The son of a Methodist minister, Powell imbibed his father’s theology as a boy. However, he was introduced to an alternative point of view when the elderly naturalist George Crookham taught him basic natural science. For much of his youth, though, Powell had little time to contemplate either God or nature. As the eldest son, he took on much of the backbreaking work necessary to support his seven brothers and sisters on newly cleared farms, first in Wisconsin and then Illinois.
When he was 16, Powell struck out on his own. In 1852, he began teaching elementary school, which gave him time to improve his own education. During the next seven years, Powell took courses in natural science at Illinois, Wheaton, and Oberlin Colleges. He became a local expert on mollusks, attracting the approval of the Illinois Natural History Society. By the time the Civil War broke out, Illinois natural scientists knew him well.
An ardent abolitionist, Powell enlisted in the Union Army shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter. With characteristic discipline and determination, he rose quickly in the ranks and eventually became a major in command of a battery of artillery. During the Battle of Shiloh, Powell was badly wounded and lost his right arm below the elbow. After a few months recuperating, Powell returned to the Union Army and served out the rest of the war with distinction.
Returning to civilian life, Powell became a science teacher at several Illinois colleges. However, the quiet academic life did not suit him, and he began making a series of western expeditions to explore the geology of the Rocky Mountains. In 1869, Powell led 10 men in four small boats down the Green and Colorado Rivers, becoming the first Anglo to explore the cavernous depths of the Grand Canyon.
Regarded as only a serious amateur by some professional scientists, Powell was determined to demonstrate his ability. In 1871, he won a government grant to map the Colorado Plateau. His subsequent geological descriptions of that region introduced an entire new branch of geology called geomorphology. By 1876, Powell’s theories of the role of stream flows in wearing down mountains and creating river valleys had established him as a nationally recognized geologist.
Powell’s growing scientific prestige, as well as his uncanny ability to cultivate relationships with important politicians, made him a natural choice as the second director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in 1881. (The first director, Clarence King, had served less than two years). Under Powell’s guidance, the USGS became one of the most important federal scientific bureaus of the day.
Powell’s insistence on putting truth before politics eventually earned him powerful enemies. Some western politicians, eager to exploit the natural resources of the West, objected to Powell’s insistence on understanding the natural science of the region before developing it. His enemies finally succeeded in pushing Powell out of the USGS in 1894. He continued his scientific work within the Bureau of American Ethnology, another important scientific agency Powell had nurtured.
When he died in 1902, he was widely honored as a man of tremendous and varied talents. A soldier, teacher, explorer, geologist, and anthropologist, Powell played a pivotal role in the settlement and development of the American West.