Part 15: A Lost Expedition
If ever there was a lost expedition in American history, this is it, and it's one of the . . . I think one of the remarkable things about the Freeman and Custis Expedition that it's almost totally forgotten. I sort of think that, with the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, it's going to enjoy a little bit of resurgence, because it kind of bounds along behind Lewis and Clark like a tail attached to a kite, in a way. People who are intrigued by Lewis and Clark can't help but be intrigued by the fact that there is another Lewis and Clark type expedition whose fate offers a kind of alternative view of what possibly could have happened to Lewis and Clark had things unfolded slightly differently.
So, it reflects on Lewis and Clark in a way that makes that expedition even more dramatic and exiting than it would be otherwise. There's another one sent out two years later: it's blocked by a foreign power.
This expedition became invisible almost immediately. And without going into all the reasons why it did, I think perhaps the most important one was the fact that it didn't really play into the mythic theme of American expansion across the West. Whereas Lewis and Clark can more or less be seen as an expedition that paves the way for the resulting fur trade, for eventual Oregon Trail immigrations, settlement in the West, and so forth.
This expedition, blocked by the Spanish army in 1806, simply doesn't play into the idea of American expansion across the Southwest. Now, it may be, in our own time, as the history of the West becomes more multicultural, that Hispanic-Americans in the Southwest will look upon the outcome of this expedition as sort of one of their victories in blocking American imperialist expansion into the West. But, I think in terms of American national history, this is one of those events that can't be fitted comfortably into the story of a successful kind of migration of the American people across the continent.
Another thing that makes it an invisible expedition to a certain extent is that the scientific results were relatively meagre, and they were undermined really by how the expedition was reported by the Jefferson administration. The map that resulted from the expedition was a remarkable map, but it didn't really explore very far into territory that the French hadn't already explored. So it didn't provide much in the way of new geographical discoveries.
Peter Custis's work, on the other hand, I think, had things played out a little differently, might have made the expedition very well known and famous, but the way, in fact, Custis's work did pan out, it made the expedition even more ill-starred. What happened was that Custis wrote descriptions of more than two hundred and sixty-seven plants and animals that he described on this four-and-a-half-month expedition. It's a remarkable ecological kind of time machine into what the Red River was like in 1806.1
But unfortunately the Jefferson administration, in getting Custis's work and the account of the Expedition into print, hired a man named Nicholas King to redact—rewrite—the journals of the two explorers. And King evidently was entirely unfamiliar with scientific Latin and Latin nomenclature, and he horribly mangled Peter Custis's careful natural history work in the resulting publication. It appeared in 1806, An Account of the Red River in Louisiana by Masters Freeman and Custis. It's a nice account of the expedition, but the natural history part was absolutely awful. And the result was that the American scientific community basically ignored the Expedition. This was just a kind of an embarrassing scientific production by the American government.
Culver's root, Veronicastrum virginium
Custis's Specimen: Veronicastrum virginium
Peter Custis collected twenty-six plant specimens on the Red River Expedition, but only two of those are still in existence, both in the Bartram Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. In contrast, there are 216 specimens in the Lewis and Clark Herbarium at the ANS.4
Veronicastrum virginicum L.., which belongs to the snapdragon family (Scrophulariaceae [skro-foo-LAIR-eye-AY-cee-eye]), is rarely seen in the wilds today.5 It is a cultivar, a native plant selected for domestic cultivation. Now known most widely as Culver's root, during its latter wildland history it bore a number of other common names: Bowman's root, Beaumont root, Culver's physic, physic root; Hini, leptandra, oxadoddy, tall speedwell, tall veronica, and whorlywort. It was widely used for medicinal purposes, as a cathartic, cholagogue, emetic, hepatic, alterative, tonic, and antiseptic, but it is not recommended for use without medical supervision, and the fresh root is too toxic to be used at all.
Text based on Flores, J&SE, 249-50 and note 164, and D. T. MacRoberts et al, "A Floristic and Ecological Interpretation of the Freeman and Custis Red River Expedition of 1806," Bulletin of the Museum of Life Sciences.
4. Lewis preserved many more specimens, but all those collected between Fort Mandan and Great Falls, which he placed in an underground cache for safekeeping at the latter place, were found to have been severely damaged by water upon his return in early July of 1806, and were discarded.
5. The Latin word scrophula refers to a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, and alludes here to the medicinal functions of this plant family.
Lisianthus, Eustoma grandiflorum
Custis' Specimen: Eustoma grandiflorum
Eustoma grandiflorum (Raf.) Shinners, a member of the Gentianacea family, has been domesticated, and is more likely to be seen in a well-groomed household garden than in the wilds. The original annotation in the lower right-hand corner of the specimen sheet, signed by Custis, reflects his uncertainty over the species. It reads "Chironia? or Grandiflorum?"
The common name of Eustoma grandiflorum is lisianthus, a combination of the Greek words lysis, meaning bitter, and anthos, meaning flower—referring to the bitter taste of some medicinal species. Lisianthus comes in various colors, ranging from white to red to purple, and pink to blue. It is frequently used in floral displays and corsages.
Mississippi Kite, Ictinia mississipiensis
Among serious birders the name for the Mississippi kite is Ictinia mississipiensis Wilson (ick-TIN-ih-ah mis-ihsip-ih-EN-sis). The generic designation is from the Greek word for kite, which aptly describes its smooth, graceful soaring flight. It's also commonly called a "blue kite" and a "mosquito hawk."
In his journals Custis mentioned having seen about three dozen different birds, but this is the only one he described:
A species of Falco which I have not seen described. —Cere [the wax-like membrane on the upper beak through which the nostrils open], lores [the space between the eye and the bill] and bill black; legs yellow; head and neck blueish white; body and wing coverts [small feathers covering the bases of the longer feathers in the wings and tail] lead colour; quill and tail feathers black-brown,—each tail feather with white stripes extending half way across; claws black; belly blueish; wings below with white & ferruginous [rust-colored] spots; inside fulvous [dull brownish yellow]. 14 inches long.
Inexplicably, he neglected to give it a binomial name, so Alexander Wilson, his competitor for the job of naturalist with the Red River expedition, took credit for discovering and naming it while visiting William Dunbar's plantation at Natchez in 1810, and published his information in his American Ornithology the following year.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was north of the Mississippi kite's once extensive range, and so did not see any.
Based on Flores,J&SE, 234-235 and note 99
Carolina Parakeet, Conuropsis carolinensis
Carolina Parakeet, by John James Audubon
Custis said only: "Paroquets very numerous. They are always large flocks." He identified them as Psittacus carolinensis (psit-TACK-us care-oh-lin-EN-sis); they are now officially Conuropsis carolinensis Gmelin (con-your-OP-sis care-oh-lin-EN-sis). The generic name means "having the appearance of" a parrot; the specific epithet means "of Carolina."
Meriwether Lewis mentioned having "observed a great number of Parrot queets" near the mouth of the Kansas River on June 26, 1804, just six weeks up the Missouri. In a partial summary of plants and animals observed, including their general locations, Clark records, "Parotqueet is Seen as high as the Mahar Village 836 ms," which would have been in the vicinity of today's Sioux City, Iowa.
The lower Red River valley hosted a large concentration of them, and they were still found in northeast Texas in the 1880s. Farmers considered them nuisances, and the makers of ladies hats found their plumage attractive and cheap, so the birds were steadily killed off. A wild flock of an eastern subspecies survived in the Santee Swamp of South Carolina until the 1930s, when their habitat was inundated by the Santee-Cooper hydroelectric project.
Based on Flores, J&SE, 221-22 and note 58
Louisiana fox squirrel, Sciurus niger ludovicianus
The Louisiana fox squirrel, Sciurus niger ludovicianus Custis (SKY-your-us NIGH-jer loo-doh-vee-kee-AYE-nus;"shade-tail black [of] Louisiana") is the only mammal Custis observed that is now credited to him, although he was the first to observe three distinct species of squirrels—a division not recognized by other naturalists until the middle of the twentieth century—and provided an accurate, if much abbreviated, description of this one. This mammal's generic name, Sciurus, indicates the use of its tail for shade when resting.
Certainly Custis did not go into as much detail in any of his descriptions as Lewis almost routinely did. As Professor Flores points out, Custis was not an experienced field naturalist, and his published summary of his observations, as edited by Nicholas King, was essentially worthless.6
The fox squirrel is the largest of the tree squirrel species, reaching an average maximum length of 27 inches. Its underfur is black on the upper part of its body, but the coarse guard hairs being tricolored, especially in the northern part of its geographical range, may give its coat a grizzled effect. Its ears, cheeks, throat and underparts are typically reddish-yellow or yellowish-brown, or buff. The characteristically long, reddish bushy tail from which the fox squirrel takes its common name, is obscured in this photo.
6. Dan Flores, Jefferson & Southwestern Exploration: the Freeman & Custis Accounts of the Red River Expedition of 1806, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), 228-29 and note 87