North American Exploration - Vol. 3

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

22 Scientific Exploration of the American West, 1865-1900

RICHARD A. BARTLETT

The proper base on which to trace the scientific exploration of the post-Civil War West is not located in the West at all but in Washington DC. There, in surroundings that reminded many visitors of an overgrown southern town, an intellectual awakening occurred during the Gilded Age. In government buildings along the dusty or muddy streets (depending on the weather), new government bureaus employed an increasing number of scientists. By 1900, the Smithsonian Institution administered the National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoological Park, the National Arboretum, the Bureau of American Ethnology, and the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. The Coast and Geodetic Survey, dating to 1807, was the most active scientific institution in the United States in 1867. The Naval Observatory was located in Washington, and it should not be forgotten that the army and navy conducted scientific work as a part of their duties. The Department of Agriculture, founded in 1862, was rapidly expanding its scientific activities. The predecessors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began work as early as 1871. Finally, the earth sciences of geology, paleontology, and paleobotany were centered in Washington: Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden's U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories and John Wesley Powell's U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region were administered out of the Interior Department, while Clarence King's U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel and First Lieutenant George M. Wheeler's U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian were administered by the War Department. In 1879 these "Great Surveys" were consolidated into the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thus Washington DC, with a population of 131,000 in 1870 (238,000 by 1900), was for a brief time in the late 1800s the nation's center of scientific inquiry; indeed, it was one of the top three or four global centers of science

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