Birth of John Wesley Powell 

U.S. #1374 was issued in Page, Arizona, near the lake named after Powell.

Soldier, geologist, and explorer John Wesley Powell was born on March 24, 1834, in Mount Morris, New York.

When he was a child, Powell’s family moved to Ohio before settling in Illinois. In his teens and early 20s Powell explored the Mississippi River Valley and walked across Wisconsin for four months.   Powell attended college for several years, while also teaching, but didn’t earn his degree. By 1860, he realized that America was destined for war and began studying military science and engineering.

Powell supported the Union and opposed slavery, so he joined the Union Army in the 20th Illinois Infantry. He was elected sergeant major of his regiment and was promoted to second lieutenant. During the war, he served as a mapmaker and military engineer.

U.S. #1179 was issued for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh.

While stationed in Missouri, Powell formed an artillery company and became captain. In the Battle of Shiloh, he was hit by enemy fire and lost his right arm. In spite of his injury, Powell returned to the army and participated in the siege of Vicksburg and the Atlanta Campaign. He always had an interest in geology and was known to study rocks in the trenches.

After the war, Powell became a professor of geology at a university in Illinois. He helped the institution expand their natural history museum. They offered him a permanent position, but he was anxious to explore the American West.

U.S. #1374 FDC – 1969 Powell Plate Block First Day Cover.

By 1868, Powell had studied countless reports and spoke with Indians, hunters, and mountain men, that all convinced him that exploring the Colorado River on small boats would be possible. He petitioned the War Department and the Smithsonian Institution for assistance and they provided him with scientific instruments to collect samples and further study the area.   In time, Powell acquired four boats and gathered enough supplies and food to last him and his crew of nine for six to nine months.

U.S. #741 from the 1934 National Parks Issue.

On May 24, 1869, Powell and his men began their journey in Wyoming’s Green River, while locals stood on the shore shouting and cheering, encouraging them though they expected to never see the men again. While making their way downstream, Powell accurately suggested that the river had existed long before the canyons and that it had cut through the rock as the plateau rose.

U.S. #2512 is the second issue in the America series.

Along their journey, Powell and his party named many sites in the Grand Canyon, including Flaming Gorge, Canyon of Lodore, Whirlpool Canyon, Split Mountain, Dirty Devil stream, Bright Angel stream, Gray Canyon, and Marble Canyon. Three months into the expedition, the party reached their destination – the Virgin River. They had traveled 1,000 miles through uncharted canyons and Powell returned home a national hero.

Upon his return home to Illinois, Powell immediately began lecturing to raise money for a second trip. His first trip had been so successful, he had little trouble getting money from Congress. His 1871-72 expedition through the Grand Canyon was even more successful – producing the first accurate maps of the area, and over 100 photographs.

U.S. #1150 illustrates the interdependence between water sources and water uses.

Powell went on to become director of the U.S. Geological Survey as well as the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. He also published a book about his expeditions. Based on his trips, Powell submitted a report on the West, suggesting state boundaries and irrigation systems based on watershed areas, to prevent disagreements among the states. He also had suggestions for conservation that railroad companies didn’t agree with. In the end Congress supported the agricultural use of the land based on the belief that “rain follows the plow.” However, Powell was correct and his fears would later prove true in the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 30s.

Powell died on September 23, 1902, at his summer home in Haven, Maine. As a Civil war veteran, he was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Click here for photos from Powell’s expeditions.

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  1. The university in Illinois mentioned above was Illinois Wesleyan University located in Bloomington, Illinois. It is a historically Methodist school. Two of the earliest founders of the Methodist movement in 18th century England were brothers Charles and John Wesley for whom John Wesley Powell was named.

    1. Thanks for presenting quality summaries such as this on another great American. Our common history is something we can all agree on; how nice! *In his book, “River, One Man’s Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea”, author Colin Fletcher traces, 1st hand, Powell’s 2 expeditions and more!; it’s a masterpiece!

  2. His trip down the Colorado River was trying. At least one boat and some supplies were lost and two men walked away late in the journey believing they would not make it out if they continued. They were never seen or heard from again. At least one newspaper had reported that all of the men had perished. In spite all of this John’s leadership made this a successful exploration.

  3. As an avid student of history for some 70 years, I am always delighted to learn from both “This Day in History and the responses to it. Many thanks both to the Mystic Stamp Company and my fellow responders!

  4. The challenge of the Wild West met once again by an American Adventurer and Hero as chronicled on another Mystic “This Day in History”.

  5. I just googled Haven, Maine. No such place, maybe it should be North Haven, an island off Rockland, Maine. Love the history.

  6. All those accomplishments and contributions in geology were done after he lost his arm in the war. Truly an amazing individual.

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