Earth Notes: Powell Artifacts

May 22, 2019

John Wesley Powell is famous for his 1869 journey down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. But before that expedition, Powell taught geology at Illinois State Normal University in the town of Normal, and was curator of the Illinois State Natural History Museum. 

Moccasins collected by Powell during his time in the American West
Credit Natural History Museum of Utah, UMNH.A.2018.6; ET614.6


To build up the museum’s collections, Powell returned to the Southwest, visiting Native Americans near the headwaters of the Colorado River. He befriended Kaibab Paiutes near the North Rim of Grand Canyon, and also went to neighboring Hopi and Navajo lands. He traded for a number of important artifacts—that until just recently were locked away.   

Powell gave some of his collections to the Smithsonian Institution, but many items remained at Illinois State. More than a century passed, the museum became defunct, and geology professors safeguarded the trove of artifacts there. They stored them in an old photography darkroom, safe from damaging light, awaiting a museum home where they could be properly conserved and studied.

Among the amazing objects are an otter skin quiver, a bow strung with sinew, baskets, and hide moccasins. 

In March 2017, Illinois State University geology professor David Malone invited University of Utah professor Marjorie Chan to give a talk.  Dr. Chan mentioned her interest in old Native American objects, so Dr. Malone showed her the Powell artifacts.  Chan instantly recognized some of them as Ute.

The Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City negotiated with Illinois professors for the transfer of the items to the museum. Curators there are now conserving and preserving these irreplaceable items in their rightful homeland.