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Book review: A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell
On the shelf

Book review
A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell by Donald Worster, Oxford University Press (2001), 673 p., ISBN 0-19-509991-5 Hardcover, $35.00.

Clifford M. Nelson

John Powell, who lived from 1834 to 1902, contributed significantly to federal mapping and science surveys during America's Gilded Age. He fought for the Union at Shiloh (where he lost his right arm), Vicksburg, Meridian, and Nashville. In 1869 and 1871 Major Powell led two different teams in daring reconnaissances by boat down the Green and Colorado Rivers. From those successes, Powell fashioned a federal organization (1870-1879), known ultimately as the Interior Department's U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, which examined Utah and adjacent areas in the Southwest. Powell then served as chief of the Smithsonian's Bureau of [American] Ethnology from 1879 to 1902, and with Clarence King on the Public Lands Commission. Powell followed King as second director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) from 1881 to 1894. Powell also led the USGS Irrigation Survey from 1888 to 1891.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Walter Webb, Henry Smith and their colleagues rediscovered Powell as they searched for historical roots for America's conservation movement. In following years, two biographies of Powell appeared: paleobotanist William Darrah's Powell of the Colorado (1951) and novelist Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954). Both were based on manuscripts and published sources. Darrah and Stegner demonstrated that Powell had helped to generate a better understanding of the West, and promoted a more rational use of its arid lands and limited waters, beginning with his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878, 1879). They also rightly touted the importance for geomorphology of Powell's classification of streams and base level of erosion. Darrah and Stegner both described Powell's ethnological efforts toward a wiser, more humane, policy for the region's native peoples.

Since Samuel Johnson's Life of Savage (1744), most biographers have sought to re-create their subject's life and times as accurately as possible so that honest and useful lessons might be drawn from them. Historian Donald Worster now admirably seeks to end the sainthood individuals and organizations have conferred on Powell by presenting "the Major" in all his "ambivalence and contradiction" and fixing his place in and impact on "a more complicated America." Worster draws on his own work, including the word portrait he created in An Unsettled Country (1994), and nearly 90 manuscript collections, many not used by Darrah or Stegner.

In this latest Powell biography, Worster succeeds in portraying a much more believable Powell. Worster's Powell is a man of major strengths (an indomitable leader, deeply concerned about public issues), great weaknesses  (an inconsistent populist, unwilling to compromise on these issues), and, thus, mixed achievements (both personal and programmatic).

But where Worster fails is in his interpretation of Powell as an administrator. Worster seems to be a prisoner of his (and Stegner's) populist-agrarian ideology. He flails the frontier army, capitalist entrepreneurs, elitists, extractive corporations, legislators, presidents and their civilian bureaucracies, USGS "carpers," and others among Powell's contemporaries who questioned the Major's plans, policies and operations. Worster tries but fails to debunk a major alternative scholarly view - developed since 1954, principally in Mary Rabbitt's Minerals, Lands, and Geology for the Common Defence and General Welfare (1979, 1980) and supported by my own studies of manuscript sources — of the nature of and reasons for Powell's successes and failures.

Also problematic is Worster’s enhancement of Powell by denigrating, unfairly, key individuals in Powell’s political and scientific circles. His is a ludicrous misrepresentation of Clarence King, the first USGS director, that expands Stegner's similarly untenable version. Worster portrays King as an effete sybaritic elitist who is not Powell's equal as a man, scientist or administrator. In a misreading of ancients vs. moderns, Worster labels King a "catastrophist" and Powell a "uniformitarian" [gradualist]; actually, King's episodic interpretation of geology and evolution looks better today, judging by the Eldredge-Gould model of "punctuated equilibria."

The King portrayed in Thurman Wilkins’ Clarence King (1958, 1988), by Rabbitt, and by Stegner in Angle of Repose (1971) is  the King that Powell knew. Also compare Worster's version of Charles Walcott, the third USGS director (1894-1907), with those by Rabbitt and by Ellis Yochelson in Charles Doolittle Walcott, Paleontologist (1998).

Worster offers a cardboard account of how Powell directed the USGS in helping to meet some of the national needs of the 1880s and 1890s, many of which remain pressing concerns today. King resigned in 1881 after recommending Powell to run the mission-oriented agency that King, not Powell, had done so much to create and guide. Rabbitt noted that Powell's goals and methods in science and its management differed widely from King's. Powell believed that everything possible must be learned about a subject before applying it to solving problems - a dangerous concept in government agencies, for which legislators, as Worster agrees, ultimately decide what policies and activities best serve national interests.

Powell's looser managerial style often allowed the USGS staff to choose their own subjects for study. To complete the national geologic map King sought, King and Powell's friends in Congress convinced their colleagues to authorize USGS operations nationwide in 1882. Powell then remade the USGS into a bureau of topographic mapping (by then a need) and general geology, but at the expense of its mandated mineral-resource studies vital to maintaining the nation's economic health.

Worster, like Rabbitt, describes how Congress steadily increased USGS appropriations in the 1880s and how Powell survived the legislative investigations of 1884 to 1886. Then the two accounts again part company. Although Congress pressed for reform in 1887 by asking Powell to itemize all requests for funds, Rabbitt notes, the legislators authorized the USGS Irrigation Survey to enable Powell to try to reform land and water use in the West. Powell refused to recommend promptly the sites for dams, reservoirs, and canals to reopen the public lands to entry (for good or ill). Powell’s recommendations also would have enabled the government to release federal-dowry lands to six new states. And Worster fails to mention that Powell refused to begin requested studies of artesian waters. The net result: Congress terminated the Irrigation Survey.

When the USGS did not respond effectively to a renewed currency crisis that lasted from 1890 to 1892, the legislators selectively slashed the agency's statutory staff and its operating expenses. When Powell replied by reducing the entire staff, decimating its economic geologists, and trying to have the agency transferred to the Agriculture Department, Congress encouraged his resignation by cutting his salary. All federal managers are accountable for what happens on their watches, and Worster wisely does not place all the blame on others for Powell's failures after 1886.

King recommended Walcott as Powell's replacement. Walcott, Rabbitt emphasized, restored congressional confidence in and support for the USGS by expanding its focus to encompass any practical work that would serve the nation's economic and educational needs. Walcott succeeded because he did not act as if the political arena were a morality play; he sought to reach the nearest attainable approximation of what he wished to accomplish and did so without compromising his principles. Just before Powell's death, Congress passed the National Reclamation Act and established the Reclamation Service within the USGS under Walcott's guidance.

Initial reviewers in literary and scientific journals favorably received Worster's interpretation. Read his book for a better understanding of Powell the man; there is no better account. Beware, however, of Worster's views of Powell as a geologist, administrator and conservationist Cassandra, and his problems with the USGS and Congress. The principal lesson to be drawn from Powell's performance as administrator, especially after 1886, is how not to manage federal agencies.

Nelson has been a geologist and historian with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., since 1976.

This version was updated Nov. 16, 2001,  and is  different from the version that appeared in the print issue.

On the shelf

Earth Sciences and Archaeology, edited by Paul Goldberg, Vance T. Holliday, and C. Reid Ferring. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers (2001). 513 p. ISBN 0-306-46279-6. Illus. Hardcover, $120.

Virtual Rivers: Lessons from the Mountain Rivers of the Colorado Front Range by Ellen E. Wohl. Yale University Press (2001). 210 p. ISBN 0-300-08484-6. Hardcover, $35.

Volcanoes in America's National Parks by Robert Decker and Barbara Decker. Odyssey Publications (2001). 256 p. ISBN 962-217-677-1. Paperback, $24.95.

Oregon Fossils by Elizabeth L. Orr and William N. Orr. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co. (1999). 381 p. ISBN 0-7872-5454-1. Paperback, $40.95.

Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage by Kenneth S. Deffeyes. Princeton University Press (2001). 285 p. ISBN 0-691-09086-6. Hardcover, $24.95.

The Colorado Plateau: A Geologic History by Donal L. Baars. University of New Mexico Press (2000). 254 p. ISBN 0-8263-23014. Paperback, $21.95.

The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor. Princeton University Press (2000). 361 p. ISBN 0-691-08977-9. Paperback, $17.95.

Resources of the Earth: Origin, Use and Environmental Impact, third edition, by James R. Craig, David J. Vaughan and Brian J. Skinner. Prentice Hall (2001). 520 p. ISBN 0-13-083410-6. Hardcover, $XX.

Glacial Lake Missoula and its Humongous Floods by David Alt. Mountain Press Publishing Co. (2001). 197 p. ISBN 0-87842-415-6. Paperback, $15.


U.S. Geological Survey

I-2626. VERMONT. Bedrock geologic map of the Rochester quadrangle, Rutland, Windsor, and Addison Counties, Vermont by Gregory J. Walsh and Christine K. Falta. 2001. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet and 14 pages of accompanying text. $7.

I-2650. MARS. Geologic, Paleotectonic, and Paleoerosional maps of the Thaumasia Region, Mars by J. M. Dohm, K.L. Tanaka, and T.M. Hare. Prepared for NASA. 2001. Scale 1:5,000,000. Three color sheets. $14.

I-2685. HAWAII. Maps showing the development of the Pu`u `O`o-Kupaianaha flow field, June 1984-February 1987, Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii by Christina Heliker, George E. Ulrich, Sandy C. Margriter, and John P. Hoffman. 2001. Scale 1:50,000. Four color sheets showing successive eruptive episodes of volcanism. $14.

I-2721. VENUS. Geologic map of the Pandrosos Dorsa quadrangle (V-5), Venus by Elizabeth Rosenberg and George E. McGill. Prepared for NASA. 2001. Scale 1:5,000,000. One color sheet. $7.

I-2727. MARS. Geologic map of the Tempe-Mareotis region of Mars by Henry J. Moore. Prepared for NASA. 2001. Scale 1:1,000,000. One color sheet and 23 pages of accompanying text. $7.

MF-2371. WASHINGTON. Geologic map of the Silver Lake quadrangle, Cowlitz County, Washington by R.C. Evarts. Prepared in cooperation with Weyerhaeuser Company. 2001. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet. Available free at:

To order USGS maps: Contact USGS Information Services, P.O. Box 25286, Denver, CO 80225. Phone: 1-888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747).

Peter Lyttle compiles the Maps section and is acting coordinator for the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program. E-mail:

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