Frederick Pursh (1774-1820)

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Elkhorn, Clarkia pulchella

19th-century scientific illustration of a 3-lobed plant

From Frederick Pursh Flora Americae septentrionalis

In lieu of a portrait of Pursh, of which none are known to exist, it seems appropriate to represent him by one of the hand-colored engravings that he published in his Flora Americae septentrionalis (Flowers of North America) in 1813. Undoubtedly it was the unusual shape of its petals, and its striking color, that inspired Lewis to call it "a singular plant". Pursh, the first laboratory or "cabinet" botanist to describe it in proper terms and details, officially named it Clarkia pulchella—"Beautiful Clarkia"—in honor of William Clark. —J.M.

In 1803 the Woodlands, the country estate and botanical garden of William Hamilton, had as its gardener a young man who had come from Germany in 1799—Frederick Traugott Pursh. In the dozen years he spent in the United States he was employed by some of the country's leading botanists, including William Bartram, Bernard McMahon and Benjamin Smith Barton.

Under Barton's sponsorship Pursh made two botanical explorations in 1806-07, and planned to provide the illustrations and descriptions for the natural history volume Barton was to provide for the Lewis and Clark specimens. Barton's dilatoriness in providing for his needs—Pursh had become progressively more desperate, failing to find letters from Barton forwarding funds for sustenance—perhaps prompted Pursh to conclude that the volume was unlikely to be forthcoming. In any case, he left Barton, working first in Philadelphia with McMahon, who also had specimens from the Expedition, and then moving to New York. After two expeditions to the West Indies, he left for England, carrying with him the materials he had gathered and some of the specimens from the Lewis and Clark Expedition that Clark had given him to classify.

To the dismay of American naturalists, the resulting treatise describing and depicting 130 of Lewis's specimens was published in Europe. Pursh made no attempt to disguise his indebtedness to the work of the two explorers, but on the other hand made no effort to return the specimens he had carried away. He returned to North America—to Montreal—in 1816, where a fire destroyed materials he had collected for a projected volume on the flora of Canada. He died in poverty at age 46.


Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program