THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 3, 1879

U.S. Geological Survey Created

geological-survey-week-in-historyBy providing scientific information on water, biological, energy, and mineral resources to the public, legislators, and policy makers, the U.S. Geological Survey carries out its mission of enhancing and protecting Americans’ quality of life.

In 1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the congressional bill providing funding for the establishment of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) within the Department of the Interior. Industrial growth in the years immediately following the Civil War had produced a significant strain on the nation’s natural resources. In an 1866 report Joseph Wilson, commissioner of the General Land Office, indicated that proper management of mineral resources in the West was vital to further development of the United States. Following up on Wilson’s recommendations, Congress authorized a geological survey of the West, largely following the path of the newly finished transcontinental railroad. Clarence King and Ferdinand Hayden were placed in charge of the project and by 1870 had presented a plan to Congress for the survey. Additional surveys were privately sponsored as well.

Downturns in the American economy resulted in Congress looking for more efficient alternatives for mapping the West. In 1878 Congress requested that the National Academy of Sciences, which had been established in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, develop a plan for surveying and mapping western territories. The academy’s recommendations included the establishment of the USGS, the purpose of which would be to oversee the study of geological and mineral resources in the public domain.

King was appointed first director of the USGS, and in 1879 a comprehensive study of mining districts in Nevada and Colorado was begun, as well as similar studies of iron and copper resources in other parts of the country. The study was completed prior to King’s resignation from the position of director in 1881.

The duties assigned to the USGS underwent significant expansion during subsequent decades. In 1882 Congress authorized the creation of a comprehensive geological map of the United States, with the result that topographic mapping became the largest program within the USGS. The agency’s geological studies also benefited with the inclusion of scientific research into the origins of ore deposits as well as newly introduced fields such as glacial ecology and studies of rock classes. Western droughts during the 1880’s resulted in the addition of research concerning irrigation and water utilization within the USGS before the beginning of the new century. By 1904 the USGS had completed topographic maps covering more than 25 percent of the United States and Alaska. That year Congress also authorized mapping of areas of potential fossil fuels, including both coal and oil deposits.

Although the divisions within the USGS have undergone changes over the years, the agency has remained largely unchanged in its focus. Its areas of responsibility have grown over time to include the monitoring of seismic and magnetic activity throughout the world and the examination of the geological features of worldwide earthquake zones and volcanoes.

Adler, R. (2016). U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Salem Press Encyclopedia 


Learn more about the early workings of the U.S. Geological Survey »

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