POWELL’S LETTER to Schurz on May 22, 1877, had made it clear that he was prepared, if necessary, to step completely out of topography, geology, and natural history and devote himself to ethnology, to which both his inclinations and his opportunities had led him. The 670 vocabularies already in his possession would keep him occupied for a long time on the classification of the Indian languages, and his relations with Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird were cordial and uncomplicated by the political jealousies that riddled the surveys. Actually he had been far less free since acquiring governmental support than he had been while running his personal shoe-string scientific expeditions in Colorado and on the river. Now, with a little urging, he might have retired into the scientific quiet of the Smithsonian.
But he didn’t. Abandonment of ambitions for his own Western survey liberated him from personal motives to a very large extent, and that liberation had the effect of making him both more aggressive and more successful in promoting his version of the ideal government survey. From the moment when he began to care less about continuation on the old terms of the Powell Survey, he began to care more about efficient organization and the public good which federal science ought to serve.
In his letter books of 1878 there are no desperate pleas for help and no hurried summonses of influential friends to Washington, though the omission may reflect only a growing caution about what sorts of things were preserved in his official files. He did ask Thomas Donaldson to come to Washington to help him get an item on the Deficiency Appropriations Bill, but that was carry-over business from 1877, an additional $5000 needed to cover the public land classification and hydrographic map of Utah done by Powell’s survey for the General Land Office.1 And he did ask Professor Putnam of Harvard to return some loaned collections so that he could impress Congressmen with them.2 The bulk of his time and thought, however, went not into getting an 1878 appropriation, which he seems to have taken for granted, but into the expanding problem of the organization of government science.
On February 22 he wrote nearly identical letters to Professors J. D. Plunkett, N. S. Shaler, J. B. Killibrew, and Elias Loomis,3 who at the Nashville meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science had been appointed a committee to see if Weather Bureau reports might be made useful for other scientific purposes. Powell told these gentlemen that there was a Congressional committee now considering what permanent disposition to make of the Weather Bureau, one of the Smithsonian’s scientific fledglings which had outgrown the nest. The committee’s discussions would probably provoke an examination of all the scientific bureaus, including the Western surveys. Powell asked the AAAS committee to meet with him in Washington to talk over what pressures men of learning ought to apply in the possible reorganization.4
Major Powell had an acute political sense, and he was well informed. On March 8, Representative Atkins of Tennessee introduced a resolution asking a report from the Secretary of the Interior on the possibility of consolidating all the Western surveys. He thus reopened the debate that had never quite subsided since 1874. Schurz replied to the resolution by forwarding letters from both Powell and Hayden saying what they had all three agreed on in November, 1877 — that Powell would take ethnology and Hayden the rest. The War Department made its customary claim that the Topographical Engineers were the proper people to survey the West and make the maps. Those were the expected opening moves. But in the very beginning of the maneuvering, most probably after consultation with Schurz and perhaps with others, Powell made up his mind to go after something a hundred times more sweeping than a mere division of labor or a mere systematizing of Western surveys. The surveys were not the only thing in the West that was being mishandled, wasted, and misapplied. The very laws and the philosophy behind the laws were inadequate.
While Powell had been fighting for survival in 1877, Congress had passed the Desert Land Act, which its advocates described as providing a workable plan for settlement of the arid lands but which one historian has described as designed “to encourage monopolization while throwing dust in the public’s eyes.”5 Right now it had before it a bill that would be passed in two months as the Timber and Stone Act, and this would further complicate a land policy already snarled with red tape, riddled with loopholes, and rotten with dishonest practices. Insofar as they were scientific operations, government surveys were not concerned with policy. And yet their findings compelled settlement of policy questions; the examination of any natural resource, minerals, arable land, grazing land, timber, stone, water, led directly to the political question of how these resources should be controlled, reserved, or distributed, whether they should be held by the government or given or sold to the people, protected or exploited. The vision of William Gilpin held no such problems, for in Gilpin Land the beneficent working of social and economic law was like the grand slow inevitable rolling of the earth. But the practical observation of Powell revealed a hundred unpleasant possibilities of conflict, spoliation, monopoly, and waste.
A plan had been growing in his mind for years. Undoubtedly it had become more immediate with the election of Hayes and the entrance into the Cabinet of Schurz, an avowed reformer. There is no evidence of intimacy between Powell and Schurz, but there is every evidence of essential agreement. Perhaps the fortunate meeting of their minds explains why Powell, with his report on the Public Domain only partly finished and with no appropriation for its printing even if it had been done, rushed the fragments together into printer’s copy without even waiting for proofreading by Dutton, Gilbert, Thompson, and Willis Drummond, who had contributed chapters. On April 1 he presented it to Schurz as a Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah.
Fragment or not, this was heavy artillery. By submitting his hurried and partial report Major Powell committed himself; he took issue with every delusion of the Gilpin state of mind. Embodied in the scant two hundred pages of his manuscript — actually in the first two chapters of it — was a complete revolution in the system of land surveys, land policy, land tenure, and farming methods in the West, and a denial of almost every cherished fantasy and myth associated with the Westward migration and the American dream of the Garden of the World. Powell was not only challenging political forces who used popular myths for a screen, he was challenging the myths themselves, and they were as rooted as the beliefs of religion.6 He was using bear language in a bull market, “deficiency terminology” in the midst of a chronic national optimism well recovered from the panic of 1873. Though he opened with his heavy batteries hurriedly, as the opportunity offered, he did it deliberately and on nobody’s initiative but his own.