Along the Oregon Trail

Page 4 of 5

Western turkey-beard (Beargrass), Xerophyllum tenax (Pursh) Nutt.

Plant with a large 'bulb' consisting a multiple white petals

Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Lewis collected a specimen along the Lolo Trail, Idaho Co., Idaho, 15 Jun 1806.

Rocky Mountain iris, iris missourensis Nutt.6

photo: plant with long and drooping purple petals

Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Lewis "saw the common small blue flag" and "preserved speciemines of them" in Nevada Valley, Powell Co., Montana, on 6 July 1806.

Northern mule's-ear, Wyethia amplexicaulis (Nutt.) Nutt.

photo: flower with bright yellow petals

Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Hooker's Townsend-daisy, Townsendia hookeri Beaman

photo: a field of flowers with purple petals and yellow centers

Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

In 1825, Nuttall became associated with Harvard University, and likely would have remained a quiet and reclusive professor had not a Boston merchant, Nathaniel Wyeth,4 brought him a collection of plants in 1833 from the Rocky Mountains with a promise to take him West if he wished to join an expedition to the Columbia River the following year. Nuttall resigned his professorship, prepared the manuscript describing Wyeth's new plants, and reached St. Louis in March of 1834, months before his paper on Wyeth's 1833 botanical discoveries would be published in Philadelphia.5

Nuttall's second trip across the Missouri was his most successful. This time he was traveling in a large company so that transporting his growing collection of dried plants was less of a problem. In addition, he was traveling with a fellow naturalist, twenty-four-year-old John Kirk Townsend,7 who, like Nuttall, was a skilled ornithologist as well as physician and pharmacist.

From St. Louis, the party headed across Kansas via the Blue River to the Platte, and on into present-day Wyoming, crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass. Wyeth reached the fur trappers' rendezvous on the Ham's Fork of the Green River in midsummer. While the trappers traded furs for merchandise, Nuttall and Townsend headed south, collecting even more strange and curious plants on the gumbo-clay hills north of the Utah border. Leaving Wyoming, the party crossed into Idaho and followed the Snake River to the Columbia.

Everywhere Nuttall went he found new and curious plants. Unlike those who came before him, he collected even the unattractive plants—the ordinary things of everyday travel—so that from his collections science came to know sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata (are-tah-MEE-zee-a try-den-TAH-tah, alluding to the shallowly three-lobed leaf), for example, as well as many other nondescript plants of the West.

Nuttall left Oregon and sailed on for Hawaii (and more botanizing) in December of 1834 only to return in the spring to continue his collecting efforts. There was not much new to be found, the region having been well collected by David Douglas. He remained in the Pacific Northwest until late in 1835, then caught a ship bound for Philadelphia. After collecting specimens at various California ports, he was found walking the beach in San Diego Bay, collecting shells, by Richard Henry Dana, a former Harvard student who was on his own adventure destined to be told in Two Years Before the Mast.


4. Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1802 into a family of some note, and made his initial fortune by manufacturing ice. Well-liked in Boston, he longed for adventure in the West. He firmly believed that if he could get to Oregon he could become a player in the fur industry, develop farms for growing crops (especially tobacco), and that he could start a salmon industry that would rival the cod industry of New England. To explore the possibilities, he went to Oregon via what would become known as the "Oregon Trail" in 1832, returning the following year. His 1834 trip with Nuttall was not entirely successful. Lacking sufficient financial backing even before he left Boston, his plans in Oregon failed completely due, in no small part, to the loss of a ship sent from Boston to transport goods to and from the Columbia River. Although he failed, Wyeth strongly supported the occupation of Oregon by American settlers, and encouraged many to go west. His own business dealings in Massachusetts remained sound so that he managed to maintain a sizable fortune although he never crossed the Mississippi again. He died in 1856.

5. Essentially all of the plants gathered by Wyeth were collected on his return trip in 1833. He left Fort Vancouver, the outpost of the Hudson's Bay Company, in early February, heading up the Columbia by boat. By the first week of April he and his party were in Idaho, more or less following the Clark's Fork of the Flathead River. As may be guessed, the travel was miserable. Once in Montana, the party stopped at Flathead Post (near Eddy, Montana) from April 11 to 21, and it was here that Wyeth began to seriously collect plants for Nuttall. In May, as more came into bloom, Wyeth collected more frequently when he re-entered Idaho in late May and continued southward to the Ham's Fork of the Snake River, which he reached in early July. In July, Wyeth stopped at the ninth fur-trapper rendezvous to learn more about the trade, and probably did not collect much after that. He and his men then traveled northeastwardly across Wyoming, followed the Yellowstone to the Missouri, and reached St. Louis in early October. Nuttall probably got the collection in late November and read his paper before the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia on February 18, 1834. He accounted for 113 species. Among the new genera, Nuttall proposed the distinctive sunflower genus Wyethia (wye-ETH-ee-ah) with the wonderful common name mule's-ear. The paper was formally published on October 28, in 1834.

6. Iris missouriensis was originally collected by Lewis in Nevada Valley in what is now Powell Co., Montana. Today, all that remains of his collection are some fragments of the leaves. Wyeth re-collected the plant in 1833, probably in Idaho, and Nuttall described it as a new species in 1834.

7. John Kirk Townsend was born in 1809 and died in 1851. He kept an excellent journal and recorded much of the day-to-day activities of his adventure with Wyeth and Nuttall. Townsend re-collected several of the birds found originally by Lewis and Clark, and found several more that were new. From Fort Vancouver, in 1835, Townsend shipped hundreds of bird and animal specimens to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The Academy had provided the ornithologist with a hundred dollars for his travels; today his specimens are priceless.