John Wesley Powell

The Powell family moved to Wheaton, Illinois in 1852.  Joseph Powell and his wife had three sons and three daughters when they moved to Wheaton, they also had two married daughters.  Powell was a tailor and a lay preacher in the Wesleyan Methodist  Church.  In Wheaton they purchased a five-acre tract near the Illinois Institute, a Wesleyan Methodist school.  Joseph Powell had been elected a trustee of the new Institute.  Powell had also purchased a forty-acre tract, from Jabez [William or Semour?] Dodge, in an area more distant from the school.  By the standards of the day, the Powells were by no means poor.  The house on the forty-acre parcel was moved to the five-acre plot nearer to the Institute, utilizing rollers and six oxen.   Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Powell would live in Wheaton, where their son, John Wesley, would return often, until their deaths in 1870.  The Powell family eventually held title to 11 separate parcels in the Wheaton area.

The Illinois Institute didn't offer the courses that stimulated John the most, logic and mathematics.  He earnestly desired a college degree, preferably from Oberlin.  His education was not directed towards the ministry, as his father would have preferred, and in search of a degree, Powell enrolled at Illinois College in Jacksonville in 1855.  For his sophomore year, Powell made it to Oberlin, but returned to Illinois the following year, 1857.  It seems that finances were always a point of difficulty for Powell.  His father had promised to pay for his education if it was for the ministry, but Powell turned to teaching to earn money for school.  He had held a teaching post in Macon County, Illinois before his enrollment at Illinois College.

John Wesley Powell never received the degree that he sought so earnestly.  Financial difficulty, his own and that of the Illinois Institute, prohibited this luxury.  1857 had brought a severe depression and economic panic to the nation.  After his failed attempts at receiving a college degree Powell began taking field trips.  On one such trip to Michigan, Powell met his future wife Emma, a cousin.  Powell would also take part in the Civil War, riding from private to lieutenant quite quickly.  During free time Powell would scour the surrounding area for geological samples, rocks, and other items of interest.  Most of the items that he collected made their way to the Powell home in Wheaton.

Powell was honorably discharged in January, 1865 and took a position as professor of geology at Illinois Wesleyan.  The next year he organized a trip to the Rocky Mountains and was immediately captivated by them and would return often.  It was his interest in the west that would place him firmly in America's history.

Powells at Illinois Institute (Wheaton College)

A number of the Powells can be located in the early records of Wheaton College and its predecessor, the Illinois Institute.  From 1855 through 1862 a number of Powells attended here.  Some were the children of Joseph Powell and others were children of Walter Scott Powell, Joseph's younger brother.  Joseph's children in attendance were: Walter H. Powell, M. B. Powell, Juliette Powell, John W. Powell, and Ella L. Powell.  It is possible that Ella is Ellen, but without knowing a middle name I am uncertain.  The children of Walter S. Powell in attendance were: Emma Dean Powell, Ada Powell, and Walter Clement Powell.

Ella Powell was the co-editor of the Beltionian Review in 1857[1], which was a Illinois Institute/Wheaton College literary society.  It was the oldest continuous literary society in Illinois, disbanding in 1958.

 
excerpt from Eleventh Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Wheaton College, 1865.

"Major J.W. Powell, prompted by his love of science, and friendship for the Institution where he received part of his education, proposes to put up, during the summer, a cabinet illustrating the geology of the west..." p. 13.

excerpt from Twelfth Annual Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Wheaton College, 1866.

"The Cabinet illustrating the Geology of the West in part arranged by Maj. J.W. Powell. is a valuable acquisition." p. 17

The above was reprinted in the 1867 catalogue.

[1]  The 1857 volume of the Beltionian Review contains two essays by a "John" about travels west.  John Wesley Powell was enrolled in the Illinois Institute for that year and there were no other persons with the name John in the Beltionian Literary Society.



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