John Wesley Powell was born on March 24, 1834, in Mount Morris, New York, to Joseph and Mary Powell. His father was an impoverished preacher from England who moved his young family to Jackson, Ohio, then to Walworth County, Wisconsin, then to Boone County, Illinois. Powell attended Illinois College, then Wheaton College, and finally Oberlin College but never completed a degree. He developed deep knowledge of ancient Greek, Latin, and the natural sciences, particularly geology. This interest led him to explore the Mississippi River valley, including a trip in 1856, when he rowed from St. Anthony northeast of Minneapolis all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, south of New Orleans. The following year, in 1857, he rowed the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, followed by a trip in 1858 down the Illinois River and up the Mississippi River to central Iowa. These trips inspired him for his later explorations of the West and along the Colorado River and helped him be elected to the Illinois Natural History Society in 1859.
The Civil War broke out in 1861, and Powell enlisted with the Union Army as a topographer and military engineer to help abolish slavery. At the Battle of Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862, Powell was hit by a musket ball and lost most of one of his arms. He was later promoted to major and chief of artillery of the 17th Army Corps.
John Wesley Powell married Emma Dean in 1862. After the war has took a position as professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan University and helped found the Illinois Museum of Natural History.
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