“Beyond the Hundredth Meridian” by Wallace Stegner


I put this book on my to-read list after seeing the Powell monument at the Grand Canyon a few years back.  Kind of a dated book in terms of some of the Western policy discussion (but a lot is still relevant) but at least it begins with a good adventure.

A surprisingly unimportant fact about John Wesley Powell, given all that he later achieved, was that he lost an arm during the Civil War.  Thereafter, his initial claim to fame was leading the first expedition which ran the Colorado River, from the Green River in Wyoming all the way to about present-day Las Vegas. (the river had been explored up from the mouth to that point already by others)  Each rapid was a plunge into the unknown.  When possible, they emptied the boats, carrying their supplies by foot to be reloaded at a safer place downriver, and gently lowered the boats by ropes.  But there were other times when no landings were available and they had to run the rapid blind.  At one such point near the end of the trip, a couple of Powell’s companions called it quits rather than face the rapid.  They were later killed by Indians while trying to hike out to Mormon settlements.

Afterwards, Powell led up a geographical survey which returned him to the same part of the country.  He often used Indian guides (sometimes through intermediaries like Jacob Hamblin) to find accessible paths to certain points along the river.   He became interested in Indian culture and ethnology, and eventually convinced enough Senators in Washington to set him up as the first head of the Bureau of Ethnology, under the Smithsonian.

Powell’s political wheeling and dealing was not nearly finished.  He must have been a very shrewd persuader because he frequently got funding through unusual means, like as an add-on rider to some larger appropriations bill.  Like the geological systems he studied, he figured out how Congress and government worked, and used that to his advantage.  He eventually became the second head of the US Geological Survey (after largely instigating its creation), leading the noble effort to map the country.

Powell became very influential on Western policy issues.  Powell’s firm belief was that the West was fundamentally different from the rest of the country due to aridity and thus should be settled differently and much more sparsely.  This was at odds with a view of a land of milk and honey (and gold, copper, and silver) espoused by Gilpin and Stewart.   Powell was eventually forced out of his position at the USGS by pro-settlement factions, but I believe he has been vindicated by history as many current policies seem to follow his initial vision.  He saw the most danger in the “in-between” lands — those places where, to the East, there is plenty of rainfall; to the far West is the desert, where there is no way to survive but by irrigation, but once established agriculture is fairly secure — but in the middle, a string of good rainfall years trick settlers into thinking the land is good, but there can just as easily be a string of bad years which induce famine and hardship.


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