The Specimens Arrive

Page 3 of 8

Lance-leaf springbeauty, Claytonia lanceolata Pursh

Collected along the Lolo Trail, Idaho Co., Idaho, 25-27 June 1806

photo: springbeauty blossoms

© 2000 James L. Reveal

In 1805, Thomas Jefferson received the first 60 plants Meriwether Lewis had collected along the Missouri River in 1804. They had been assembled at Fort Mandan, the 1804-1805 site in what is now North Dakota where the expedition over-wintered and, with a detailed catalogue, seeds and some live specimens, the whole had been sent back to St. Louis in the spring of 1805. They eventually reached Jefferson in August. By mid-November, Jefferson had the dried specimens transmitted to Barton for his examination.

No doubt Pursh saw the collection when it arrived.

The relationship between Jefferson and Barton was a long-established one. Both men were members of the American Philosophical Society, and both had long wished someone would explore the western interior of North America for its natural wonders.4 Barton's overly ambitious plans for a flora of North America would have appealed to Jefferson. Certainly, Barton had some skill and knowledge in botany as his botanical publications had demonstrated. His set of essays on the materia medica of the United States, first published in 1798, and his brief report on the natural history of Pennsylvania (1799) attested to his general knowledge in the sciences. However, it was his Elements of botany: or outlines of the natural history of vegetables—the first American botany textbook—that firmly established Barton's reputation. Thus, it was to Barton that Jefferson sent his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, for instructions in botany in May and June of 1803.

Jefferson, and also Lewis, presumed Barton would play an active role in the preparation of a planned natural history volume that was to be part of Lewis's report on the expedition. This was not to be. Barton did essentially nothing with the first set of plants although Lewis had provided him with abundant notes and material. With the return of the expedition in 1806, Jefferson urged Lewis to begin immediately to prepare his journal for publication, and to arrange with Barton to start, equally promptly, on the natural history. Apparently it was the noted Philadelphia gardener and seed merchant, Bernard M'Mahon5 who, on April 5, 1807, recommended that Lewis contact Pursh to examine the expedition's plants.

Why Barton was unable to do the task has been variously given as poor health or simple unwillingness. The latter seems more likely. As was so often the case with Barton, when called upon to actually produce, he rarely was able to do so. Clearly, M'Mahon understood this, and thus the recommendation of Pursh.

4. Thomas Jefferson had long wished to get a naturalist to explore the vast western part of North America. A vicarious westerner, Jefferson believed if a reasonable route could be found across the continent, then trade with Asia—and in particular China—would be assured. In 1783, Jefferson approached the Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark with a proposal to lead an overland expedition. Clark declined. Three years later, while serving as the minister to France, Jefferson met the wanderlust Connecticut Yankee John Ledyard. Jefferson urged Ledyard to return to the United States by traveling overland from Paris to Kamchatka, cross over to Nootka Sound by ship, and then continue eastward to Virginia. Jefferson assisted Ledyard in obtaining the necessary passports, but the Russians ultimately stopped the adventurer in Siberia.

A more realistic proposal was made in 1792. The French botanist, André Michaux , submitted a proposal to the American Philosophical Society for a scientific expedition to the Northwest Coast. Behind the scenes, Jefferson, at that time George Washington's Secretary of State, had encouraged Michaux to make the proposal. An effort was then undertaken to raise £3,600 via the Society to fund the effort. The Society, at Jefferson's urging, accepted the proposal in April of 1793, and Jefferson was soon drafting instructions. Foremost was the need to find a trade route from the upper Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. Michaux was an excellent choice. Skilled in botany from expeditions to Persia and the Indian Ocean, as well as years of exploring in the southeastern United States, Michaux was fully capable of finding his way to the Pacific. He soon set out for the Mississippi even though he was alone and with only a pittance of financial support—$128.25, including $25 from President Washington and $12.50 each from Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Unfortunately, international politics were soon to interfere.

In the summer of 1793, the new French minister, Edmond Genét, arrived in the United States. Genét soon asked Michaux to act as a French agent in an effort to persuade settlers west of the Appalachians to overthrow the Spanish in the Mississippi Valley, and then establish an independent nation. When Genét went so far in the fall of 1793 as to involve the United States in France's war with Spain and Great Britain, the French minister was removed from office. Even though he was aware of Michaux's role, Jefferson persisted in his support for the botanist through his membership in the Philosophical Society. He maintained that the need for the expedition far exceeded whatever minor role Michaux might have played in the Genét Affair. Yet, the support was not there, and in 1796 the Society abandoned the proposal and Michaux returned to France, having gotten no farther west than Kentucky. Over the next several years, Michaux labored to write a flora of North America with the aid of his son, François-André Michaux, and two notable French botanists, Louis Claude Richard, a professor of botany in Paris, and Antoine Laurent de Jussieu of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle also in Paris. André Michaux's book, Flora boreali-Americana, was published shortly before his death in 1803.

5. Bernard M'Mahon (or McMahon, 1775-1816) was an Irish-born American horticulturalist and owner of a large commercial garden in Philadelphia. Under Jefferson's instructions, the seeds gathered by Lewis and Clark were given to M'Mahon for cultivation and ultimate distribution. His American gardeners calendar was published in 1802. Thomas Nuttall proposed the genus Mahonia (maw-HONE-ee-ah, after M'Mahon, of course) in 1818 for two of the plants gathered by Lewis and Clark, Mahonia aquifolium (aqua-FOAL-ee-um; having leaves like a holly) and Mahonia nervosa (ner-VO-sa; alluding to the many prominent veins on the leaves).