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  The Beginnings of the U.S. Geological Survey

downGeological Surveys Before the Civil War
downThe Four Great Surveys of the West
downEstablishment of the U.S. Geological Survey
downOrganizing 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 National Park, Arizona. Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, viewed east from Grandview Point, 1901.
Source: U.S. 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 view of Coyote "dry lake" Valley and the Mohave Valley, San Bernardino County, California
Panorama, at left is part of Coyote "dry lake" Valley, at right of hills is the Mohave Valley. San Bernardino County, California, 1919.
Source: U.S. 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 alike.

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.

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  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
Plant bearing clay in Middendorf arkosic member, Black Creek formation: near Middendorf, Chesterfield County, South Carolina, 1907.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
In 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
Old time topographer at work with an alidade and plane table.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
The 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
Gold bearing quartz vein on property of Seward Bonanza Gold Mines Co., Alaska Northern Railway. Tustumena district, Cook Inlet region, Alaska, September 11, 1911.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
The 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 on them.

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.

Railroad workers and a solitary pine in Wilhelmina Pass marking the 1,000th mile west of Omaha
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.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
The 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 on May 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.

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  The Four Great Surveys of the West

Courthouse and Jail Rocks and Courthouse Rock irrigation canal
Courthouse and Jail Rocks from the south, Courthouse Rock irrigation canal in the foreground. Cheyenne County, Nebraska, 1897.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
By 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 the Sheffield 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
Clarence King, first Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, 1879-1881.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
Mount Shasta and Whitney Glacier crevasses
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).
Source: U.S. 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
John Wesley Powell, second Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, 1881-1894.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
Powell, 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.

A surveyor in a boat at Black Canyon of the Colorado River
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).
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
In 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.

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  Establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey

U.S. Geological Survey field party
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.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
Deterioration 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.

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  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 geology.

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 Entry of Utah Mine
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).
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
only 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.

Many 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 economists.

A.H. Brooks examining a section of gold
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.
Source: U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Archive
The 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 science.

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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., 394].
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2 "one-third part of all gold . . . ": Ordinance of 1785.
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3 "not mineral lands": Opinion of the Attorney General, August 28, 1850.
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4 "to examine the geological structure . . . ": the phrase is taken from the Organic Act of the U.S. Geological Survey.
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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.
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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, p. 4.
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9 "classification of the public lands . . . ": Organic Act of the U.S. Geological Survey.
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10 "classification of the public lands . . . ": Organic Act of the U.S. Geological Survey.
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Adapted from Mary C. Rabbitt, 1989, The United States Geological Survey, 1879-1989: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1050.

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.

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