Slaving in the Garden

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Pursh reached the American shore in 1799 and quickly found employment, apparently at a newly established botanical garden near Baltimore where he had the title of manager. Supposedly this was at "Canton" – an estate house owned by Colonel John O'Donnell – but his stay was probably not much over a year. It is clear that by 1801, Pursh was in Philadelphia and at "Springhill" in the employment of Samuel Beck as a gardener. Today, Springhill is part of Fairmount Park. In September of 1801, Pursh wrote to Benjamin Smith Barton1 that he was working as a "slave" for Beck, and looking for another opportunity. When, and if, Pursh was associated with Henry Pratt's garden at "Lemon Hill" (now also part of Fairmount Park) is uncertain.

By 1803, Pursh was at "Woodlands," the grand estate of William Hamilton, where he succeeded the noted gardener John Lyon, for whom the shrub genus Lyonia (lie-ON-ee-ah) was named. It was at this time that Pursh came to know such botanists as Philadelphia's William Bartram,2 the son of the "King's botanist" John Bartram, and the Reverend Gotthilf Henry Ernest Muhlenberg3 of Lancaster. For years Muhlenberg had been working on the local flora, sending specimens and descriptions of new species to Europe for publication.

These men provided Pursh with numerous opportunities to read in their libraries, to consult their gardens and herbaria, and to talk of the American flora. However, it would be Benjamin Smith Barton who would provide Pursh with his escape from the drudgery of working in the garden.

photo: Pursh's silky lupine blossom
Pursh's silky lupine (Lupinus sericeus Pursh)
Collected near Kamiah, Idaho Co., Idaho, on 5 Jun 1806
Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Barton was a romantic with grand notions of self importance and accomplishments. In 1805, Pursh left Woodlands and became Barton's part-time curator and collector. Barton's goal was to build a huge herbarium of American plants and then produce a new flora of North America. That such a book had been published in 1803 by the French botanist André Michaux – his two-volume work Flora boreali-Americana – seemed to be only a minor irritant. The following year, Pursh was in Virginia collecting plants, being away from Philadelphia from mid-April until November.


1. Benjamin Smith Barton was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on February 10, 1766, the son of the Reverend Thomas Barton and Ester Rittenhouse Barton. His motherwas the daughter of American astronomer David Rittenhouse. Encouraged by his father, who had an interest in plants, Barton began to collect and study plants early in his life. In addition to collecting and drying plant specimens, he also studied birds and insects. The early death of his mother, in 1774, and his father's passing in 1780, had a profound impact upon him. He was attending school at York Academy when his father died so it was not until 1782 that he went to Philadelphia to live with his older brother. The family still had considerable means so it was possible for young Benjamin to attend the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he obtained his medical degree. After a stay in Germany, he returned to America in 1789 and set up practice. Shortly thereafter he was appointed, at age 24, to a teaching position in natural history, and he served the University of Pennsylvania until his death on December 19, 1815. His own health was never sound and while he dreamed and planned on a grand scale, he was rarely successful. Unfortunately, the confidence placed in him by President Jefferson to work on the natural history of the Lewis and Clark expedition was misplaced. There is no question that he encouraged others to succeed and greatly furthered the career of Thomas Nuttall, among others.

2. No Philadelphia family is better known in botanical circles than the Bartrams. Certainly more books have been written about John Bartram (1699-1777) and William Bartram (1739-1823) than any other American botanists. William is best known for his 1791 book Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the extensive territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the country of the Chactaws, which bespeaks of where he collected during his active early life. A noted artist in his own right (see Botanical and zoological collections, 1756-1788 edited by Joseph Ewan and published by the American Philosophical Society in 1968), William continued his father's nursery which remains to this day a Philadelphia landmark. See http://www.bartramsgarden.org/history/index.html/

3. Henry Muhlenberg was born in 1753, the year the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus published Species plantarum [plan-TAR-um] and began our modern system of naming plants. Schooled in Philadelphia as a strict Lutherian, he traveled to Halle, Germany, where, from 1763 until 1770, he received his formal training for the ministry. His father, Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg, championed Lutheranism in North America, and being a vocal American patriot, he and his family were forced to hide in the Pennsylvania forests to avoid capture during the Revolutionary War. It was here that Henry began his career as a botanist. He served the church until 1780 when he became interested in the medicinal properties of the local flora and became the local clergyman for Lancaster (in 1785). By 1791 he had gathered a few thousand specimens collected within a three-mile radius of Lancaster. His unpublished manuscript "Index flora lancastriensis" accounted for more than 450 genera and about a thousand species. His first formal publication was in 1813, when he issued Catalogus plantarum Americae septentrionalis, with a second edition appearing in 1818. In 1813, he accounted for about 1,500 species of ferns, gymnosperms and flowering plants, and over 700 species of algae, lichens, fungi and mosses. Two years after his death, Muhlenberg's grass manuscript, Descriptio uberior graminum, was published in Philadelphia. One finds Muhlenberg's name, abbreviated "Muhl," associated with numerous plants in eastern North America, but with a date of publication in the early 1800s. Muhlenberg believed in sharing his knowledge and specimens with others, and thus the famed German taxonomist, Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812), working on a new, multi-volumed Species plantarum, published most of Muhlenberg's new species at that time. The large American grass genus, Muhlenbergia (mule-en-BUR-gee-ah) was named in his honor.