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The American Experience

People & Events
Establishment of the United States Geological Survey, 1879


Geological Survey In the middle of the 19th century, the American West was a mysterious, untamed land from which a handful of explorers had brought back wild tales. Some claimed to have found "small craters from four to six inches in diameter from which streamed a blaze and a whistling sound." Others described how "the hollow ground resounded beneath their feet as they traveled." One explorer, "Captain" Sam Adams, claimed that gold, silver and lead ran through the rocks in many of the canyon walls alongside the Colorado River.

With the conclusion of the Civil War, the Federal government, wanting to demystify the West, made investigating, mapping and understanding the Western territories an integral part of its domestic policy. Washington wanted to know whether the land could be farmed, what its natural resources were and how easily it could be settled. It was with this in mind that, from 1867 to 1879, legislators on Capitol Hill sponsored what came to be known as the four "Great Surveys." Each of these were grand undertakings both in terms of the amount of territory they examined and in the wealth of information contributed to the knowledge of the American West.

One of the first surveys set up was led by the imaginative and energetic Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Hayden's expedition initially came under the supervision of the General Land Office and, though it started out quite modestly, it would become the largest of the "Great Surveys." With an appropriation of $5,000, Hayden's original commission was to explore the lands of Nebraska with a view to investigating what areas of the state were suitable for human exploitation. Within two years, his annual appropriation had doubled, his investigation had been formally titled "The United States Geological Survey of the Territories," and his work had been placed under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior.

The early years of Hayden's survey paved the way for his most ambitious expeditions, the greatest of which were probably the well-equipped investigations of the Yellowstone and Teton Mountain area of Wyoming. The photographs and drawings Hayden brought back to Washington from those trips were instrumental in persuading legislators to create Yellowstone National Park. Later Hayden moved his investigations to Colorado, a transition that would put him in direct confrontation with another surveying team. He explained his change of location saying "The prospect of [the area's] rapid development within the next five years, by some of the most important railroads in the West, renders it very desirable that its resources be made known to the world at as early a date as possible." Ultimately, Hayden's survey was important in a number of ways. In addition to mapping the West, it provided a wealth of knowledge about the region's natural history. And the artists, photographers and newspaper reporters who accompanied his teams helped to demystify the region for a generation of Americans.

The year Hayden's operation was established, Clarence King -- an aristocratic, affluent, young man from New England -- arrived in Washington with a handful of recommendations from scientists and the goal of winning his own appropriation. His plan was to survey a one-hundred mile wide belt along the 40th parallel which would basically follow the route of the transcontinental railway. Despite his youth, King got what he wanted. As the Secretary of War gave him his commission, an expedition entitled the Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel, he also dispensed some advice. "Now, Mr. King," he said, "the sooner you get out of Washington, the better -- you are too young a man to be seen about town with this appointment in your pocket -- there are four major-generals who want your place."

Though King was somewhat eccentric in his leadership style, setting up unusually luxurious camps, he was a cautious and meticulous scholar.

Unlike his competitor Hayden who felt that any discoveries should immediately be made known to the public, King determined that his reports would represent the careful distillation of years of research. "It is my intention," he wrote, "to give this work a finish which will place it on an equal footing with the best European productions." Though it included research in paleontology, botany and ornithology, the work of King's team focused largely on the geology of the area, specifically the mineral deposits. The seven-volume report and the accompanying atlas of the 40th parallel that came out of the investigation did much to improve the reputation of American science in Europe. King's own contribution, "Systematic Geology" was for decades a classic historical geological text. When it came out in 1878, it was most comprehensive thesis to date on the subject.

In 1867, the year that Hayden and King approached Congress for financial support of their field work, a one-armed civil war veteran also pounded the pavement in Washington looking for sponsorship of an expedition. But where Hayden and King succeeded, John Wesley Powell failed. He managed to secure nothing more than the promise of some wagons, livestock, camp equipment and surveying gadgets. It wasn't until after the success of his 1869, headline-grabbing, first expedition down the Colorado River that Powell would be granted a Congressional appropriation to "complete the survey of the Colorado of the West and its tributaries." Powell envisioned his investigations concentrating on a narrow rectangular area bordered by the Green River and the Uinta Mountains in the North, the Grand Canyon in the South and Colorado in the West.

Of all the Great Surveys, Powell's was initially staffed with men of the least knowledge and expertise. Many of those he hired were either close friends or relatives. On the inaugural trip of his survey -- a second expedition down the Colorado River -- only one man was an outsider, and he was the photographer E. O. Beaman. The initial work of the survey, including the river trip and an exploration of the Great Plateau, was concluded by 1873. For the next six years, a handful of professional men (there were never more than eight) remained in the field, continuing the topographical survey work that Powell had started. Powell himself spent most of these years in Washington D.C. His survey only concerned itself with geology and produced nothing like the volume of written material that Hayden's would. But one of its most important contributions was its explanations of the formation of the Grand Canyon's geological features, which helped to open up whole new areas of geological investigation.

In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers inaugurated its own survey. The impetus for yet another investigation of the West came in part from a feeling within the Army that civilians were usurping its traditional, pre-Civil War, peace-time activity of map-making. The Army argued that no one else was making maps suitable for military purposes. It was with this in mind that Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler was put in charge of the "Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian." His mission was to obtain "correct topographical knowledge of the region traversed...and to prepare accurate maps of that section." Additionally, he was required to determine, whenever possible, "everything relating to the physical features of the country, the numbers, habits, and disposition of the Indians who may live in this section,... the facilities offered for making rail or common roads, to meet the wants of those who at some future period may occupy or traverse this portion of our territory."

By the early 1870s, there were then four different investigations of overlapping territory, led by four charismatic and headstrong men. Conflict was inevitable. From 1872 onwards, Powell began campaigning to consolidate the work of the surveys. But Congress didn't take notice of the rivalries and needless duplication until Hayden and Wheeler's men clashed in the Colorado territory in July 1873. Shortly afterwards the House of Representatives held hearings into whether the survey work should be collapsed into one larger survey. The proceedings were notable for the succession of bitter and angry complaints. One of Wheeler's men accused Hayden of saying, "You can tell Wheeler that if he stirs a finger or attempts to interfere with me or my survey in any way, I will utterly crush him -- as I have enough Congressional influence to do so, and will bring it all to bear." Faced with conflicting opinions from the various expedition leaders, Congress decided that all the surveys should continue.

In 1878, Powell agitated again for the consolidation of the three remaining surveys. In June of that year the National Academy of Sciences was asked to consider the issue. When it delivered its report a few months later, it suggested consolidating the investigations under the supervision of the Department of the Interior. Most of the rest of its suggestions were so similar to those Powell had been championing that one of the Major's aides wrote ironically, "I see the Academy has made its report and it sounds wonderfully like something I have read -- and perhaps written -- before."

A new agency, the United States Geological Survey was established in 1879 to carry out the work. King was hired as its first director. Within a year he stepped down and was replaced by Powell, who would head the organization for the next 23 years. The establishment of the agency was one of the most important achievements of Powell's career. Over the next century the U.S. Geological Survey became one of the most well-regarded organizations of its kind. Today its many activities include predicting when earthquakes will occur, evaluating water quality and producing some tens of thousands of maps.

Though the four surveys individually made enormous contributions to the existing knowledge of the West, the U.S. Geological Survey eclipsed them, and much of what they had achieved was quickly forgotten. The beautiful maps, for example, so painstakingly compiled and accurate enough at the time to be helpful for railroad builders and farmers, are useful today only to collectors. But even though the Hayden, Powell, King and Wheeler expeditions were superseded by Powell's new agency, these four pioneers did achieve what they had set out to: They had explored the West and discovered what lay out there. They had helped to tame a mysterious and sometimes frightening land. And they had confirmed that it many ways it was as magnificent and magical as the earliest rumors would have people believe.



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