Krish, Scott. 2002. John Wesley Powell and the mapping of the Colorado Plateau, 1869-1879: Survey science, geographical solutions, and the economy of the environmental values. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92 (3/September): 548-572.


The thesis statement of Scott Kirsch’s article, John Wesley Powell and the mapping of the Colorado Plateau is the contribution made by John Wesley in examining the geographical process by making the expedition to Colorado Plateau and preparing map of proper land use, which is still conventionally recognized as a foundational piece in American environmental thought (548). Krish focuses on the work of Powell Survey and situates the maps, censuses, and expert advice produced during Powell’s early career as part of wider traffic of knowledge linking Washington to the western territories and presenting him as an extraordinary geographer (548).

The contributions of Powell ranges from an expedition of the Rocky Mountains and around Green and Colorado rivers to classification of land use, and Ethnology. This article situates the development of environmental values in Powell’s work alongside the optimizing governmental values of efficiency order, and productivity and, at the same time the last “blank space” on the map of America’s closing western frontier (550).  Besides mapping the “Blank Space” and classifying the land, Powell derived the following geographical solutions (556-564):

  • State Projects of Legibility and Simplification [discussed the property mapping since it bears directly on the relations among the perception of closed spaces, the production of value, and the mapping of the American West (556)].
  • Counting and Collecting 10,347 Indians [Powell’s survey work included numerous visits to the native “tribes,” and “bands,” on the Colorado Plateau and ended up making an inventory of the number and location of the Indians in the region (557-558)], and
  • Legibility, Value, and the “Physical Characteristics of the Arid Region” [Powell divided all the lands into three “great classes” and argued that the arid lands of the West demanded a different land system, one that recognized not only limited agricultural capacity of the region but also the vital importance of water rights to production. Powell’s land system conformed to topography, not to geometry (560)]

With that great works of Powell, despite being a wounded and one-armed veteran, he is labeled as a Hero – who did more than unifying or leading his societies through difficult times, and, embodying the societies’ contradictions, covering them over rather than resolving those (550). It was because of Powell’s good intentions, as well as his ecological foresight, the scientific land management and mapping of the West was possible (576).

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