U.S. Geological Survey

Establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey

Deterioration of the economy led to another consideration of the problem of mapping the West in 1878. The King survey had by this time completed its reports, but the Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler surveys were still in the field. This time Congress turned to the National Academy of Sciences and asked it to recommend a plan for surveying and mapping the Territories of the United States that would secure the best possible results at the least possible cost. A committee of seven members appointed by the Academy recommended that the Coast and Geodetic Survey be transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the Department of the Interior, renamed the "Coast and Interior Survey," and be given responsibility for geodetic, topographic, and land-parceling surveys in addition to its existing work. The Academy committee also recommended that an independent organization, to be called the U.S. Geological Survey, be established in the Interior Department to study the geological structure and economic resources of the public domain.

Legislation to rename the Coast and Geodetic Survey and transfer it to the Department of the Interior and to establish the U.S. Geological Survey for "classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain"9 was included in the bill appropriating funds for the legislative, executive, and judicial expenses of the Federal Government for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1879. An appropriation for the expenses of the new national geological survey was included in the sundry civil expenses bill.

Figure 8. The Conference Committee copy of the law establishing the U.S. Geological Survey, 1879.

The transfer of the land-parceling surveys to a Coast and Interior Survey aroused strong opposition among Congressmen from Western States, and the bill was amended to exclude the public-land surveys from the work of the Coast and Interior Survey. There were few objections to the Geological Survey, and Congressman A.S. Hewitt of New York, who had initiated the Academy study, spoke most eloquently about the value of the study of mineral resources to the future development and prosperity of the Nation. The bill was then passed and sent to the Senate.

The Senate took up the sundry civil expenses bill first, and amended the item for the expenses of the geological survey so that it became $100,000 for the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, in other words, the Hayden survey. The bill then went to a conference committee to iron out the differences between the two houses. The Senate voted to delete the entire section on the reorganization of the surveys from the legislative, executive, and judicial expenses bill, making the Senate action a clear triumph for Hayden, and sent it to conference.

The Democratic House and Republican Senate were far apart on some items in the bill, unrelated to the Survey legislation, and it became evident that agreement could not be reached before adjournment. The Senate and House conferees on the sundry civil bill, among them Hewitt, then agreed to combine into one item the sections in the House version of the legislative bill establishing the geological survey and the House version of the appropriation for the expenses of the U.S. Geological Survey. Thus the U.S. Geological Survey was established, by a last-minute amendment, to classify the public lands--94 years after the Land Ordinance of 1785 first directed their surveying and classification--and to examine the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain. The legislation also provided that the Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler surveys be discontinued as of June 30, 1879. Congress also established a public lands commission, of which the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey would be a member, to prepare a codification of laws relating to the survey and disposition of the public domain, a system and standard of classification of public lands, a system of land-parceling surveys adapted to the economic use of the several classes of lands, and recommendations for disposal of the public lands in the western portion of the United States to actual settlers.

U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior
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Last updated 04.10.00