Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: Beyond the 100th Meridian

    A book on a true hero!

    Pat Nolan is a friend and fellow hiker of the Grand Canyon in 2011, gave me a book titled "Beyond the 100th Meridian" by Wallace Stegner.  The book is about John Wesley Powell.   I knew of John Wesley Powell because he led the first expedition into and then out of the Grand Canyon via the Colorado river in 1869.  Even the long time natives of the harsh Grand Canyon region saw this feat as a one way journey into an abyss with no return.  Mr. Powell and his ragtag team went into a giant blank spot of the map of the United States and emerged with information to add to that map.  Mr. Powell did this feat with one arm (the other was lost in the Civil War).  My personal knowledge of the Grand Canyon (from my hikes and readings) place this accomplishment in a special category.  Any person, especially one maimed in war, who is able to return from the war and accomplish something of this magnitude must be someone special.  The native Americans who met him knew he was special, the men who joined him knew he was special and even to politicians in Washington knew he was special.
     I glanced over the 400+ page book and immediately recognized that while the book did tell the story of his journey through the Grand Canyon (something I had knowledge of) the focus of the book was on his work for the United States government as an influential un-elected bureaucrat.  The book is very detailed (extensively referenced) and reveals the emergence of institutions that John Wesley Powell nurtured including the Smithsonian and all those that "spun out" of that institution including the Geological Survey, National Park Service, Forest Service, Weather Bureau, Bureau of Standards, Reclamation Service and the Bureau of Mines (among others over other years).  So there was a lot of American history (of personal interest) but also an opportunity to get to know about a true hero of mine and the impact of his life (and not just his stand alone accomplishment).  So decided to read the book with the intention to learn about Mr. John Wesley Powell and the character traits that he carried in his tool box.  That would seem the least you can do for your hero (even if he was a bureaucrat).

      Formative experiences are important  and John Wesley Powell had two prominent formative experiences allowed him to distinguish evil from the good, true and beautiful.  In his years as a child to a frontier family with an immigrant Methodist Minister father who was an ardent abolitionist.  The family moved quite often from west to more west (Mount Morris, New York; Jackson Ohio; Walworth, Wisconsin).  He experienced a hard farming life and persecution due to his father's abolitionist views (stoning for such views occurred at school).  It happens that this frontier child met a successful farmer and abolitionist George Crookham (active in the underground railroad) who kept a museum filled with natural history relics and native American relics.  Mr. Crookham also had books (something very hard to get for frontier boys who could read) and the books were largely science books.  The slavery issue caused great heat at school (For John Wesley, brothers and sister).  Mr. Crookham instructed him and gave him access to books and skills in botany, geology, ethnology, archaeology  history and philosophy.  They spent a lot of time in the field with an emphasis on natural science.  The museum was eventually burned down by pro-slavery advocates and the family moved from Ohio (and this wonderful educational experience) to a frontier farm in Wisconsin with poverty, hardship and hard work for every member of the family.  John Wesley Powell lost one arm in this life to help in ending slavery in a relatively short war but he spent the remainder of his life in the relentless pursuit of science and the use of science in formulating policies that guided the United States treatment of the west.  How wonderful to know that such a hero was touched by a teacher of science who encouraged the use of science in making practical decisions.
       When the Civil War broke out and even though the immediate cause of the war was the refusal of some states  to remain in the Union of States John Wesley Powell was certain that the war was related to slavery.  The long term institutional prospects for that institution (of slavery) were threatened by Abraham Lincoln when he promised no states added to the Union would be states allowing slavery (this promised to change the make up of the senate and posed a future of constitutional amendments eradicating slavery).  His education, though broken, was sufficient enough to have him as an officer in an artillery unit.  When he raised his arm to signal firing a cannon it was ripped off by a confederate cannonball.  He left the front lines for a time where is arm was not treated well but wound healing did take place.  He returned, to the cheers of the men in his unit, into the same role as a unit leader until the end of the war enduring cold nights in tents,  long marches, then working to get a cannon when there was no easy placement and then firing the cannon in a way certain to draw the attention of enemy fire.  The faithfulness to the men under his command is another enduring trait that one can see in reading about his life whether it be during persecution, war or during hardship. John Wesley Powell was a man faithful to his ideals and to those he served.

       John Wesley Powell had a unique set of skills.  He had science and mathematical skills (to guide artillery use or survey geographic features and to use data in making predictions).  In addition he could endure hardships, manage fear and show persistence when in physical discomfort (evidence of focus and determination).  This made him uniquely qualified to take part in western surveys where he could collect specimens, draw maps, take measurements and then return to communicate his findings to those who needed the information to make decisions about where to send resources and people in search of opportunity.  He and his wife had seen the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon while on a western survey together.  He knew that this "hole in the map of the United States" needed to be filled in and he set his sites on the journey he hoped would map the "Colorado River" through the Grand Canyon.  He also knew of the immense drop in altitude that would have to occur.  He began planning the survey team that would use 4 well built boats, 12 men and traverse a fast flowing river through and unknown Canyon that the natives in the region said was home of those who never returned.  He scoured up support, materials and men but was unable to get full funding from the federal government.  John Wesley Powell had a determination and persistence because he knew this journey would be an historic journey that would forever be an addition to the knowledge of mankind (if he were successful).   Determination in the face of challenge can be a precursor to tragedy but is can also precursor triumph.
     Prior to arrival at the eastern most portion of the Grand Canyon one boat was lost and three men decided  not to continue the journey.  On July 6, 1869 nine men began the journey on three boats. To describe the dangerous trip which required riding through rough waters while keeping everyone uninjured, scientific instruments safe, writings secured and food dry required and daily detailed planning.  The planning required climbs up perilous cliffs to look out for future hazards and take barometric data. Near tragedies and loss of food were common and the nerve of the men were challenged but there was no turning back.  They had no plan or possibility for rescue.  Three times reports went east that the entire expedition had been lost and had all died.  Emma Powell wrote to papers of her certainty that her husband was alive and not finished with his journey.  This was the most hazardous and dangerous exploration remaining in the United States of America.  Three of the men refused to traverse the last set of rapids and chose to walk out.  The parting was somber and the men, not knowing who would survive, exchanged letters and greetings.  The three who left  were never seen again.   On August 30, 1869 six men came out having mapped to Grand Wash Cliffs where the Grand Canyon ends.   The steadfast Emma Powell was proved to be correct (John Wesley Powell had married a special woman.)  They ran into a family of Mormon settlers who helped them to the nearest settlement.

     In the years immediately after the initial exploration Powell had sought to find the men who had left his expedition.  His relations with the natives and his knowledge of Ute allowed him to meet a tribe which admitted having met three men of the same description.  The story of having come down the "big river" seemed unbelievable to them and instead they thought the men had attacked a squaw in a recent bad encounter with a white man. They sent warriors in pursuit who they indicated had killed the three.  Rather than seek vengeance or "justice"  Powell reported that he had the longest "smoke" of his life with the tribal leaders and never pressed charges or sought a hanging.  This was the Powell who understood the implications of death and war.
     John Wesley Powell, true to his rabid abolitionist upbringing, had a unique relationship with the tribes he contacted in the west.  It flowed from a respect that he had for all humanity no matter the race or religious practices (he had good relations with Mormon settlers as well).  Though many survey parties asked for a battalion of military escort on western surveys Major Powell never requested or used such an escort.  He often met with tribes and documented connections between tribes, traditions and exchanged gifts that could be cataloged at the Smithsonian.  The native Americans assumed, from his missing limb, that Major Powell was something special person.  They were right.
      Using the data he had gathered Powell has come to the conclusion that water was a limiting resource for the west (west of the 100th meridian).  The Jeffersonian 160 acre farm was not possible as a stand alone self sufficient entity in the west.  His surveys and data (hydro-logic & geographic) indicated that greater restraint was needed in settling the west or there would be large swaths of hardship, tragedy and death for the newly arriving settlers. He encouraged thoughtfulness and planning and clear water use laws.  The expansion of federal programs under his leadership was immense.  The United States of America was lucky to have a man like John Wesley Powell who had the intellectual skills and experience to provide a reasoned and accurate portrayal of life on the newly opened western frontier at precisely the time we needed him.
     Unfortunately the messenger is not always able to be heard.  Early in his career Powell was successful in greatly expanding a good many of the institutions and he trained many of the men in each of these institutions that were destined to be leaders. The Smithsonian and the Geological Survey (among others).  His slowing of western settlement was at odds with the representatives of those states.  His recognition that extended droughts would occur to decimate smaller farms without access to water was not what politicians wanted to hear.  His major work "Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States" predicted catastrophic results for those who settled the arid lands.  He suggested no farms be settled in this western region, but they were anyway.  His predictions proved true in many cases.  Great tragedy was experienced when his recommendations went unheeded over 25 years.  He was a man who believed in science and the science predicted, for him, what was obvious.  Unfortunately his stature and experience were not persuasive enough.
     The one issue that surprised me in the book was on page 361 when the author states that Major Powell was a "democrat to the marrow".  There were no footnotes in support of this statement and the use of a political party affiliation is not listed in the index (though this is an important personal information given his assigned duties for the government).  The assumption in the text is that Republicans are pro-business and business would want to extract value out of land and have no value in that land tomorrow if it were not for the government.  There is no mention of the party of Lincoln that Major Powell not only gave one arm for but then went on to risk his other arm for (not to mention his life).  Republicans had ardent abolitionist as part of their ranks and it would have been natural for the Major Powell to at least not had the same "marrow" then (the democratic party had pro-slavery stance in party documents).  Secondly the bureaucrat usually needs the support of both parties and would likely avoid identification with one party or the other.  A bureaucrat would benefit by having the support of both parties for the various initiatives they may desire to propose.  Even if true, that Major Powell thought private interests too parochial and self absorbed to consider the common good then it is possible that he thought a government entity would be best to guide and properly harvest for the profit motive would be a long term assistance to the private companies. It does not necessarily follow that one must be democratic if one is not entirely for private interests making unbridled decisions about the use of land. This book is written in 1954 which would be still in the era created by Franklin D. Roosevelt and the overwhelming democratic federal governing machinery.  There may have been a personal transition to the democratic party but until this point in the book it does not hint at it.

     On the Day he died September 23rd, 1902 in his retirement home at Haven, Maine on the day that the Newlands Act was signed into law which implemented many of his plans and policies proposed 25 years earlier.  The irony, if it is true as the author claims, is the John Wesley Powell a "democrat to the marrow" had a Republican president (Theodore Roosevelt) push the Newlands Act through.  In addition that same Republican President, who loved and vacationed in the Grand Canyon explored by Powell in his epic journey, would initiate the National Park System (another recommendation of Powell).  More of Powell's policies were also implemented as a result of the 1930's dust bowls.  Powell saw the future and had a plan that our leaders, in both parties, could implemented decades after his retirement and death..
     Clearly this man with great intellectual talent, physical stamina, determination, focused in effort and dedicated to the advancement of science in service to every human person.  A  real hero!
Please note that the views expressed here by me do not  represent the views of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, Archdiocese of Mobile or any  part of the Universal Catholic Church.


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