Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859)

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photo: painted portrait of Thomas Nuttall

The life of a printer

Thomas Nuttall was one of the most adventurous of the early naturalists on the American frontier, and certainly one of most knowledgeable in the field. Gifted as a botanist and ornithologist, skilled as a printer, and a traveler with nerve, he came to the newly formed United States at a perfect time to explorer its expanding boundaries.

Born on January 5, 1786 in the village of Long Preston near Craven, Yorkshire, England, he was destined to spend most of his professional life (33 of his 73 years) in America as a botanist, explorer and professor. Nuttall was always willing to take risks. As an example, his career in botany was sparked within a day of his arrival in Philadelphia in 1808 by Benjamin Smith Barton, who had given up on his previous protégé, Frederick Pursh, and was searching for another. He found one in Nuttall, who came inquiring about a plant he had found, a cat-brier, Smilax (SMY-laks) to be exact, and was curious about its name. After some formal instruction in botany from Barton, Nuttall was prepared.

Within months, he was engaged in field work for Barton, collecting plants in the salt marshes of Delaware and the Chesapeake Bay. This 1809 trip was a success, but a second to Lake Ontario in August resulted in illness, and mold destroyed his plants so that he was forced return to Philadelphia.

Nonetheless, Barton asked Nuttall to explore and botanize the Great Lakes region during the summer of 1810. Nuttall's efforts this time were far more productive, and by mid-August he was at Mackinac Island on Lake Huron, visiting the headquarters of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. There he learned of a trip scheduled to go up the Missouri River the following year. Intrigued, he abandoned Barton's instructions to return to Philadelphia, and went to St. Louis.