Major John Wesley Powell is a prominent figure in the history of American anthropology and probably best known to HAR readers as the founder of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE).[1] Prior to that, however, he built a reputation as a field naturalist through an impressive series of expeditions, supported in the early years by a precarious patchwork of funding. With limited finances and lacking in impressive academic credentials, Wes Powell relied heavily on family members to staff his expeditions. Two women, his wife Emma and his sister Ellen, were integral contributors to the scientific staff, although their participation has received little recognition. Here I will discuss how their contributions, like those of many women, have been obscured by historical processes and suggest some ways that they might be rediscovered.

Powell’s life and work have inspired an impressive series of biographies, both popular and scholarly. From a 1903 tribute by his friend G.K. Gilbert through to Wallace Stegner’s 1954 definitive treatment and on to Donald Worster’s more recent 2001 analysis, they all note many of the same significant events. Powell spent his childhood exploring the woods and rivers near his Illinois home. He served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War and lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh. He moved on to wider explorations into the American West after the war, including scaling Pikes Peak in 1867. It was, however, Powell’s descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869 that made him a national hero. He capitalized on that fame to organize a return expedition to Utah Territory two years later with better funding and more ambitious scientific objectives in what is generally known as the “Second Expedition.” This was followed by various government positions in Washington with both the U.S. Geological Survey, which he led from 1881-1894, and the Bureau of American Ethnology, which he founded in 1879 and directed until his death in 1902. He influenced the development of science nationally, both formally through these agencies and informally through voluntary organizations such as the Cosmos Club (still a Washington institution, now admitting women) and the Anthropological Society of Washington (no longer active) (Hinsley 1994).

This hagiography is almost required reading for anyone working with American Indian collections at the Smithsonian, and I thought I was tolerably familiar with the outlines of the Powell narrative. I, therefore, did a double-take when a colleague referred one day to the women of the Powell expeditions.[2] What? There were women along? How had I somehow missed that story line? A return to the literature showed that women were indeed present. With heightened awareness today of the many ways that women (and people of color) have been written out of the scientific and historical narrative, I found many traces of them in a recent rereading of the basic literature. Their presence was acknowledged, sometimes respectfully, sometimes with condescension. “They were listed on the roster as ornithologists, but they were far more adept at cooking fowls than at classifying them,” quipped one author (Terrell 1969, 57). 

Beyond the discovery that “she was there,” I was interested to learn about the perspectives and the roles of these two women. Were they merely nominal participants, carried on the roster for accounting purposes, or did either contribute to the scientific work of the expeditions? I hoped that a better understanding of their participation might encourage a reexamination of other women who were part of the wider narrative of American scientific exploration. Here I offer some preliminary observations as an invitation for someone to take up this topic in greater depth.[3] Rather than citing the extensive Powell literature, I have sought to draw attention to unpublished sources and to encourage examination of museum collections.

Let me introduce you to the two women of the Powell expeditions: his wife Emma Dean Powell and his sister Ellen Powell Thompson, known within the family as Nellie.

Emma Dean was born in Michigan in 1834, the child of English immigrants who owned a mercantile operation in Detroit. Emma’s father and Wes’ mother were half-siblings, although they had lost touch with each other for many years through the vagaries of separate paths of immigration. Wes first met Emma in 1855 and was immediately smitten. In spite of parental opposition based on kinship, they married shortly after Wes joined the Union Army in 1861. All biographies record that Powell’s right arm was shattered during the Battle of Shiloh in 1862; fewer note that Emma was there at the impromptu hospital in nearby Savannah, Tennessee, when his arm was amputated. Like other strong hearted wives of officers, she followed her husband in his postings at Shiloh and thereafter, volunteered in the hospitals that surrounded the bloody battlefields.

After the war, Powell combined teaching in Illinois schools with western fieldwork whenever possible. Emma accompanied him in his travels (Figure 1). Among his noteworthy investigations was scaling Pikes Peak in 1867; Emma was at his side. Sadly, she was written out of this event by their family friend G.K. Gilbert in his 1903 tribute noting Powell’s major achievements, but she was written back in by deBuys (2001, 12), who described her as “clad in multiple petticoats and a dress that reached her boot tops.” She was again part of Wes’ more extended expedition of 1868-69, when a group of college students joined the Powell team in a wide-ranging natural history survey of Colorado Territory. The majority of the party returned east in the fall, but “Professor Powell, with a part of his men, crossed the Colorado or Front Range” and built cabins for a winter camp in the Rockies on White River 1868-69 (Gilbert 1903, 28). Gilbert’s biography does acknowledge that Emma, too, was there, the only woman in the party. The expedition shared a sheltered valley with a camp of Utes—presumably including women, another set of silent figures in the Powell narrative. Emma appeared on the roster as assistant ornithologist. Despite Terrell’s dismissive suggestion that the appointment was nominal rather than practical, Worster says that she prepared some 175 study specimens. The Smithsonian has fourteen bird skins attributed to the Powell expedition of 1867, perhaps all prepared by her.

Figure 1. “Powells exp in camp.” This photograph from a later scrapbook may be the only image of Emma in the field (far right). While it has been provisionally catalogued as from the 1871 expedition, it seems more likely that it is from an earlier expedition of the 1860s when young Illinois students were along. 016029.16., James Taylor Photo Album, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian.

The most famous part of the Powell narrative was his descent of the Colorado River through the previously uncharted Grand Canyon. Emma left the expedition when they took to the river, returning to her family in Detroit. Lacking major funding, Powell had assembled a rather harum scarum group of explorers, including his war-ravaged brother Walter. The course of the river through its canyons was unknown; no one doubted the clear danger. When nothing was heard of the party for weeks, newspapers were poised to accept and publish a tale of disaster.  Eventually a charlatan named John Risdon appeared, claiming to be the sole survivor of the expedition, with all others swept to their deaths. Emma returns to the common narrative here as the plucky wife who insists that the tales are false. She didn’t need to rely on woman’s intuition, however. As a member of the expedition until the river section, she could readily spot factual errors in the dramatic reportage. In addition, she had a letter from Wes dated after his supposed demise (Stegner 1954, 54-5).

Two years later Powell launched yet another expedition, traveling by rail to the Green River crossing in Utah Territory. Once again, Emma, now five months pregnant, traveled west to see him off. With Wes’s sister Nellie as a companion, she went on to take lodgings in Salt Lake City and await the birth. Once the baby was two or three months old, Emma and Nellie rejoined the men who had by then emerged from the canyon. They first camped by the side of the river, then set up a more elaborate tent camp in Kanab, which became the base of operations for the expedition. In February, Emma, Wes, and their new daughter Mary Dean Powell traveled to Washington, D.C., where Emma took up residence and dropped from the scientific story. She was not involved in her husband’s subsequent trips west.

Ellen Powell Thompson, known in the family as Nellie, was born in 1840, six years after her adventurous brother Wes. Well educated for a woman of the time, she attended the religiously oriented coeducational Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.[4] In 1862 she married Almon Harris Thompson. His interests in natural history meshed closely with those of her brother Wes, and the two men became regular collaborators, both in Illinois and in the field. In fact, what is commonly called the Second Powell Expedition was actually directed jointly by Powell and Thompson. It again had elements of a family party, led by brothers-in-law. It is thus not surprising that both Nellie and Emma were on hand at Green River in 1871 to see their husbands and other expedition members off. A receipt among Thompson’s papers at the New York Public Library reveals another member of the farewell party, Fuzz or Fuzzy, Nellie’s Dandy Dinmot terrier. (Other travel expenses for cigars and brandy suggest that the expedition leaders did not fully embrace the Wheaton College ethos of abstinence.) As noted previously, Nellie stayed with Emma in Salt Lake City before joining the tent camp in Kanab. 

Nellie stayed with the expedition when Wes and Emma departed in February 1872. The remaining party settled into serious topographical work under Thompson’s leadership, and Nellie was an active member of the scientific corps. Her surviving diary covering three months in 1872 described many rough miles of camping and travel, often through snowstorms (Thompson 1872). For this, she wore men’s trousers and rode astride rather than side saddle. No petticoats were involved. Throughout these travels, she was not just along for the ride. She was actively pursuing her own scientific interest in botany, collecting and preparing plant specimens to transmit to eastern herbaria. She writes vividly of the travails of snatching drying sheets under cover whenever the weather turned wet. Specimens that she collected can be found, at least, at the Gray Herbarium at Harvard, the U.S. National Herbarium at the Smithsonian, and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale. The number of type specimens among these is an impressive indicator that she was a knowledgeable collector. Yet her botanical work has been perilously close to unacknowledged due to the intersection of naming customs in science and society.[5]

Scientific erasure of Nellie, and no doubt many other women, was the result of a convergence of routine practices. First was the social custom of referring to women through their husband’s name, which was often initialized. Thus Ellen Powell Thompson became Mrs. A.H. Thompson. Next, honorific titles such as “Mrs.” were often dropped when preparing specimen labels, and they are not included in the databases now online. The collector thus became A. H. Thompson. More broadly, the Thompson name itself was often erased, with all materials from an expedition attributed to a single leader, in this case the more famous Powell.[6] Specimens from “the Powell expedition” often list John Wesley as the collector although much of the material was probably collected by others, as Powell was often away seeking funding or focusing on mapping. Add to this the vagaries of recent transcription of handwritten nineteenth-century labels for purposes of data entry, and Nellie can be hard to find. 

My strategy has been to search for materials from Utah received in 1872, and then to study images of the associated plant sheets looking for a name that might be hers. Each repository has its own idiosyncrasies. The Smithsonian specimens, originally prepared at the Department of Agriculture herbarium before transfer to the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), were often labeled only “Mrs. Thompson.” Data entry has mangled that into many forms: Mr. Thompson, W. Thompson, and even Max Thompson. Nellie also sent materials directly to Harvard’s Gray Herbarium, where plant mounters labeled the sheets “A.P. Thompson,” some mixed combination of E.P. and A.H. Thompson, and so they entered the database.[7]

Nellie’s contributions to the field of anthropology are also hidden. The Second Expedition resulted in a wealth of material culture from the Paiute and other Native people of Utah Territory. These artifacts went first to the Museum of the Illinois Natural History Society, with which Powell and Thompson were associated, and were subsequently transferred to the National Museum when Powell joined the Smithsonian. While some items show extensive wear, others are in pristine condition and were almost certainly made on commission – a common anthropological practice of the time. Sometimes commissions were necessary because people were unwilling to part with particular items, but they were willing to make replicas. More often it was because the collector wanted things that were no longer in use; obsolete items were deemed more “authentic” than material culture in current use. Once the material reached the Smithsonian, entering it into the catalog was the responsibility of the curator. Otis Mason, the curator after 1884, evidently consulted with expedition members and was able to report on their methods. “Much of the clothing (buckskin and rabbit fur) and many of the baskets were made by the Indians working under the direction or rather observation of Mrs. E. P. Thompson, the endeavor being to have the work done by the methods employed before the coming of the whites and by the older people of the clan” (Mason 1902, 490-491) (Figure 2).[8] This makes sense. While Nellie could hardly tell Paiute women how to make baskets, she might well have served a key role as an intermediary guiding their production toward the types of materials that fit with concepts of ethnographic authenticity at the time. 

Figure 2. Many Paiute items of clothing in the Powell collection show no evidence of wear. Nellie was evidently in charge of commissioning materials like these from local Indian women. E011200, Dept. of Anthropology, NMNH, Smithsonian.

Commissioning works is not an easy process, as we learn from James Mooney’s description of his work in Indian Territory two decades later (Greene 2001, 190-201). Finding the right craftspeople and encouraging them to keep at production to ensure that the work was completed was a time-consuming process that required weeks, if not months, of regular contact with producers. Powell’s travel schedule does not seem compatible with this. The work must have fallen to the members of the expedition who remained in Utah. Nellie, as the only woman of the group, seems a prime candidate as much of the collection consists of items traditionally made by Paiute women — hide clothing, baskets, and cooking utensils. The significant group of ethnobotanical specimens is also a natural fit with her own scientific interests (Figure 3). While the three-month period of her surviving diary has been mined for information on her botanical work (Smith 1994), it has not yet been searched for evidence of anthropological collecting. However, in my own brief skimming, I spotted an entry from the close of their field season in which Nellie speaks about bringing the wagon “to get the rest of the Indian goods” (Thompson 1872, n.p.). Very likely there are other such clues.

Figure 3. Manzanita leaves. Powell collections from the Paiute include dozens of ethnobotanical samples, well aligned with Nellie’s botanical interests. E012136, Dept. of Anthropology, NMNH, Smithsonian.

A profile of Ellen Powell Thompson appeared in the Evening Star when she was president of the Washington district of the Women’s Suffrage Association.[9] It reported that while in the West with her husband Ellen made friends with members of a number of Indian tribes. She learned the language of the “Pah Utes” and studied their customs, while also studying the local flora. I fear that these anthropological accomplishments are in error. While she was undoubtedly familiar with Paiute people, it is doubtful that she learned their language beyond perhaps a few words.  She never published anything about any Indian culture, although she did publish examples of Irish folklore based on interviews with two servant women living in Washington (Thompson 1893; 1894). Nor is she mentioned in the published history of the early years of the Women’s Anthropological Society of America (McGee 1889). Instead, she devoted her energies to the Women’s Suffrage Association, with which she was deeply involved from the 1880s until her death in 1911. 

Emma and Ellen’s roles have been overshadowed by those of John Wesley, hidden by the record of his many achievements. To learn more about them, as well as other women’s contributions to anthropology and the history of science more generally, I suggest that we draw upon different types of source material in addition to a finer sifting of the textual record. Can close examination of artifacts, such as Paiute clothing, tell us something about those who were involved in their acquisition as well as the women who made them? Can pressed plants and prepared bird skins also be considered artifacts, revealing the hands and minds of the people who prepared them? Can examination of original tags and labels disclose traces of those involved in collecting and preparation, as well as scientific practices that have led to their erasure? How can we move beyond simple recognition that “she was there” to greater knowledge of just what she did while she was there?

Works Cited

deBuys, William. 2001. Seeing Things Whole: The Essential John Wesley Powell. Washington DC: Island Press, Shearwater Books.

Fowler, Don D. and John F. Matley. 1979. Material Culture of the Numa: The John Wesley Powell Collection, 1867-1880. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, No. 26. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. 

Gilbert, Grove K. 1903. John Wesley Powell, A Memorial to an American Explorer and Scholar. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co.

Greene, Candace S. 2001. Silver Horn: Master Illustrator of the Kiowa. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Hinsley, Curtis M. 1994. The Smithsonian and the American Indian. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

McGee, Anita Newcomb. 1889. “The Women’s Anthropological Society of America.” Science 213 (231): 240-242.

Mason, Otis T. 1902. “Aboriginal American Basketry: Studies in a Textile Art Without Machinery.” Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1901-1902: 185-484. 

Smith, Beatrice Sheer. 1994. “The 1872 Diary and Plant Collections of Ellen Powell Thompson.” Utah Historical Quarterly 62: 104-131.

Stegner, Wallace. 1954. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Terrell, John U. 1969. The Man Who Rediscovered America: A Biography of John Wesley Powell. New York: Weybright and Talley.

Thompson, Ellen P. 1893. “Folklore from Ireland, I.” Journal of American Folklore 6 (23): 259-268. 

———. 1894. “Folklore from Ireland, II.” Journal of American Folklore 7 (26): 224-227. 

Worster, Donald. 2001. A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. New York: Oxford University Press.

Archival Sources:

Thompson, Almon H. 
A.H. Thompson Diaries, 1871-1874. MSS COL 4150, Manuscript and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

Thompson, Ellen Powell
1872 Almon Harris Thompson and Ellen Powell Thompson Diaries, 1872-1875. MSS COL 4152, Manuscript and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

[1] Since this history is embedded in family relations, I am privileging the names by which individuals were known within the family. When the name Powell is used alone, it designates John Wesley.

[2] Frederick Reuss became interested in these women as part of his own research on the wider influences of Powell’s expeditions. He and William Truettner are currently preparing a volume that looks at the Powell legacy in terms of art history.

[3] The only focused treatments I have seen are in blog posts and an unpublished conference presentation. See:

Hollis. 2019. “Botanist Ellen Powell Thompson – Yes, That Powell,” In the Company of Plants and Rocks blog. Accessed 4/24/2020.

NPS. n.d. “Women of Capitol Reef.” National Park Service. Accessed 4/24/2020.

Thomas, Marcia. 2020. “Harriet Emma Dean Powell.” Presentation at the McLean County Museum of History, Bloomington, IL. 

USGS. 2019. “Powell Expedition: Women in Science. Then and Now.” United States Geological Survey.  by Thomas 2019. Accessed 4/24/2020.

Wheeler, E.B. 2019. “Emma Dean Powell: The Explorer’s Wife,” Quill Pen and Blotter blog.

[4] See Wheaton College. n.d. “John Wesley Powell,” Wheaton History A to Z. Wheaton College. Accessed 4/24/2020.

[5] See, however, Hollis 2019 (endnote 3) and Smith 1994.

[6] Specimens tags printed for labeling specimens in the field list Powell and Thompson as joint leaders of the 1871-73 expedition.

[7] Richard Quartaroli alerted the Gray Herbarium to this in 2009, and they have made data corrections. I have similarly alerted the Herbarium at NMNH, and they are also correcting data.

[8] This history of the collection was brought to attention by Fowler and Matley 1979.

[9] Anonymous. 16 February 1898. “District Representative [Ellen Powell Thompson],” Evening Star (Washington, DC), p. 7

Candace Greene: contributions /