- Historic Sites
Getting To Know The National Domain
One hundred years ago, Congress created two agencies—the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology. Both, according to the author, have since “given direction, form, and stimulation to the science of earth and the science of man, and in so doing have touched millions of lives.”
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
That program, which would have spared the West generations of fumbling, and prevented thousands of homestead failures, Powell pushed with vigor. But he was raising his voice against the shouting of the boosters. He was denying that artesian water was inexhaustible and that rain followed the plow. He spoke of deficiencies in a region that the myth makers called the Garden of the World. And he wanted to close the gate to the trough.
After months of angry debate, Congress voted down the program of this “revolutionist.” Hewitt was able to salvage no more of the reform program than a resolution calling for a commission to study the public domain, and the two riders to the Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill which belatedly, almost inadvertently, consolidated the surveys and created the Bureau of Ethnology.
Crumbs, leftovers that the opponents of reform could afford to throw to the losers. Clarence King was appointed to head the Geological Survey, Powell to direct the Bureau of Ethnology. Washington settled back to business as usual. The report on the public domain appeared, a year later, and Congress drew the sheet up over its face without looking. King retired and was replaced by Powell without causing any stir. Nevertheless, the brief, vague paragraphs that confirmed the government’s role in science were absolutely major legislation. Directing both bureaus, Powell was for a decade and a half the most powerfully placed scientist in the United States, and possibly in the world. If he could not bring science and sense to the settling of the West, he could at least bring them to two nascent sciences and two infant bureaus.
The agencies that he shaped and directed in the public interest became models or parents-by-mitosis of dozens of later ones. Out of the Geological Survey alone have come the Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Mines, Federal Power Commission, and Bureau of Land Management. Of these, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management have involved the management of resources in the West in ways derivative from but not identical with Powell’s ideas, and in the process often have been acutely political. But the Geological Survey itself has remained largely informational, and the Bureau of Ethnology, under each of its several names, completely so. In their hundred years of service they have done what Powell would have wanted them to: they have given direction, form, and stimulation to the science of earth and the science of man, and in doing so have touched millions of lives.
It is hard to imagine what American anthropology would be today if the Bureau of Ethnology had never existed, and hard to imagine the Bureau of Ethnology without Powell. He had a powerful, organizing mind, saw problems clearly, understood what was basic. His decision that the American tribes must be classified according to language has conditioned North American ethnology ever since. He set scientists to compiling bibliographies of all the native linguistic families, enlisted teachers and army officers to collect vocabularies among the surviving tribes, wrote a handbook for their guidance, and authorized expeditions and publications. The Annual Reports and the two hundred Bulletins published prior to the creation of the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology in 1965 are a mine of information, much of it on tribes and cultures now attenuated or gone. One single Bulletin , Frederick Webb Hodge’s Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico , is the completion of a job that Powell himself began, and had to delegate to others. It has been supplemented, but in no sense replaced.
The publications and the collections made by the Bureau of Ethnology in its first hundred years are beyond price, irreplaceable. If, as Spencer Baird said, Powell knew more about the live Indian than any living man, he also knew how to delegate ideas, how to pick collaborators and train them and inspire them. His bureau, even in its present form, remains where he put it, at the very center of studies of the American Indian.
And the Geological Survey? Probably no agency of government affects our lives in more varied ways. Its early and simple-sounding responsibility for “classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain” rapidly developed unforeseen complexities. Topographical mapping, for example. Powell felt that it was basic to all the Survey’s duties, and he very early interpreted the phrase “national domain” to mean not only the public lands but the whole country. And his mapping was as fundamental as he thought it was. The standard quadrangles that he began and the subsequent refinements developed by the survey have been basic to our knowledge of our country, as useful to real estate developers and dam builders as to wilderness hikers, validating Powell’s faith that one of government’s functions is to provide reliable information to the public.
But what a transformation and proliferation that information has gone through! It is partly owing to Powell that a citizen can now buy government bulletins that will tell him how to build an outhouse or a henhouse, how to can peaches, or convert to solar heat. It is certainly a result of his persistent and informed effort that the Geological Survey has grown with science and with public problems, and has remained one of the most useful, as well as one of the most respected, bureaus of the government.