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John Wesley Powell artifacts travel home to Utah from Illinois State University

Two men talking amid a rocky terrain

John Wesley Powell (right) on his famous expedition to the Grand Canyon.

Illinois State University’s Distinguished Professor of Geology Dave Malone has been carrying on the 150-year-old legacy of natural historian and explorer John Wesley Powell for years—he just didn’t appreciate the full extent of the connection.

David Malone

David Malone

“It’s a priority for our geology students to go out and perform fieldwork,” said Malone, a fellow of the Geological Society of America who leads a field camp that was awarded the organization’s Exxon-Mobil Field Camp Excellence Award in 2017. “What I didn’t realize is that taking students into the field is part of the University’s heritage that started with John Wesley Powell.”

In the mid-1800s, Powell was curator of the Illinois Museum of Natural History, which was affiliated with the Illinois Natural History Society housed in Illinois State Normal University’s Old Main. During the time, he taught at Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan, and in 1867 led the first summer field trip to the Rocky Mountains. “It was the first university organized field trip of any kind that brought students from the Midwest to the Rockies,” said Malone. Powell returned to the west several times, and his teams brought back thousands of objects, including everyday items used by Native Americans.

This fall, Malone and Paul Meister, the coordinator of academic services for the Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment, recently added to Powell’s legacy by taking a collection of artifacts from his travels to a new home at the Natural History Museum at Utah.

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“We wanted these items preserved in a way that they can be studied, and by people who understand their cultural significance,” said Malone. Items included a number of baskets, a child’s blanket, moccasins, and a wooden bow thought to be collected during an 1868 exploration.

headshot of Paul Meister

Paul Meister

“What is amazing is that the original string is still on the bow,” said Meister. “And restorers have found sunflower seeds in the weaving of the baskets. These pieces are a find for the museum.”

Lisbeth Louderback, curator of archeology for the Natural History Museum of Utah, agreed. “Evidence of heavy use can still be found embedded in the objects, and may tell us more about how people lived,” she said. “The return of these remarkable artifacts connects us to Powell’s legacy and the lives of the native people who made them.”

Of the thousands of artifacts Powell collected during his fieldwork, some went to Washington, D.C. when he became the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology (which later came under the Smithsonian Institution). And some stayed in Illinois in museums and universities, including Illinois State.

At ISU, the Powell artifacts traveled to different buildings on campus—from offices in Old Main where Powell worked, to Williams and Schroeder halls—before finding a home across from the department’s main office in Felmley Hall. It was there that Malone showed the items to Marjorie Chan, a professor of geology from the University of Utah, who was visiting for a lecture on Mars. “She immediately recognized the artifacts as Native American, and probably from the Ute tribe of Utah,” said Malone, who contacted the Utah Natural History Museum to see if there was interest in displaying the items.

Meister worked closely with Louderback to carefully ship the items for display. “When FedEX asked me the amount of insurance I wanted, I asked them, “Do you have a level for priceless items? We were told these are priceless,” said Meister.

Malone and Meister have discussed what future items might be returned to the museum, in exchange for replicas that can be displayed at Felmley Hall. “Powell’s travels are part of the Illinois State heritage, but they are part of the heritage of many other groups as well,” said Malone, who will continue with annual field camps with geology students. “It’s good to know the legacy of his work will continue.”

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