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The U.S. Geological Survey was established on March 3, 1879, during the last minutes before the close of the final session of the 45th Congress, when President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the bill appropriating money for the Survey. The inclusive bill included a brief section establishing the new agency, the U.S. Geological Survey. Under the Department of the Interior, it was created to oversee the “classification of the public lands, and examination of the geological structure, mineral resources, and products of the national domain.” The legislation to create the Survey developed from an 1878 report of the National Academy of Sciences, which had been requested by Congress to provide a plan for surveying the American Western Territories.
By 1867, America’s emerging industries were making huge demands on its natural resources, so the Commissioner of the General Land Office, J. Wilson, declared that the development of geological characteristics and mineral wealth was of the highest concern to the American people, and Congress authorized western explorations in which geology would be the principal objective. These General Land Office surveys were to include a study of the geology and natural resources along the 40th parallel route of the Transcontinental Railroad under the auspices of the Corps of Engineers and a geological survey of the natural resources of the new state of Nebraska. Clarence King, the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, would later say:
1867 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.
The Geological Survey was fashioned to unify and centralize the work undertaken by these important field surveys across the American West. From 1868 to 1870, the King and Hayden Surveys received funding for exploration in Wyoming and Colorado, and in 1869 the bureau 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. With Congressional authorization, the Hayden Survey became the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories.
By 1870, two more surveys had taken placeProfessor of Geology John Wesley Powell with a party of nine men left Green River, Wyoming, in three small boats to explore the unknown canyons of the American southwest under private sponsorship. Between 1867 and 1868, he had explored the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and eastern Utah and decided to explore these unknown canyon lands in boats. In a legendary and troubled trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers, Powell and five remaining members completed the journey 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.
In 1869 and 1871, expeditions were led by Lieutenant George Wheeler, an Army Engineer who explored California, Nevada, and Arizona. He surveyed the American West from south and east of White Pine, Nevada, to the Colorado River to create maps of wagon roads and military sites. Two years later, he was sent to explore the land south of the Central Pacific Railroad in eastern Nevada and Arizona. The extensive maps and information from these four surveys represent the foundation for the establishment of the Geological Survey.
The responsibilities of the bureau include exploratory surveys of geologic structure, the preparation of geological and topographical maps; the examination, classification and evaluation of natural resources; water studies to provide irrigation and water power; the organization of public lands; and the investigation of natural hazards, all related to the publication of papers, bulletins, and maps based upon these surveys. In 1962 the Survey was authorized to conduct surveys on private lands. The Survey also serves the United States by:
providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.
- Mary Rabbitt, “The United States Geological Survey: 1879-1989,” U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1050, www.usgs.gov;
- S. Department of The Interior, A Brief History of the U.S. Geological Survey (U.S. Department of The Interior, 1974);
- S. Geological Survey Committee of Review, David Jack Cowen, and National Research Council, Weaving a National Map: A Review of the U.S. Geological Survey Concept of the National Map (National Academy Press, April 2003).