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In the Field with Plane Table and Horse…

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

Johnson in the field with plane table and horse.

Willard Drake Johnson learned from the best, assisting Grove Karl Gilbert on his Lake Bonneville research when only 19 years old. In 1882, Johnson officially began his career when he was appointed an assistant topographer with the U.S. Geological Survey under the leadership of John Wesley Powell, and he spent most of his working life with that organization.

Johnson continued in the Topographic Branch until 1896, working his way up through the various grades. From 1888 to 1890, he was charged with surveying the upper drainage basin of the Arkansas River in Colorado, and in 1891 had been put in charge of the California office of the Survey, a position he held for the next three years. While in California, he became one of the charter members and a director of the Sierra Club in 1892. A great admirer of John Muir, he wrote to the naturalist:

“I have learned to regard the surface of the earth almost as a living organism. Every individual feature of topographic form has its cycle of evolution from its beginning, through progressive modifications of form and aspect, to final obliteration. You appear to recognize in the most vivid sense this tendency to change. A popular physical geography by John Muir on these lines would usurp the place of the novel in the public library.”

In 1895 he was the topographer on a hazardous expedition, mounted by the Bureau of Ethnology under W. J. McGee, to study the Seri Indians, a tribe inhabiting Tiburon Island in the Gulf of California and the nearby mainland in Sonora, Mexico. McGee, a future president of the National Geographic Society, reported his findings in “Seriland,” published in the April 1896 National Geographic magazine, detailing the ways of this insular tribe and their unforgiving landscape.

Johnson then joined the Water Resources Branch of the Geological Survey in 1897, working in Oklahoma on the underflow water of the Arkansas River and allied problems of the Great Plains. As a result of this work he published an extended report on “The High Plains and Their Utilization,” which became a classic in the field.

From 1901 to 1904 he was in Utah, and in 1905 he changed his emphasis from topography to geology, undertaking work in the Sierra Nevadas, studying chiefly the glacial geology. As a result, he formulated an important theory on the nature of bergschrunds, or glacial crevasses. For the next few years, his health did not permit steady work, but he did serve as the geographer for the Forest Service at Portland, Oregon. Released from the hospital in the summer of 1916, Johnson was working on a model of the Grand Canyon when he died at 57 on February 13, 1917.