The one-armed Civil War hero and explorer (1834-1902) was a land use revolutionary. Born in upstate New York, ripened on the “middle border” of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois, Powell joined the 20th Illinois Volunteer Infantry the minute the Civil War began. He lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6, 1862), but he never permitted himself to become an invalid.
In 1869, Powell and a group of nine adventurers he cobbled together floated from Green River Station in Wyoming all the way to the Virgin River in today’s Utah, a 99-day river adventure that cost the lives of three of his volunteers and staggered the resolution of even Powell, who came to call the Grand Canyon “our prison.” On the basis of his heroic journey, Powell became a famous man, and he turned his fame into a bureaucratic machine. He was the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology, one of the founders of the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., and one of the founders of the National Geographic Society.
He used his fame to influence public lands and water policy in the United States. He sought better treatment of America’s Indians, including the Utes and Paiutes whose languages and culture he studied for many years. He wanted to employ every cubic inch of water west of the Hundredth Meridian for the purposes of irrigation, to make the desert bloom. He tried to change the land tenure and survey systems for the lands of the arid west so that innocent homesteaders would not be set up for failure on square Jeffersonian plots in the land of little rain. He advocated the replacement of blockish and arbitrary western states with what he called “watershed commonwealths,” that would attend to the holistic needs and challenges of entire river watersheds.
Needless to say, most of his reforms were rejected by the boomers and boosters of the United States Congress. He was eased out of his government positions in the 1890s, chiefly because he wanted America to develop its arid lands in a socially and environmentally responsible way, beginning with a sober analysis of the true carrying capacity of each region of the West.
Clay’s Personal Notes:
In many ways, Powell is my most “relevant” historical character. Although the best thinkers no longer agree that any cubic inch of water that reaches the sea unused has been wasted, and though he proposed dams for more than 200 sites in the American West, including in the heart of the Grand Canyon, Powell remains the most important water reformer in American history. He was a Jeffersonian who wanted to update Jefferson’s agrarian vision for arid country. His goal was to champion the rights and opportunities of small holders, not speculators, corporations, or government bureaucrats. If we had listened to Powell, we could have saved a world of trouble in the ways in which we have stored, distributed, and monetized western water supplies.
I hate the scraggly beard, and giving a performance one-armed is a true challenge. Once, at Grinnell College in Iowa, sitting in the lobby of a great auditorium waiting in character to be introduced, I was told by campus security to move on before they found it necessary to arrest me. They took me for a vagrant, a homeless one armed man who must be up to no good.
My dream is to float the Grand Canyon in a wooden dory. I’ve only had one five-day float on the Green, through Desolation Canyon, and the outfitters were completely unsatisfactory.
As a lifelong student of American Indian culture, I particularly enjoy explaining Powell’s relatively enlightened views of the future of Indians in the United States.