Congress establishes the United States Geological Survey, an organization that played a pivotal role in the exploration and development of the West.
Although the rough geographical outlines of much of the American West were known by 1879, the government still had astonishingly little detailed knowledge of the land. Earlier federal exploratory missions under men like Ferdinand Hayden and John Wesley Powell had begun to fill in the map, yet much remained to be done. Congress decided to transform the earlier system of sporadic federal geological explorations into a permanent government agency, the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
From the beginning, the USGS focused its efforts on practical geographical and geological investigations that might spur western economic development. Since the vast majority of the nation’s public land was in the West, the USGS became one of the federal government’s most important tools for encouraging the exploitation of western natural resources. Congress appointed Clarence King, a brilliant young mining engineer and geologist, as the first director. King, who had previously done considerable work for western mining companies, viewed the USGS as a tool for aiding further mineral exploitation. As a result, the first major reports produced under King’s tenure concerned the economic geology of two important mining districts, Nevada’s Comstock Lode and Colorado’s Leadville silver district.
King’s attempts to aid western mining won him praise from both mining companies and western congressmen, but King was eager to make his own fortune in the mining business. He resigned as director in 1881 to pursue what he hoped would be more lucrative opportunities. John Wesley Powell, a bold geologist-explorer who had led the first American explorations of the Grand Canyon, succeeded King as director.
Powell extended the work of the survey into new areas like paleontology and soon became controversial for his bold assertion that much of the arid West would remain unsettled without large-scale irrigation projects. The direct and plainspoken Powell was so closely associated with the USGS during his 14-year term as director that many people have mistakenly believed he was the first director of the agency. Despite his expansion of the survey’s mission, though, Powell never abandoned the practical economic emphasis established by King.
Subsequent directors of the USGS also remained true to King’s early focus on aiding the economic development of the West, providing topographical and geological maps that have continued to prove essential to the mineral, agricultural, and hydraulic development of the region to this day.