Map of Utah Territory

Map of Utah Territory.

Major John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), best known as the one-armed Civil War veteran who was the first to explore and descend the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, also headed one of four federal surveys of western lands. Systematically surveying the canyon lands topography of Utah and northern Arizona led to his 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, from which this map is drawn. The Map of Utah Territory reveals, literally and figuratively, land use tensions within U.S. environmental history.

Powell's principal conclusion was that aridity west of the 100th meridian would require drastically different settlement and development patterns in the region. He held that only limited areas along the region's major rivers were suitable for irrigated farming, clearly depicted on the map in green. Additional "plateau" lands, depicted here in brown, were suitable for grazing or timbering but not homestead settlements. His regional conceptualization of "hydrographic basins" led him to conclude that the area's arid lands required a different approach to settlement. Powell thought that it should be federally planned and facilitated but also communally supported and organized – quite different from typical land speculation practices.

Powell's Report became a central document in subsequent 20th-century, western land reclamation efforts, although ironically such efforts went far beyond anything Powell considered feasible or appropriate. Powell's vision for the arid west has been both praised and vilified by conservationists and developers alike. Perhaps fittingly, but certainly paradoxically, the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, one of the late 20th century's more controversial projects, is named Lake Powell.

Stephen Cutcliffe
Professor of History