In the late 1860s and 1870s, the US government sponsored significant exploration of the American West. There were four major surveys to come from these expeditions, commonly known a the Four Great Surveys. The surveys often document landforms, geology, botany, and cultural interactions. Their maps and illustrations helped bring the scale and beauty of the West to government officials in the eastern states. Surveys were primarily supported by the War Department, bringing enforcement and potential conflict to indigenous peoples occupying the area. Additionally, the surveys allowed for land claims, furthering the displacement of indigenous peoples for the gain of predominantly white settlers. The surveys regularly feature interactions with Native American groups, some of which informed the creation of the Bureau of American Ethnology (part of the Smithsonian Institution). Like other government documents, they provide a partial perspective of the government’s actions upon lands and people.
Clarence King led the survey along the 40th Parallel, covering parts of Northern Colorado, Southern Wyoming, Northern Utah, Southeastern Idaho, and Northern Nevada. The survey also included a small eastern portion of Northern California. King's expedition pioneered scientific methods later adopted by the other surveys. King became the first leader of the US Geological Survey (USGS).
George M. Wheeler supervised the series of expeditions that comprise the 100th Meridian Survey. The Chief of Engineers of the Army Corps of Engineers laid out the general plan for the surveys. The survey covered a huge portion of the Southwestern portion of the modern United States, including parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Northern Arizona, South and Central Utah, Southern Nevada and Eastern California. The survey also included a small portion of south central Oregon. Surveys were conducted from 1872 to 1879.
Ferdinand Hayden led surveys of northwestern Wyoming, in the area now known as Yellowstone National Park in the early 1870s. In 1873, he continued surveys in Colorado. A final report of five volumes was published as Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories; however, numerous annual reports and bulletin publications document the survey's findings as well. The surveys lasted from 1871-1878. Thomas Moran, noted Western landscape artist, was a guest on the 1871 expedition.
John Wesley Powell led a series of explorations from 1869 to 1879. His groups explored the geology, watersheds, and native peoples of large areas of land along the Green and Colorado Rivers, taking them from Wyoming, through Utah, Arizona, and into Nevada. Powell's 1869 expedition was notable for being the first Americans to navigate the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Powell published three major reports from his expeditions. Powell's work help form two new federal agencies: the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE, formerly Bureau of Ethnology). He served as the second director of USGS (following Clarence King) and the first director of BAE; he served in the posts concurrently for 13 years.