Center headquarters building in Reston, Virginia, is named after him, as is the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis located in Fort Collins, Colorado. In addition, several awards are given in his name. However, amid the advancing movement to confront systemic racial inequality and injustice in the United States, there are growing inquiries into the legacies of historic figures including John Wesley Powell. Although Powell was a scientific visionary, he expressed opinions that today would be considered offensive, even racist.  As the federal government and the scientific community move toward creating a workforce that is more diverse and inclusive, how should we view this venerable figure of our American past and icon of the USGS? We do not have answers at the Powell Center, but wish to promote conversations about how we, as a scientific agency and as a society, address the difficult questions surrounding our perceptions of our flawed founders. 

Powell’s dual passions were the sciences of geology and ethnography. While he is honored as an explorer, he did so in the name of advancing our knowledge of natural history in order to improve natural resources management. Among his writings were seminal papers about the arid regions of the United States, with prescient views about water scarcity, agricultural development in the Western U.S., and extensive anthropological studies on the Ute people he met and studied on his Colorado River explorations.  

Yet, there is another side to Powell (e.g., Pico, 2019). In the late 1800s expansion of Euro-American settlement across the western United States was a national imperative. Powell was an adherent to Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century doctrine or cultural belief that the expansion of the U.S. throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable. Powell viewed Native Americans as “an inferior race” and promoted dissolution of the bonds that held Native Americans to their lands, language, and beliefs in order to assimilate them into American society (Powell, 1888). Powell supported the official government program that confined indigenous people to reservations so that their lands and resources could be appropriated by Euro-Americans.  

These views, common at the time, are unacceptable to us now. Powell may have been a product of his time, but this does not absolve him or others of the era for the harm that was done to native peoples. As we consider the legacy of John Wesley Powell and acknowledge the historical and present-day inequities in the earth and environmental sciences, we strive to advance diversity and inclusion in the Center for Analysis and Synthesis that is named after him. 

 Pico, T. (2019) The Darker Side of John Wesley Powell. Blogpost in Scientific American: 

 Powell, J.W. (1888). From Barbarism to Civilization.  American Anthropologist: 1(2):97-123. 




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