||The Beginnings of the U.S. Geological Survey
Surveys Before the Civil War
Four Great Surveys of the West
of the U.S. Geological Survey
the U.S. Geological Survey
The United States
Geological Survey was established on March 3, 1879, just
a few hours before the mandatory close of the final session of
the 45th Congress, when President Rutherford
B. Hayes signed the bill appropriating money for sundry
civil expenses of the Federal Government for the fiscal year
beginning July 1, 1879. The sundry civil expenses bill included
a brief section establishing a new agency, the United States
Geological Survey, placing it in the Department
of the Interior, and charging it with a unique combination
of responsibilities: "classification of the public lands, and
examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and
products of the national domain."1 The
legislation stemmed from a report of the National
Academy of Sciences, which in June 1878 had been asked by
Congress to provide a plan for surveying the Territories of the
United States that would secure the best possible results at
the least possible cost. Its roots, however, went far back into
the Nation's history.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Grand
Canyon of the Colorado River, viewed east from Grandview Point,
Geological Survey Photographic Archive
The first duty enjoined
upon the Geological Survey by the Congress, the classification
of the public lands, originated in the Land Ordinance of 1785.
The original public lands were the lands west of the Allegheny
Mountains claimed by some of the colonies, which became a source
of contention in writing the Articles of Confederation until 1781
when the States agreed to cede their western lands to Congress.
The extent of the public lands was enormously increased by the
Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and later territorial acquisitions.
At the beginning of Confederation, the decision
was made not to hold the public lands as a capital asset, but to
dispose of them for revenue and to encourage settlement. The Land
Ordinance of 1785 provided the method of surveying and a plan for
disposal of the lands, but also reserved "one-third part of all
gold, silver, lead, and copper mines to be sold or otherwise disposed
of, as Congress shall thereafter direct,"2 thus
implicitly requiring classification of the lands into mineral and
nonmineral. Mapping of the public lands was begun under the direction
of the Surveyor-General, but no special provision was made for
classification of the public lands, and it thus became the responsibility
of the surveyor. There was, of course, no thought in 1785 or for
many years thereafter of employing geologists to make the classification
of the mineral lands, for geology was then only in its infancy.
Panorama, at left is part of Coyote "dry
lake" Valley, at right of hills is the Mohave Valley. San
Bernardino County, California, 1919.
Geological Survey Photographic Archive
By 1879, eight classes of public lands had been
recognized, each of which had separate regulations for disposition,
but, except in a few cases, no special provision had been made
to secure an accurate classification in advance of disposition.
Of the mineral lands listed in the 1785 Ordinance, lead lands had
been leased for a time and later sold, and copper lands had been
sold, but no regulations were made about the lands bearing precious
metals until 1866 when they were declared free and open to exploration
and purchase. Iron lands, not mentioned in the 1785 Ordinance,
were ruled "not mineral lands,"3 and
coal lands, also not mentioned, were offered for sale in 1863.
The surveyors were still responsible for classification of the
public lands, but, in actual practice, did not make the classification
themselves but relied on affidavits from the interested parties.
Neither the public lands nor scientific investigations of any
kind were mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, which
superseded the Articles of Confederation in 1788. Scientific investigations
and the construction of public works were both considered the prerogative
or responsibility of the States or private institutions rather
than the Federal Government. Of necessity, the Federal viewpoint
changed in later years, but even so, the two were frequently treated
Although the military engaged in some scientific activities, Congress
did not authorize civilian scientific activities in the Federal
Government until 1807 when it established the Coast Survey for
the practical purpose of providing better charts of coastal waters
and navigational aids for commercial interests. The Coast Survey,
however, was unable to get underway until after the end of the
War of 1812 and then had only a brief independent life before being
transferred to the jurisdiction of the Navy.
In 1810, only 3 years after the Coast Survey was established and
long before it got underway, Benjamin Silliman, Professor of Chemistry,
Mineralogy, and Natural History at Yale, proposed to the Connecticut
Academy of Sciences that a geological survey be undertaken of part
of the national domain, the State of Connecticut. The academy approved
the idea but had no funds to carry it out, and another decade passed
before a publicly supported geological survey was made.
||Geological Surveys Before the Civil War
The earliest geological surveys were made in support of agriculture,
which was the basic occupation in the United States in the early
1800's. Manufacturing was then of importance only in a few areas,
and mining was a quite insignificant part of the economy. Farmland
in the Eastern and Southern States, however, was beginning to lose
its fertility, and farmers were abandoning their holdings and moving
westward. The westward migration increased to enormous proportions
after the War of 1812. In the summer of 1820, Stephen Van Rensselaer,
president of the Agricultural Society of New York, using funds
appropriated by the State Legislature, employed Amos Eaton, who
had studied under Silliman at Yale, to make a geological survey
of Albany County to aid in the improvement of agriculture. In the
following year, Eaton made a geological and agricultural survey
of the neighboring Rensselaer County. After two surveys in aid
of agriculture, Eaton proposed and obtained approval to make a
survey of the district adjoining the Erie Canal, one of a vast
number of internal improvements that had been begun to link eastern
markets and the newly settled regions beyond the Allegheny Mountains.
A year earlier, Denison Olmsted, Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy,
and Geology at the University of North Carolina, also a former
student of Professor Silliman, had approached the North Carolina
State Board of Internal Improvements with the idea of making a
geological and mineralogical survey of the State, but the General
Assembly in North Carolina, to which the Board had referred Olmsted's
request, had instead authorized the Board of Agriculture to make
such a survey in 1823.
Plant bearing clay in Middendorf arkosic
member, Black Creek formation: near Middendorf, Chesterfield
County, South Carolina, 1907.
Geological Survey Photographic ArchiveIn 1824, as the number and scope of internal
improvements increased, Federal policy was changed as a matter
of practical necessity. Congress authorized the Army Engineers
to make engineering surveys to prepare estimates for roads and
canals for national military, commercial, or postal purposes. Science
in general, and geology in particular, however, remained almost
exclusively the province of the States or private individuals for
another decade. Olmsted's first report, published in 1824, provided
the inspiration for establishment of geological surveys on another
basis. Olmsted devoted several pages of his report to the gold
mines of North Carolina and in 1825 published a paper on the gold
deposits in Silliman's American Journal of Science and Arts. Gold-bearing
rock in place was discovered in North Carolina that very year and
later in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia as well. The more
practical-minded geologists seized upon the gold discoveries in
the Southeastern States as a better means of promoting the establishment
of geological surveys than either the improvement of agriculture
or the need for internal improvements. During the early 1830's,
several of the Eastern and Central States established State surveys "to
examine the geological structure, mineral resources, and products"4 of
their part of the national domain.
In 1834, just a year before the Geological Survey
of Great Britain was established, Congress authorized the first
Federal examination of the geological structure, mineral resources,
and products of the public lands by permitting the Topographical
Bureau of the U.S. Army to use $5,000 of its appropriation for
geological investigations and the construction of a geological
map of the United States. The head of the Bureau, Colonel J.J.
Abert, had based his request for funds on the importance of
mineral resources, stating that "few subjects connected with the
duties of this bureau open so many and so important national advantages,
or are adapted to redound more to internal commercial prosperity" as
the "development of these great resources of wealth and commercial
intercourse, which now lie inert and buried in the bowels of the
earth."5 The geologist employed, however,
proved a little too impractical for the Engineers and the survey
was discontinued after 2 years.
In 1839, the Federal Government for the first
time called on a geologist to classify public lands as Congress
made plans to authorize the sale of the mineral lands in the Upper
Mississippi Valley. David
Dale Owen organized a force that made a survey of 11,000 square
miles in a little more than 2 months, which led the Commissioner
of the General
Land Office to propose that "an officer skilled in the sciences
of geology and mineralogy"6 be appointed
to explore all the public lands and thus enable the Commissioner
to discriminate between agricultural and mineral lands before putting
them on the market. That idea came to nought, but in 1847, when
Congress authorized the sale of mineral lands in the Lake Superior
Land District in Michigan and the Chippewa Land District in the
Territory of Wisconsin, it specified that geological examinations
be made prior to the sale.
Old time topographer at work with an alidade
and plane table.
Geological Survey Photographic ArchiveThe change in the Federal attitude toward geology was part of
a change in the Federal view of science in general. The Federal
Government was not yet ready to accept science for its own sake
but there was a growing realization that certain economic purposes
could be aided by science, or, from the perspective of the first
Commissioner of Patents in 1836, that the scientific activities
of the Government should serve the great economic interests of
the country. This same attitude was evident when Congress in 1836
authorized the United
States Exploring Expedition, which had the backing of some
of the country's most influential scientists, as an aid to commerce.
Perhaps of even greater importance for the future of Federal geology
was the establishment in 1838 of the Corps
of Topographical Engineers to explore and map the continent.
Americans were already beginning to feel it was their manifest
destiny to overspread and possess the whole continent, and the
Topographical Engineers for more than 2 decades provided geologists
with opportunities to study the West.
America's manifest destiny was also to become a great industrial
nation but that was not so apparent in the 1840's. Coal and iron
were the basic elements of industrial development, but toward the
end of that decade iron production had begun to decline and the
mineral industry, except for coal, began to experience difficulties.
The discovery of gold in California on January 24, 1848, altered
the situation. In December 1848, President James
Polk asked Congress to provide for a geological and mineralogical
examination of the region where gold had
been discovered and to take steps to preserve the mineral lands,
especially those containing the precious metals, for the United
States, or to dispose of them in such a manner as to secure a large
return of money to the Treasury. The lame-duck
Congress took no action on these recommendations but in the
closing days of the session established a new executive department,
the Interior Department,
which would include the General
Land Office, the Pension Office, the Office
of Indian Affairs, and the Census.
Gold bearing quartz vein on property of
Seward Bonanza Gold Mines Co., Alaska Northern Railway. Tustumena
district, Cook Inlet region, Alaska, September 11, 1911.
Geological Survey Photographic ArchiveThe discovery of gold gave great impetus to mining endeavors throughout
the country, and this increased activity, combined with the prosperity
after the Mexican War, interested several States in the South and
the Midwest in establishing State geological surveys. It also made
the development of better means of communication and transportation
between the Eastern States and the western territories more urgent.
In 1853, Congress appropriated $150,000 for surveys to ascertain
the most practical and economical route
for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean
and authorized the Secretary of War to employ the Corps of Topographical
Engineers to make the explorations and surveys. The Congress also
took action on the mineral lands in California, excluding them
from the General Land Office surveys, forbidding their preemption
or selection by the State, and prohibiting settlement or location
During the 1850's, while the Topographical Engineers explored
four routes for the transcontinental railroad, the industrialization
of the Nation quickened. In 1859, for the first time, the value
of the products of U.S. industry exceeded the value of agricultural
products. In that same year, gold
was discovered in Colorado, silver was discovered at the Comstock
lode in western Nevada to begin the era of silver mining in
the West, and the first
oil well in the United States was successfully drilled in
northwestern Pennsylvania. By that time, the relationship between
geological surveys and mineral resources was sufficiently clear
that when gold mining in California became difficult and costly,
the State Legislature established a Geological
Survey, on April 21, 1860, to make an accurate and complete
geological survey of the State.
The 1,000 Mile Tree, a solitary pine in
Wilhelmina Pass, or the narrows of Weber Canyon, marking the
1,000th mile west of Omaha. Weber County, Utah, 1869.
Geological Survey Photographic ArchiveThe Civil War had a pronounced effect on science
and on the industrial development of the United States. It brought
to an end the second era of State surveys--only the California
Geological Survey survived. It checked or halted the western mining
frontier in some areas but allowed continued expansion in others.
The usefulness of science for economic purposes was recognized
15, 1862, when the 37th Congress established the Department
of Agriculture "to acquire and diffuse . . . useful information
on subjects connected with agriculture" and for the first time
authorized "practical and scientific experiments"7 to
obtain this information. The industrialization advanced significantly
during the war. At the start of the war, American iron fabrication
was inferior to that of Europe, but A.S.
Hewitt of Cooper Hewitt iron manufacturers went to England
in 1862 and learned the secret of the British process so well that
in 1863 the Secretary of War boasted that American iron was superior
to that obtained abroad. Alexander
Holley, an American metallurgist, also visited England in
1862 and obtained the American rights to the Bessemer
process for making steel; in 1865, he began to produce steel
by that process in the United States.
||The Four Great Surveys of the West
Courthouse and Jail Rocks from the south,
Courthouse Rock irrigation canal in the foreground. Cheyenne
County, Nebraska, 1897.
Geological Survey Photographic ArchiveBy 1867, the developing
industries were making radical demands on the Nation's natural
resources. Joseph S. Wilson, the Commissioner of the General
Land Office, in his annual report written in the fall of 1866,
assessed at some length the mineral resources of the public domain,
and afterward stated that the proper development of the geological
characteristics and mineral wealth of the country was a matter
of the highest concern to the American people. On March 2, 1867,
Congress for the first time authorized western explorations in
which geology would be the principal objective: a study of the
geology and natural resources along the fortieth parallel route
of the transcontinental railroad, under the Corps
of Engineers, and a geological survey of the natural resources
of the new State of Nebraska, under the direction of the General
Land Office. Looking back at that day's work in 1880, Clarence
King, Director of
the U.S. Geological Survey,
remarked that "Eighteen sixty-seven marks, in the history of national
geological work, a turning point, when the science ceased to be
dragged in the dust of rapid exploration and took a commanding
position in the professional work of the country."8
King was only 25 and 5 years out of Yale,
where he had been a member of the first class to graduate from
Scientific School, when he was appointed Geologist in charge
of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. He had
been a member of the Geological Survey of California when he conceived
the idea of a geological survey along the route of the railroad
then being built, had then interested the Engineers in the plan
and secured their endorsement and that of the War Department, exhibiting
political as well as scientific acumen. The Chief of Engineers
told King he could expect to receive $100,000 to finance the work
for 3 years and was authorized to engage two assistant geologists,
three topographic aides, two collectors, a photographer, and necessary
camp men. King chose as assistants well-trained young men, the
geologists with graduate education in Europe, and planned the work
in detail before taking the field.
Clarence King, first Director of the U.S. Geological
Geological Survey Photographic Archive
Mount Shasta and Whitney Glacier crevasses,
seen from the crater (Shastina). Whitney Glacier in California
was the first glacier described in the United States. Clarence
King in the foreground. Geological Expoloration of the Fortieth
Parallel (King Survey).
Geological Survey Photographic Archive
Ferdinand V. Hayden, M.D., who had already established a reputation
as a master of reconnaissance in the Upper Missouri country, was
placed in charge of the survey of Nebraska, for which only $5,000
was available. Hayden, 38, was a graduate of Oberlin College in
Ohio and Albany Medical College . Except during the Civil War years,
Hayden had been enthusiastically exploring the northern Great Plains
region since 1853 when James Hall, the New York State Geologist,
had sent him and Fielding B. Meek west to study the geology and
collect fossils. In 1856 and 1857, Hayden had accompanied expeditions
led by Lieutenant G.K. Warren and in 1859, the expedition led by
Captain W.F. Raynolds, both of the Topographical Engineers.
Both the King and the Hayden surveys were successful. In 1870,
the King survey, without solicitation, received additional funds
for another 3 years in the field. The Hayden survey received additional
appropriations in 1868 and 1869 for exploration in Wyoming and
Colorado, and in 1869 was placed directly under the Secretary of
the Interior. In 1870, Hayden presented to Congress a plan for
the geological and geographical exploration of the Territories
of the United States that looked forward to the gradual preparation
of a series of geographical and geological maps of each of the
territories on a uniform scale. With Congressional blessing the
Hayden survey then became the Geological and Geographical Survey
of the Territories under the Department of the Interior.
By that time two additional surveys had taken the field. On May
24, 1869, John Wesley Powell, Professor of Geology at Illinois
State Normal University, and a party of nine men left Green River,
Wyoming, in three small boats to explore the unknown canyonlands
to the south and west. Powell's expedition was privately sponsored--its
only public support an authorization to draw Army rations--and
the members of the expedition were a mixed crew of nonprofessionals.
John Wesley Powell, second Director of
the U.S. Geological Survey, 1881-1894.
Geological Survey Photographic ArchivePowell, 35, was the son of an itinerant Methodist preacher. His
formal schooling had ceased when he was 12, and his life thereafter
had been spent in farming, studying, teaching, and exploring the
Midwest until the outbreak of the Civil War. He enlisted in the
Union Army in May 1861 and remained in the service until the war
was over. After the war, Powell became professor of geology at
Illinois Wesleyan University and then at Illinois State Normal
University. In 1867 and 1868, he explored the Rocky Mountains in
Colorado and eastern Utah and became convinced that the unknown
canyonlands to the southwest could best be explored in boats. In
a trip fraught with hardships, Powell and five of the nine original
members of the crew completed a journey down the Green River to
the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon on August 13, 1869. In
1870, Professor Powell received an appropriation of $10,000 from
Congress to make a second trip down the Colorado, being required
only to report his results to the Smithsonian Institution. On June
10, 1872, Congress appropriated another $20,000 for completion
of the survey.
The second new exploration in 1869 was led by Lieutenant George
Wheeler, Engineer Officer on the staff of the Commanding General
of the Army's Department of California (which covered California,
Nevada, and Arizona). Wheeler, not quite 27, was a graduate of
West Point in 1866 where he had ranked sixth in his class and won
a commission in the elite Corps of Engineers. By 1869, exploration
of the Colorado River and location of north-south routes across
the Great Basin had become the most important projects of the Division
of the Pacific, but when the Army learned of Powell's planned expedition,
exploration of the Colorado was postponed.
Black Canyon of the Colorado River, looking
above from Camp 8 in Nevada. U.S. Geographical Surveys West of
the One Hundredth Meridian (Wheeler Survey, 1871 Expedition).
Geological Survey Photographic ArchiveIn early June 1869, Lieutenant Wheeler received orders to organize
and equip a party to make a thorough and careful reconnaissance
of the country south and east of White Pine, Nevada, as far as
the head of navigation on the Colorado, to obtain data for a military
map and to survey the possibility of a wagon road and select sites
for military posts. In 1871, the Engineers sent Lt. Wheeler to
explore and map the area south of the Central Pacific Railroad
in eastern Nevada and Arizona.
On his return from the 1871 expedition, Wheeler, convinced that
the day of the pathfinder had ended, proposed a plan for mapping
the United States west of the 100th meridian on a scale of 8 miles
to the inch, expected to cost $2.5 million and take 15 years. Congress
authorized the program on June 10, 1872, the day on which funds
were appropriated for completion of the Powell survey. Hayden that
year was given $75,000 for his Geological and Geographical Survey
of the Territories.
Inevitably, conflicts developed between the Hayden survey, mapping
the Territories of the United States, and the Wheeler survey, mapping
the areas west of the 100th meridian. In 1874, Congress was provoked
to a thorough discussion of civilian versus military control of
mapping. In the testimony heard by the Congressional committee,
much of it on the purposes and efficiency of the mapping, Powell
credited King's Fortieth Parallel survey with the most advanced
techniques, which Hayden and he had later adopted. In the end Congress
concluded that each survey had been doing excellent work for the
benefit of the people and that there was sufficient work for both
the Interior Department and the War Department for years to come.
The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution had requested an additional
appropriation for the Powell survey, which Congress granted but
transferred the survey to the Department of the Interior, where
it was at first called the second division of the Geological and
Geographical Survey of the Territories. Later, because of tension
between Powell and Hayden, the Powell survey became known as the
Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region.
||Establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey
I.C. Russell leading a U.S. Geological
Survey party across the moraines of the Malaspina Glacier. Yakutat
district, Alaska Gulf region, Alaska, c. 1890.
Geological Survey Photographic ArchiveDeterioration of the economy led to another consideration of the
problem of mapping the West in 1878. The King survey had by this
time completed its reports, but the Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler
surveys were still in the field. This time Congress turned to the National
Academy of Sciences and asked it to recommend a plan for surveying
and mapping the Territories of the United States that would secure
the best possible results at the least possible cost. A committee
of seven members appointed by the Academy recommended that the Coast
and Geodetic Survey be transferred from the Department of
the Treasury to the Department of the Interior, renamed the "Coast
and Interior Survey," and be given responsibility for geodetic,
topographic, and land-parceling surveys in addition to its existing
work. The Academy committee also recommended that an independent
organization, to be called the U.S. Geological Survey, be established
in the Interior Department to study the geological structure and
economic resources of the public domain.
Legislation to rename the Coast and Geodetic
Survey and transfer it to the Department of the Interior and to
establish the U.S. Geological Survey for "classification of the
public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral
resources, and products of the national domain"9 was
included in the bill appropriating funds for the legislative, executive,
and judicial expenses of the Federal Government for the fiscal
year beginning July 1, 1879. An appropriation for the expenses
of the new national geological survey was included in the sundry
civil expenses bill.
The transfer of the land-parceling surveys to a Coast and Interior
Survey aroused strong opposition among Congressmen from Western
States, and the bill was amended to exclude the public-land surveys
from the work of the Coast and Interior Survey. There were few
objections to the Geological Survey, and Congressman A.S.
Hewitt of New York, who had initiated the Academy study, spoke
most eloquently about the value of the study of mineral resources
to the future development and prosperity of the Nation. The bill
was then passed and sent to the Senate.
The Senate took up the sundry civil expenses bill first, and amended
the item for the expenses of the geological survey so that it became
$100,000 for the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories,
in other words, the Hayden survey. The bill then went to a conference
committee to iron out the differences between the two houses. The
Senate voted to delete the entire section on the reorganization
of the surveys from the legislative, executive, and judicial expenses
bill, making the Senate action a clear triumph for Hayden, and
sent it to conference.
The Democratic House and Republican Senate were far apart on some
items in the bill, unrelated to the Survey legislation, and it
became evident that agreement could not be reached before adjournment.
The Senate and House conferees on the sundry civil bill, among
them Hewitt, then agreed to combine into one item the sections
in the House version of the legislative bill establishing the geological
survey and the House version of the appropriation for the expenses
of the U.S. Geological Survey. Thus the U.S. Geological Survey
was established, by a last-minute amendment, to classify the public
lands--94 years after the Land
Ordinance of 1785 first directed their surveying and classification--and
to examine the geological structure, mineral resources, and products
of the national domain. The legislation also provided that the
Hayden, Powell, and Wheeler surveys be discontinued as of June
30, 1879. Congress also established a public lands commission,
of which the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey would be a
member, to prepare a codification of laws relating to the survey
and disposition of the public domain, a system and standard of
classification of public lands, a system of land-parceling surveys
adapted to the economic use of the several classes of lands, and
recommendations for disposal of the public lands in the western
portion of the United States to actual settlers.
||Organizing the U.S. Geological Survey
Hayden, who had been directing geological surveys in the Department
of the Interior for a dozen years, was the obvious candidate to
be director of the new national survey, but a small group that
considered Clarence King better qualified undertook to secure the
appointment for him. On March 20, 1879, President Hayes sent to
the Senate the nomination of Clarence King to be the first Director
of the U.S. Geological Survey. The Senate confirmed the nomination
on April 3, and King took the oath of office on May 24. The Fortieth
Parallel Exploration under King's direction had led the way in
converting western exploration to an exact science. His new position
gave him a unique opportunity to influence the development of Federal
The first duty enjoined on the Geological Survey
was the "classification of the public lands."10 In
the year that the Geological Survey was established, the Federal
Government still held title to more than 1.2 billion acres of land,
nearly all of it west of the Mississippi River, of which only 200
million had been surveyed. The edge of settlement was at about
102° West; beyond the frontier were only isolated pockets or
belts of settlement, and in vast areas beyond the frontier, the
population was officially less than 1 per square mile.
Nearly all the public lands were within the arid region as defined
by John Wesley Powell in his 1878 "Report on the Lands of the Arid
Region of the United States." Water was the region's most precious
resource, but Powell had pointed out that very little of the remaining
public land was suitable for conventional farming and that
Original entry of Utah Mine, Pleasant Valley,
cut about 1880 by Chinese hand labor. Note even arch of roof, now
used as air-course. Carbon County, Utah (not later than 1926).
Geological Survey Photographic Archiveonly
a small fraction of the arid land was irrigable. He then proposed
radical changes in the land system, including organization of irrigation
and pasturage districts, which suggested that water was more of
a sociopolitical than a scientific problem.
of the isolated small pockets or belts west of the frontier
owed their initial and some their continued existence to miners
or prospectors, but the larger and more profitable mining industry
was in the States east of the 100th meridian--Pennsylvania
was the leading mining State in the Nation. Just eight commodities
--gold, silver, iron, coal, copper, lead, zinc, and petroleum--accounted
for nearly 99 percent of the value of the mineral production
in the United States; the greater part of the precious metals
and lead came from the area west of the 100th meridian, but
the rest came from the States east of that line.
The very brief enabling legislation did not define in detail
the duties of the new organization, thus leaving much to the Director's
judgment. King concluded that the Geological Survey's classification
of the public lands, especially as Congress had made no change
in the General Land Office, was not meant to supersede the classification
made by the Land Office as a basis for granting title, and the
Public Lands Commission agreed. To meet the requirement for classification,
King therefore planned a series of land maps to provide information
for agriculturists, miners, engineers, timbermen, and political
A.H. Brooks examining a section of gold
bearing gravels and sands, Sweetcake Creek, tributary of Ophir
Creek. Council district, Seward Peninsula region, Alaska, 1900.
Geological Survey Photographic ArchiveThe
duty of examining the geologic structure, mineral resources,
and products of the national domain offered many possibilities.
The year in which the Survey was established, however, was
one of great monetary uncertainty, when knowledge of precious-metal
resources was vital, and one in which the iron and steel industry
faced problems in obtaining suitable raw materials, while information
about the Nation's mineral wealth, mining and metallurgical
techniques, and production statistics was meager. For the Survey's
initial program of work, therefore, King chose to emphasize
mining geology, to devote but a small effort to general geology,
and to confine paleontology and topographic mapping to what
was necessary to support the geologic studies. Although King
in so doing emphasized practical studies at the expense of
basic studies, he nonetheless expected that the facts gathered
in the mining-geology studies would lead to advances in basic
1 "classification of the public lands . . . ":
The phrase is taken from the Organic Act of the U.S. Geological
Survey, U.S. Statutes at Large, v. 20, p. 394 [The Statutes at
Large are ordinarily cited in abbreviated form as 20 Stat. L.,
back to article
2 "one-third part of all gold . . . ":
Ordinance of 1785.
back to article
3 "not mineral lands": Opinion of
the Attorney General, August 28, 1850.
back to article
4 "to examine the geological structure . .
the phrase is taken from the Organic Act of the U.S. Geological
back to article
5 "few subjects connected with the duties
. . . " and "development of these great resources . . . ": Lt.
Col. John J. Abert, Report of the Chief of the Topographical Bureau, in Report
of the Secretary of War: U.S. Congress, 23d, 1st session, House
Executive Document 2, 1833, p. 182.
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6 "an officer skilled in the sciences . . . ":
James Whitcomb, Commissioner of the General Land Office, in House
Executive Document 239, 26th Congress, 1st session, 1840, p. 7.
7 "to acquire and diffuse . . . " and "practical
and scientific experiments . . . ": An Act to establish a Department
of Agriculture, 12 Stat. L., 387.
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8 "Eighteen sixty-seven marks . . . ":
Clarence King, in U.S. Geological Survey 1st Annual Report, 1880,
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9 "classification of the public lands . . . ":
Organic Act of the U.S. Geological Survey.
10 "classification of the public lands . .
Organic Act of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Adapted from Mary C. Rabbitt, 1989, The
United States Geological Survey, 1879-1989: U.S. Geological Survey
Historic photographs courtesy of the U.S.
Geological Survey Photo Library in Denver, Colorado.
For other publications about the history of the U.S. Geological
Survey, search the USGS Library's online
catalog for author: Mary C. Rabbitt.
About the U.S. Geological Survey: Our History website.