John Wesley Powell Survey

John Wesley Powell, 1869

In the summer of 1868 John Wesley Powell led his second western expedition. With a group of students and friends, he studied the natural history of the Rocky Mountains. Most members of the expedition returned home in the fall. But Powell, his wife Emma, and three men spent the winter of 1868-69 camped along the White River in Colorado.  There he met a band of Ute Indians led by Chief Douglas. Powell observed Ute customs and began to learn their language.
          According to anthropologists Don and Catherine Fowler, “The Utes dubbed him [Powell] Kapurats, meaning ‘arm off’.” Powell had lost his right arm in the Civil War.
          A century later, the Fowlers met “an old Kaibab Paiute woman from northern Arizona” who said “Kapurats was remembered by her people as the man who many years ago tied rags on trees (apparently referring to the surveying tape used by Powell and his men in mapping the area).” The old woman said, now “those rags are way up high in those trees.”
          “In later years, Powell again worked briefly with various Northern Ute. During a horseback trip from the Uintah Indian Agency to Gunnison, Utah, Powell fell in with a Ute band, travelled with them, and spent the evenings around the campfire learning more of their language.”

Richard Komas, 1872

          “In the summer of 1874, after he [Powell] had completed his geological studies in the Uinta Mountains, he went to the Uintah Agency for a few days to gather more information on the Ute language. In the winter of 1875 he brought Richard Komas, a Northern Ute youth who was a student at Lincoln College in Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., for a time to continue his studies of the language.”

For more information about John Wesley Powell, see A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell by Donald Worster

Quoted text from “John Wesley Powell’s Anthropological Fieldwork,” by Don D. Fowler and Catherine S. Fowler, Geological Survey Professional Paper 670

Photo of Powell courtesy National Park Service photo collection.

Photo of Komas courtesy First People Photo Gallery.


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