U.S. Geological Survey

The Four Great Surveys of the West

By 1867, the developing industries were making radical demands on the Nation's natural resources. Joseph S. Wilson, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, in his annual report written in the fall of 1866, assessed at some length the mineral resources of the public domain, and afterward stated that the proper development of the geological characteristics and mineral wealth of the country was a matter of the highest concern to the American people. On March 2, 1867, Congress for the first time authorized western explorations in which geology would be the principal objective: a study of the geology and natural resources along the fortieth parallel route of the transcontinental railroad, under the Corps of Engineers, and a geological survey of the natural resources of the new State of Nebraska, under the direction of the General Land Office. Looking back at that day's work in 1880, Clarence King, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, remarked that "Eighteen sixty-seven marks, in the history of national geological work, a turning point, when the science ceased to be dragged in the dust of rapid exploration and took a commanding position in the professional work of the country."8

Figure 5. Clarence King exploring an active glacier on Mount Shasta, 1870.

King was only 25 and 5 years out of Yale, where he had been a member of the first class to graduate from the Sheffield Scientific School, when he was appointed Geologist in charge of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. He had been a member of the Geological Survey of California when he conceived the idea of a geological survey along the route of the railroad then being built, had then interested the Engineers in the plan and secured their endorsement and that of the War Department, exhibiting political as well as scientific acumen. The Chief of Engineers told King he could expect to receive $100,000 to finance the work for 3 years and was authorized to engage two assistant geologists, three topographic aides, two collectors, a photographer, and necessary camp men. King chose as assistants well-trained young men, the geologists with graduate education in Europe, and planned the work in detail before taking the field.

Ferdinand V. Hayden, M.D., who had already established a reputation as a master of reconnaissance in the Upper Missouri country, was placed in charge of the survey of Nebraska, for which only $5,000 was available. Hayden, 38, was a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio and Albany Medical College. Except during the Civil War years, Hayden had been enthusiastically exploring the northern Great Plains region since 1853 when James Hall, the New York State Geologist, had sent him and Fielding B. Meek west to study the geology and collect fossils. In 1856 and 1857, Hayden had accompanied expeditions led by Lieutenant G.K. Warren and in 1859, the expedition led by Captain W.F. Raynolds, both of the Topographical Engineers.

Figure 6. The Hayden survey in the Yellowstone area, 1871.

Both the King and the Hayden surveys were successful. In 1870, the King survey, without solicitation, received additional funds for another 3 years in the field. The Hayden survey received additional appropriations in 1868 and 1869 for exploration in Wyoming and Colorado, and in 1869 was placed directly under the Secretary of the Interior. In 1870, Hayden presented to Congress a plan for the geological and geographical exploration of the Territories of the United States that looked forward to the gradual preparation of a series of geographical and geological maps of each of the territories on a uniform scale. With Congressional blessing the Hayden survey then became the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories under the Department of the Interior.

By that time two additional surveys had taken the field. On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell, Professor of Geology at Illinois State Normal University, and a party of nine men left Green River, Wyoming, in three small boats to explore the unknown canyonlands to the south and west. Powell's expedition was privately sponsored--its only public support an authorization to draw Army rations--and the members of the expedition were a mixed crew of nonprofessionals.

Powell, 35, was the son of an itinerant Methodist preacher. His formal schooling had ceased when he was 12, and his life thereafter had been spent in farming, studying, teaching, and exploring the Midwest until the outbreak of the Civil War. He enlisted in the Union Army in May 1861 and remained in the service until the war was over. After the war, Powell became professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University and then at Illinois State Normal University. In 1867 and 1868, he explored the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and eastern Utah and became convinced that the unknown canyonlands to the southwest could best be explored in boats. In a trip fraught with hardships, Powell and five of the nine original members of the crew completed a journey down the Green River to the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon on August 13, 1869. In 1870, Professor Powell received an appropriation of $10,000 from Congress to make a second trip down the Colorado, being required only to report his results to the Smithsonian Institution. On June 10, 1872, Congress appropriated another $20,000 for completion of the survey.

Figure 7. The Powell survey on its second trip down the Colorado River, 1871.

The second new exploration in 1869 was led by Lieutenant George Wheeler, Engineer Officer on the staff of the Commanding General of the Army's Department of California (which covered California, Nevada, and Arizona). Wheeler, not quite 27, was a graduate of West Point in 1866 where he had ranked sixth in his class and won a commission in the elite Corps of Engineers. By 1869, exploration of the Colorado River and location of north-south routes across the Great Basin had become the most important projects of the Division of the Pacific, but when the Army learned of Powell's planned expedition, exploration of the Colorado was postponed.

In early June 1869, Lieutenant Wheeler received orders to organize and equip a party to make a thorough and careful reconnaissance of the country south and east of White Pine, Nevada, as far as the head of navigation on the Colorado, to obtain data for a military map and to survey the possibility of a wagon road and select sites for military posts. In 1871, the Engineers sent Lt. Wheeler to explore and map the area south of the Central Pacific Railroad in eastern Nevada and Arizona.

On his return from the 1871 expedition, Wheeler, convinced that the day of the pathfinder had ended, proposed a plan for mapping the United States west of the 100th meridian on a scale of 8 miles to the inch, expected to cost $2.5 million and take 15 years. Congress authorized the program on June 10, 1872, the day on which funds were appropriated for completion of the Powell survey. Hayden that year was given $75,000 for his Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories.

Inevitably, conflicts developed between the Hayden survey, mapping the Territories of the United States, and the Wheeler survey, mapping the areas west of the 100th meridian. In 1874, Congress was provoked to a thorough discussion of civilian versus military control of mapping. In the testimony heard by the Congressional committee, much of it on the purposes and efficiency of the mapping, Powell credited King's Fortieth Parallel survey with the most advanced techniques, which Hayden and he had later adopted. In the end Congress concluded that each survey had been doing excellent work for the benefit of the people and that there was sufficient work for both the Interior Department and the War Department for years to come. The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution had requested an additional appropriation for the Powell survey, which Congress granted but transferred the survey to the Department of the Interior, where it was at first called the second division of the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. Later, because of tension between Powell and Hayden, the Powell survey became known as the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region.

U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior
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