Major Powell Turns 150: A Sesquicentennial Interdisciplinary Reassessment of the Expeditions of John Wesley Powell between 1867–75

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Raymond Sumner, Colorado State University and American Military University
2017 marks the sesquicentennial of Major John Wesley Powell’s inaugural expedition to Colorado. Powell – through his exploration of Utah, Colorado, and Arizona – was directly responsible for completing the initial topographic map of the U.S. which enabled Powell to later establish critical aspects of government supported science and shape much of the late nineteenth century debate on the development of the western U.S. Unfortunately, previous examinations of Powell focused almost exclusively on Powell or the 1869 river expedition through the Grand Canyon. In doing so, a great deal of understanding and context has been overlooked that if identified will help to explain how and why Powell conducted his expeditions in the manner he did as well as provide a more complex analysis of Powell’s impact on the development of the American West. My research will add to this understanding through a focus on the early Powell expeditions and the role their members played in giving Powell access to the political, economic, and social power structures that were focused on the rapid “development” of the American West.

A major aspect that distinguishes this research from the existing Powell historiography is its interdisciplinary focus, reliance on field research, and use of material culture to augment standard historical research. I have already conducted extensive primary source research across the U.S. and the initial fieldwork at sites associated with the Powell including two rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. Future fieldwork will include a ground expedition to examine the possible routes of Powell’s lost men who hiked out of the Grand Canyon in 1869. This fieldwork will incorporate aspects of historical archaeology, anthropology, Native American studies, geology, and geography as the potential routes, kill sites, burial sites are examined using advanced scientific equipment including Ground Penetrating Radar. Work in 2019 will focus on Powell’s 1869 river expedition and retrace their route to document and assess the environmental, technological, social, and political changes related to the rivers and their place in western culture.

Material culture will also play a key role in developing new insights into the expeditions as the artifacts (primarily held at the Smithsonian Institution) are re-examined and integrated into a complex interdisciplinary historical context. In this re-examination, a heavy reliance on Native American studies, anthropology, botany, and ornithology will shape our understanding of the artifacts and the expeditions on which they were collected.

Lastly, the research will use emerging digital history methods to identify new primary sources and to develop spatial relationships over time between Powell’s expeditions and those of other early explorers. By using OCR and historic newspaper databases significant discoveries of new primary sources describing the early expeditions to Colorado were located. These letters nearly double the existing primary source material related to the first two expeditions and help redefine key aspects and motivations behind them. In the end, this complex methodology will offer the most complete and detailed assessment of Powell and his role in the development of government sponsored science and the development of the American West.

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