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Getting To Know The National Domain

July 2024
7min read

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.”


On March 3,1879, two years into the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, the Forty-fifth Congress reluctantly created two new federal bureaus. One, the United States Geological Survey, consolidated under the Department of the Interior three existing Western surveys led by John Wesley Powell, F. V. Hayden, and Lieutenant George Wheeler. (A fourth, Clarence King’s survey of the Fortieth Parallel, had finished its field work and was preparing to close up shop.) The other, the Bureau of Ethnology, later called the Bureau of American Ethnology, and now folded into the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology, concentrated under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution the previously random and uncorrelated study of America’s native tribes.

The enabling legislation for both bureaus was devious. Both, for good reasons, were authorized by riders attached to the Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill in the last days of the session. The War Department and the Department of the Interior were competing for control of the Western surveys. The surveys themselves were competitive and jealous. Hayden in particular was ambitious to be director of a combined survey, and though a good many backers of consolidation were against him, he had a strong Senate lobby. There were, moreover, some influential people who honestly believed that government involvement in science was wrong, perhaps unconstitutional. Any of those forces might have made trouble for a forthright bill.

But a more compelling reason for moving cautiously was that consolidation of the surveys was tied to a wholesale reform of the land laws in the West. Any bill coming along the belt line through the Public Lands Committee would have been strangled there by Western congressmen. But a rider to an appropriations bill went to the Appropriations Committee, which was friendly.

Behind the reform movement were Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz and a number of congressmen, of whom Representative Abram Hewitt of New York was most effective. Behind it were also a majority of scientists, including Othniel C. Marsh, president of the National Academy of Sciences. But behind them all was a bushy-bearded little man with one arm, an encyclopedic knowledge of the West, eight years of experience in the hog trough of Grant’s Washington, a mind that was at once visionary and orderly, and an ideal of public service that few men have ever brought to Washington and even fewer have retained there. His name was John Wesley Powell.

During the shoestring expeditions into the canyons of the Colorado River that had made him a national hero in 1869, and in nine seasons as director of the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Plateau Province, Major Powell had learned some things about the West that no Western booster could bring himself to admit, and that some would not admit until the Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s. One was that, as historian Walter Webb later put it, the West is a semidesert with a desert heart, too dry for unaided agriculture and with only enough water to irrigate perhaps 20 per cent of the land. Much of what passed for information about the West was either mythology or promotion. The Homestead Act and other land laws, which worked well enough east of the Ninety-eighth Meridian, did not work west of it. Neither the traditional 160-acre homestead nor the rectangular surveys that defined it worked, and because they didn’t, thousands of settlers were inviting personal tragedy in Kansas and the Dakotas, and the unscrupulous all over the West were on the way to monopolizing land, either by fraudulent entries or by getting control of the limited water. And finally, except on minor streams in high and less arable country, the damming and management of rivers was more than the unaided settler could manage.

In his youth Powell had been a frontier farmer; in his maturity he was a kind of Populist. The inauguration of Hayes on March 4,1877, opened the door to his reformist impulses. In April, 1878, he put into the hands of Carl Schurz his half-finished Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States , a remarkable book whose first chapter spoke more truth about the land, water, climate, and institutional necessities of the West than had been expressed anywhere up to that time, and whose second chapter proposed specific alterations in the patterns of settlement, with draft legislation.

Powell urged that the cadastral surveys be taken out of the hands of the corrupt General Land Office and turned over to the Coast and Geodetic Survey; that contract surveying be abolished; that Western lands be classified as irrigable and nonirrigable; and that homesteads be tailored to the availability of water. Eighty acres of irrigated land was all that one family could work, but for the grazing of livestock a family farm in the West should consist of at least 2,560 acres, four full sections. Every homestead of either kind should have a water source, and the water right should be tied to the land. And since reservoirs and ditches were more than the individual farmer could afford, machinery should be created for the voluntary formation of cooperative irrigation and grazing districts that could adapt their surveys to the lay of the land, and combine to impound and distribute water.


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.

The agency that was born with a $106,000 appropriation in 1879 will have a budget in 1979 of about $773,000,000. But its operations and services, not its budget, should be its justification. In 1979 it was mapping at an unprecedented rate, and coordinating all government map data through its National Cartographic Information Center. It was appraising the source, quantity, quality, and movement of the nation’s water resources. It was exploring, developing, and environmentally rehabilitating the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, taken over from the Navy. It was continuing and refining the job of mineral resource assessment that began more than a century ago. It was evaluating resources and regulating leases on federal lands, Indian lands, and the outer continental shelf. It was deeply involved in the study and prediction of earthquakes and other earth hazards, including landslides and floods. Its trainees had walked on the moon, its petrologists and crystallographers were analyzing moon rocks and Martian dust. It was boring into sea bottoms and studying the earth’s plate boundaries in the effort to understand vulcanism and the formation and changes of continents. While surveyors used to ride a mule and carry a theodolite from high point to high point, technicians in 1979 were photographing the earth from special planes, and interpreting data sent back from Landsat satellites.

Powell would not recognize some of the techniques, but few of the problems would be strange to him. And the motivation—to provide reliable information on matters that the public has the right to know—would be completely familiar. In that sense, the Geological Survey, like the Bureau of Ethnology, has accomplished what this extraordinary public man had hoped, back when both were innocent-appearing riders to a Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill a century ago.

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