Lewis as Naturalist

Part 1

James Reveal, Professor Emeritus, Botany University of Maryland

Recorded at Packer Meadows in the Clearwater Forest near Lolo Pass
on the crest of the Bitterroot Range, July 3, 2003.


Mike most people of his day, Meriwether Lewis was knowledgeable about plants. His mother was an herbalist, and as an agriculturist he was interested in plants of economic importance. Thus, when Jefferson assigned Lewis the task of naturalist it was natural that Lewis would focus, as Jefferson instructed him, on medicinal plants, plants of economic value such as corn, wheat, grasses, fodder, and plants that would have been of horticulture interest, as Jefferson had a large garden and was very much interested in horticulture plants.

For Jefferson, the decision not to send a true naturalist, but rather one that was semi-trained was both fortunate and unfortunate. For the botanical community the fact that Jefferson did not send a naturalist meant that only a few select specimens were collected. Nonetheless, the more than two hundred specimens that reached Philadelphia, from the activities of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, signified the richness of the flora of the Pacific Northwest and particularly the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Western Montana.

Lewis’s collection activities were limited to opportunities when he had a chance to collect. As captain he had many other duties besides looking for new plants. Thus it was, we know from his journals, that not only did he collect, but so did some of the other men. There are even indications that Sacagawea or Saka Kawea collected plants as well.

Supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee