The United States Geological Survey was established on March 3, 1879, just a few hours before the mandatory close of the final session of the 45th Congress, when President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the bill appropriating money for sundry civil expenses of the Federal Government for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1879. The sundry civil expenses bill included a brief section establishing a new agency, the United States Geological Survey, placing it in the Department of the Interior, and charging it with a unique combination of responsibilities: "classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain."1 The legislation stemmed from a report of the National Academy of Sciences, which in June 1878 had been asked by Congress to provide a plan for surveying the Territories of the United States that would secure the best possible results at the least possible cost. Its roots, however, went far back into the Nation's history.
The first duty enjoined upon the Geological Survey by the Congress, the classification of the public lands, originated in the Land Ordinance of 1785. The original public lands were the lands west of the Allegheny Mountains claimed by some of the colonies, which became a source of contention in writing the Articles of Confederation until 1781 when the States agreed to cede their western lands to Congress. The extent of the public lands was enormously increased by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and later territorial acquisitions.
At the beginning of Confederation, the decision was made not to hold the public lands as a capital asset, but to dispose of them for revenue and to encourage settlement. The Land Ordinance of 1785 provided the method of surveying and a plan for disposal of the lands, but also reserved "one-third part of all gold, silver, lead, and copper mines to be sold or otherwise disposed of, as Congress shall thereafter direct,"2 thus implicitly requiring classification of the lands into mineral and nonmineral. Mapping of the public lands was begun under the direction of the Surveyor-General, but no special provision was made for classification of the public lands, and it thus became the responsibility of the surveyor. There was, of course, no thought in 1785 or for many years thereafter of employing geologists to make the classification of the mineral lands, for geology was then only in its infancy.
By 1879, eight classes of public lands had been recognized, each of which had separate regulations for disposition, but, except in a few cases, no special provision had been made to secure an accurate classification in advance of disposition. Of the mineral lands listed in the 1785 Ordinance, lead lands had been leased for a time and later sold, and copper lands had been sold, but no regulations were made about the lands bearing precious metals until 1866 when they were declared free and open to exploration and purchase. Iron lands, not mentioned in the 1785 Ordinance, were ruled "not mineral lands,"3 and coal lands, also not mentioned, were offered for sale in 1863. The surveyors were still responsible for classification of the public lands, but, in actual practice, did not make the classification themselves but relied on affidavits from the interested parties.
Neither the public lands nor scientific investigations of any kind were mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, which superseded the Articles of Confederation in 1788. Scientific investigations and the construction of public works were both considered the prerogative or responsibility of the States or private institutions rather than the Federal Government. Of necessity, the Federal viewpoint changed in later years, but even so, the two were frequently treated alike.
Although the military engaged in some scientific activities, Congress did not authorize civilian scientific activities in the Federal Government until 1807 when it established the Coast Survey for the practical purpose of providing better charts of coastal waters and navigational aids for commercial interests. The Coast Survey, however, was unable to get underway until after the end of the War of 1812 and then had only a brief independent life before being transferred to the jurisdiction of the Navy.
In 1810, only 3 years after the Coast Survey was established and long before it got underway, Benjamin Silliman, Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Natural History at Yale, proposed to the Connecticut Academy of Sciences that a geological survey be undertaken of part of the national domain, the State of Connecticut. The academy approved the idea but had no funds to carry it out, and another decade passed before a publicly supported geological survey was made.