What does John Wesley Powell, famed nineteenth century explorer of the Grand Canyon, have in common with the founder of a modern startup? Quite a bit, it seems: both efforts involve substantial risk while requiring planning, fundraising, and people management. This post explores these similarities by way of reviewing Wallace Stegner’s biography of Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, July 2, 2016


Powell’s expeditions (his two journeys down the Colorado River and his later work with the U.S. Geological Survey, which he helped to found) required significant foresight, planning, and calculated risk. In all of his early work he relied on a shoestring budget. His first successful fundraising was a grant from the Illinois legislature to the Illinois Natural History Soceity, for which he received a $1500 salary as curator. His lobbying attempts in Washington, D.C., were unsuccessful at first, lost in an onslaught of pork barrel politics after the Civil War. Even when he did acquire government support he found that its constraints made him “far less free” (p. 209) — a common experience of founders after raising capital.

Major Powell was more successful at fundraising in 1870, between his first and second trips on the Colorado, because he learned the value of public relations. His account of his work along the Colorado was serialized for magazine publication, resulting in a style that some described as “literary” and “unscientific” (p. 149). Gaining popular support was one of the major goals of his writing. He also quickly learned that gifts of photographs to important backers could help to persuade them of the merits of his work; although he did not take a photographer on some of his early trips he regularly included them as members of his later expeditions.

Management was also an acquired skill for Powell. Recruiting was particularly difficult before he had proven his abilities. His 1867 and 1867 trips to the Colorado territory relied on volunteers drawn from a pool of “students, recent graduates, relatives, friends, members of the Natural Historical Society, bird watchers and botanizers willing to come along for the excitement” (p. 124). For his river trips he hired local hunters to serve as boatmen and supply the company with fresh meat as it traveled.

Even after developing a track record of success he continued to work with these same people, some of whom later became important scientific leaders in their own right. This was in part due to Powell’s ability to delegate. By the time of his second expedition he had turned over much of the day-to-day responsibilities to his brother-in-law, Almon Thompson (p. 137). Thompson would later handle much of the mapping work after the expedition concluded. Grove Karl Gilbert was Powell’s truest successor in his geological work, later exploring the Henry Mountains and Great Baisn. Clarence Dutton started with Powell as a way of getting excused from his duties as an army captain, and would later become known for his work in Utah’s Vermillion Cliffs in addition to the Grand Canyon.

This ability to delegate was perhaps learned largely from an early experience with dissatisfaction of some team members. Nearing the end of the first river trip, at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, three of the men decided to depart over land toward Mormon settlements in Utah. Powell and the others that remained on the boats tried to discourage them, but they were ultimately killed by Native Americans in a case of mistaken identity. His later organizations, by contrast, were known for their high espirit de corps

One of Powell’s primary departures from the image of a startup founder is his unwillingness to direct his work toward personal gain. There was substantial money to be made in the territories he explored, both in terms of claiming land and the valuable minerals that it contained. This stands in contrast to Clarence King, another surveyor who made (and then lost) his fortune in mining.

Powell also had the great insight to see water for the exhaustible resource that it is. In the late nineteenth century there was a widely held belief that “rain follows the plow”, that is that farming the desert west would change its climate enough that irrigation would no longer be required. Powell saw right through this. The water management plan he advocated (p. 302ff.) as a result of his Irrigation Survey had the audacity of a Musk or a Bezos.

The legacy of Powell’s work is primarily in the experts he trained and the institutions he led. Thompson, Dutton, and Gilbert all went on to became leaders in their own right. In addition to the U.S. Geological Survey, Powell also influenced organizations such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Park Service (which was founded after his death). This imprint on the future of the American West is one that would make any founder proud.