John Wesley Powell’s Settler-Colonial Vision for the West

In 1869, John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) became the first white man to navigate the Colorado River in its entirety, a feat that captured the public imagination and kickstarted an impressive career in natural history and ethnology. In the years that followed, Powell led a major surveying expedition in the West, conducted extensive research among the Indigenous nations of the Southwest, and served as director of both the United States Geological Survey and the Bureau of American Ethnology. What he is perhaps best remembered for, though, is the groundbreaking but unheeded report he delivered to Congress in 1878, arguing for the sustainable settlement of the American West. Among contemporary environmentalists, Powell has become something of a Cassandra for a region that has endured extensive droughts and wildfires as a result of climate change in the twenty-first century, an iconoclast who dared question the dominant logic of capitalism in an era of unfettered national growth.

John Wesley Powell. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Absent from this narrative is how Powell’s faith in scientific management and progress made him a crucial proponent of the nation’s imperial goals at the end of the nineteenth century. Even as Powell cautioned against the hasty settlement of the West, he advocated for the removal of Indigenous peoples there, that they might eventually abandon their own heritage and embrace the culture of the settler-colonial United States. Ultimately, this version of Powell cannot be extricated from the heroic, environmentalist persona that we have inherited. Now, 150 years after his voyage down the Colorado, it is worth complicating the legacy of John Wesley Powell in order to uncover one blind spot in the settler-colonial history of American environmentalism.

Two Visions of American Expansion

It was popularly understood in the nineteenth century that rain followed the plow, an axiom touted by Western boosters like William Gilpin, the Colorado Territory governor who believed earnestly in the Manifest Destiny of the United States. If enough homesteaders were to settle the barren plains and mountainous lands of the West, the theory went, their collective efforts to improve the region for agriculture would result in a favorable climatic shift. Powell was critical of this ideology. Without adequate rainfall—at least twenty inches distributed throughout the year—farmers would always have to rely on supplemental irrigation. In the Eastern U.S. where the nation’s agrarian land practices were shaped, over twenty inches of rain was a given. West of the hundredth meridian (the namesake of Wallace Stegner’s celebratory 1953 biography of Powell) settlers simply could not expect that much in an average year.

In an 1878 report to Congress, Powell argued against a program of rapid settlement in the West modeled on the land- and water-use practices of the eastern states; instead, he called for the state-sponsored development of communal irrigation districts along the region’s available waterways. The remaining land could then be used by ranchers for communal grazing. All told, Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States was a forward-thinking program of sustainable development that could well have altered the course of American expansion at the end of the nineteenth century.

The ceremony for the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah. Photo by Andrew J. Russell, 1869. Image courtesy of Yale University Libraries.

There are plenty of reasons Powell did not convince Congress to follow his vision. While millions of acres of public land in the West went to individual settlers following the passage of the Homestead Act (1862), millions more went to corporate interests driving westward expansion. The same year Abraham Lincoln authorized the Homestead Act, he signed the Pacific Railway Act granting the Central Pacific and newly created Union Pacific railroads access to public lands as they worked toward the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. For each mile of track built, the railroads could claim loans in the form of federal bonds as well as ten miles of checkerboarded land—five sections on each side of the track. In this way alone, they acquired thousands of square miles of land that they could mine, log, or sell.

Banking institutions, land speculators, mining corporations, and large-scale ranchers also gained an uneven say in how the West was settled by building vast land monopolies. Because of the unforgiving western climate, many homesteaders struggled to keep their farms afloat, and so between 1862 and 1900, two-thirds of the homesteaders who settled beyond the hundredth meridian found themselves in debt. Those who could not recover financially forfeited their land to banks that then sold the land on the open market to the highest bidder.

There was wealth to be made monopolizing land and resource rights in the West, but the system that Powell presented to Congress came as a direct challenge to that notion. Powell’s critics challenged his scientific conclusions, deriding his proposals for self-imposed regulation and limited development as antithetical to the very institutions that fueled the growth of American empire. Private industry and individual perseverance were the watchwords of settlement in the American West, not state intervention or cooperative labor as proposed by Powell.

When Development Means Dispossession

The environmental history of the Southwest in the twentieth century illustrates the legacy of Powell’s unadopted vision. Agriculturally-friendly climate conditions at the end of the nineteenth century precipitated further settlement in the region. When, for example, Arizona entered the Union as a state in 1912, it did so amidst some of the most temperate years in its history. 1905 remains the rainiest year on record for the city of Phoenix, and 1911 saw an unusually high amount of precipitation. What’s more, the period between 1909 and 1919 saw seven of the state’s ten coolest recorded years. The decade leading up to Arizona’s statehood must have seemed to validate the spurious rhetoric of the Western boosters who imagined the desert transformed into a great garden.

Kerr McGee uranium mill near Grants, New Mexico, circa 1969. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The entire Colorado Plateau, covering the northeastern portion of Arizona and large swathes of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico (another new state in 1912), likewise saw higher-than-average annual rainfall totals that lasted into the early 1940s. These conditions coincided with large-scale emigration and agriculture, massive hydraulic projects like the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams, and new extractionist ventures like uranium mining on Navajo land, reshaping the region as fair weather again plummeted into heat and drought. Looking back, this collapse seemed inevitable—the wet years were merely part of cyclical weather patterns and not the product of settlement activities. In the period since 2000, Phoenix has seen nine of its ten warmest years and two of its driest. From a Euro-American environmentalist perspective, failure to heed Powell’s many warnings about the ecology of the arid region has culminated in a climate disaster.

What is so interesting about Powell’s efforts to guide Western development is not that he was ignored by his contemporaries, but that so many present-day environmental thinkers have pointed to this moment as a critical turning point in the history of climate change. Stegner draws a through-line from Congress’s rejection of the Arid Region report to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In Cadillac Desert (1986), Marc Reisner looks at the modern West shaped by opportunistic competition between Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and wonders what could have been. Writing for The Atlantic in 2018, John F. Ross even declares Powell the loser of “America’s first climate war.”

These elegies to Powell’s sustainable vision of the Southwest share a common blind spot, however. Though many categorically argue the need for immediate and comprehensive environmental action to reverse the nigh-irreparable damage done in the West, the imagined result is almost always a sustainable and productive revision of the nation-state as we know it. To paraphrase the cultural theorist Imre Szeman, we need not sacrifice our relationship to capitalism and our patterns of consumption because the technologies of environmental change—Powell’s settlement program, for example—will render those practices sustainable.

These elegies to Powell’s sustainable vision of the Southwest share a common blind spot.

This happy fantasy discounts the direct relationship between capitalism and climate change and conveniently erases the imperial history of the American West, perpetuating the erasure of Indigenous people who called the region home long before settler-colonialism began to leave its mark on the land. Neshnabé (Potawatomi) scholar and activist Kyle Powys Whyte addresses this elision, arguing that while many Euro-American scholars warn of a dystopian future brought about by climate change, Indigenous peoples already exist in a state of climate dystopia. He points, as an example, to nineteenth- and twentieth-century settler-colonial campaigns resulting in anthropogenic climate change associated with the dispossession of Indigenous lands and development of private property systems, deforestation, and industrial mining and agriculture. While such campaigns have contributed to the progress narrative of U.S. American civilization, they have also resulted in what Whyte calls “the dystopia of our ancestors”—the unimaginable severance of future Indigenous peoples from traditional culture and lifeways for the betterment of the settler-colonial state.

Lamenting “America’s first climate war,” John F. Ross forgets the nation’s other climate war, an enduring campaign of Indigenous removal, assimilation, and annihilation—one that Powell participated in. As a disciple of the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, Powell believed that human societies progressed through three developmental stages, from savagery to barbarism and from barbarism to civilization. Within this hierarchy, Indigenous Americans were considered savages, and the United States a civilized nation.

A Settler-Colonial Environmentalism

In an 1880 letter to Henry M. Teller, the Colorado Senator and soon-to-be Secretary of the Interior, Powell justifies removal as a civilizing tool and a necessary step in the cultural assimilation of Indigenous Americans. “All of our Indian troubles,” he writes, “have arisen primarily and chiefly from two conditions inherent in savage society,” namely, Indigenous Americans’ differing views on property ownership and their religious connection to land. Writing on the latter point, Powell notes that “When an Indian clan or tribe gives up its land it not only surrenders its home as understood by civilized people but its gods are abandoned and all its religion connected therewith, and connected with the worship of ancestors buried in the soil; that is, everything most sacred to Indian society is yielded up. Such a removal of the Indians is the first step to be taken in their civilization.” In short, removal would undermine the foundations of Native American culture and encourage their integration into settler-colonial society. Anything less would only result in further violence between the U.S. and Indigenous North Americans.

John Wesley Powell (right) with Tau-gu, a Southern Paiute, 1873. Image from National Park Service.

Despite Powell’s confidence that Indigenous Americans could and would assimilate into settler-colonial society, his record as an ethnologist suggests an underlying belief that Indigenous peoples would always require some form of paternalistic management that precluded full inclusion in the U.S. American body politic. As the first director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Powell initiated a massive study of Indigenous North American languages, which he hoped to catalogue into language families. The same year he published his Arid Region report, Powell wrote an urgent report to Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz stressing that his “field of research, is speedily narrowing because of the rapid change in the Indian population now in progress; all habits, customs, and opinions are fading away; even languages are disappearing; and in a very few years it will be impossible to study our North American Indians in their primitive condition except from recorded history.” Powell feared, unironically, that the program of removal he publicly advocated for was endangering his ethnological research.

And yet, Powell also believed this kind of research would aid federal removal efforts. Using data gained from the bureau, the government could organize linguistically and culturally similar Indigenous groups to promote harmony rather than risk conflict. Powell suggests to Senator Teller, for example, that the Uintah Valley could support “all of the Utes, Go-si Utes, and Pai-Utes of Utah together with all the Utes of Colorado” because they “speak the same language, they are intermarried, live on friendly terms with each other, and are affiliated in habits, customs, and religion.” Effectively, Powell hoped that the sciences—not the military—would ultimately resolve the nation’s so-called Indian Problem.

As contemporary environmentalists seek to abate the crisis of climate change, we must also accept responsibility for our contributions to the dystopia of others. What, however, does responsibility look like in a settler-colonial society? In the American context, it is the individual and collective acknowledgement of culpability in perpetuating violence against Indigenous bodies and the restoration of total sovereignty to those who have been robbed of it. Where territorial decolonization seems a distant possibility, it is imperative to decolonize the knowledge- and culture-ways that inform our society, including ecological thought, as we seek to unmake the dystopia of the present. This process is already underway, as Western ecologists and climate scientists increasingly look to the knowledge of Indigenous thinkers and activists, but there is much work to do. John Wesley Powell may have defied the capitalist logic of American imperialism by calling for communitarian development in the West, but even as he did so, he earnestly theorized the erasure of a people who could best impart that knowledge and, in the process, contributed to the imperialist strategies of their dispossession.

Featured image: The famous Powell armchair in Marble Canyon. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Photo by E. O. Beaman, 1872. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Carl W. Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on land use, citizenship, and the environment in the nineteenth-century United States. Contact.