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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/December 1908/A Biographical History of Botany at St Louis, Missouri I

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 73‎ | December 1908



THE history of botany in St. Louis extends back nearly to the beginning of her political history. The city was founded in 1764, and while it is not as old as most of the other large cities of this country it seems to have been one of the earliest settlements made in the great northwestern region, comprising what was once known as Upper Louisiana. Boston, New York and Philadelphia were already large cities for that time and were centers of botanical activity. In 1795 when Michaux visited the Illinois Territory, Cahokia, Kaskaskia and St. Louis were the principal places west of Vincennes and as late as 1800 St. Louis had a population of less than 1,000. At about this time the fur traders changed their headquarters from Cahokia and Kaskaskia to St. Louis, causing a corresponding increase in population and commercial influence of the latter town.

The Jesuit missionaries were the first white persons to visit the Mississippi Valley and the adjoining country; they undoubtedly explored the Missouri Territory, but probably not so extensively as they did the Illinois Territory. They were versed to some extent in the art of medicine and knew the plants which were generally used for medicinal purposes. They learned the uses of plants new to themselves from their Indian wards, and in this way they must have obtained a considerable knowledge of the plants of the Missouri country. How much farther they may have carried their botanical studies is unknown to the writer. During the period between the founding of St. Louis and the first visit of Michaux to Cahokia there were undoubtedly persons who studied the botany of the St. Louis district. Whether they formed any collections of the plants is not now known and there seems to be no records of any such study.

For all practical purposes Andre Michaux may be said to have been the first botanist to work in the vicinity of St. Louis.

Botany has passed through a number of distinct periods at St. Louis, as in other places; it can not be said to have had a "pharmaceutical "period, as that stage was nearly past in the general history of the science when the city was founded. The medical properties of the plants of the eastern states and of Europe were already well known at the close of the eighteenth century. Of course many new western plants were discovered, the medical properties of which had to be determined; but this was not the main object in making a study of them. We find three distinct periods of botanical work which include the one hundred and thirteen years that have elapsed since Michaux's visit. These may be designated as follows: First, exploration by botanists on transient visits of a few days' to a few months' time; second, collecting by persons who lived in or near St. Louis for a number of years; third, modern botany as contrasted with the purely systematic work of early days. These three periods overlap one another, but can still be distinguished without difficulty. The first includes most of the work done previously to 1850; the second began with the work of Engelmann and his numerous contemporary collector friends, who relied upon him for assistance in naming their collections: it may even be said to extend until the present time, as considerable work is still being clone upon the local flora of the district; the third period may be said to date from the founding of the Shaw School of Botany, and the assumption of control of the Missouri Botanical Garden by the board of trustees.

André Michaux, the great French botanist, who explored so extensively the territory of the thirteen original colonies as far west as the Mississippi River, is the first botanical worker concerning whom published records have yet been found as having worked in the vicinity of St. Louis. Fie is known to have visited Kaskaskia and Cahokia, and the evidence seems to indicate that he must have visited the west shore of the Mississippi, since a few species are listed in his "Flora" as coming from the Missouri River.

André Michaux[2] was born at Satory, near Versailles, France, in 1746. He was destined by his father for the superintendence of a farm of the royal estate, and early became interested in agriculture. Upon the death of his young wife, at the birth of their son, François André, he devoted himself to scientific studies, especially botany. He studied botany under Bernard de Jussieu, and sought in foreign lands for strange plants. In 1779-81 he traveled in England, the Auvergne, the Pyrenees and Spain. In 1782-5 he was in Persia in a political capacity, but really to explore a country at that time almost unknown to scientific men; he intended to return to Persia, but was requested in 1785, by the French government, to introduce into France such North American trees as might be of economic importance. In the autumn of 1785 he embarked for New York, accompanied by his young son; here he spent a year and a half collecting plants and starting a botanical garden in Bergen County, New Jersey; he found, however, that the southern climate was more suitable for many of his plants, and he accordingly removed to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1787, where he established another garden, about ten miles from the city. During this year he explored the mountains of the Carolinas; the next he journeyed through the swamps of Florida, and the next he visited the Bahamas, and again searched the mountains for plants of economic importance—especially ginseng. In 1792 he collected around New York and in New Jersey; thence he went up the Hudson to Albany and along Lake Champlain, reaching Montreal June 30, 1792. From Montreal he went to Quebec, and thence by way of the Saguenay to Hudson's Bay. He then returned to Philadelphia, where he proposed to the American Philosophical Society an exploration of the great western territory, by way of the Missouri River. A subscription was begun for the purpose, and Thomas Jefferson drafted detailed instructions for the journey. Michaux, indeed, is stated to have started west and to have proceeded as far as Kentucky when he was overtaken by an order from the French government to relinquish the journey for a political mission. This mission seems to have had for its object the control of Louisiana by the French, through the aid of the trans-Allegheny Americans. In carrying out this plan Michaux made a journey in 1793 to Kentucky by way of the Ohio River, and returned over the "Wilderness" road, and through the valley of Virginia. Early in 1791 he made another extensive tour in the southern states and the North Carolina mountains. In 1795-6 he made a much longer journey, going from Charleston to Tennessee, thence through Kentucky to Vincennes, Indiana, where he stayed from August 13 to 23. From here he went to Kaskaskia, and from there he visited Cahokia and the vicinity. Upon looking over his "Flora Boreali Americana" we find several species of plants mentioned therein as coming from the Missouri River. It seems quite probable then that he must have visited some locality near this river during this trip, as this is the only visit to this section of which we find any mention in his journal. He mentions St. Louis as being in a prosperous condition, but makes no further allusion to it. Except for the evidence of these few species as given in his "Flora," we should not know that he had gone west of the Mississippi River, and this, of course, is somewhat uncertain, as it is very possible that some person at Cahokia, who may have been on the Missouri River, had out of curiosity picked up some strange plants and happened to bring them to Cahokia at the time Michaux was there. He made a short visit here and then Went to Fort Massac, near the mouth of the Tennessee River, and from there proceeded up the Cumberland River by boat, as far as Clarksville; he then visited Nashville, Knoxville, Louisville, and Morganton, finally arriving at Charleston again in April, 179G. During all of this time he collected eagerly, and more or less extensively. His journals, however, give no indications of the species or the number of them found at Cahokia. He seems to have found a considerable number at Kaskaskia, at which place he spent most of his time while in Illinois. In his "Flora" we find mentioned about 100 species as occurring in the Illinois territory; this, however, at that time included all of the territory north of the Ohio which was visited by Michaux. This seems to have been his last extensive trip in America; and in August, 1796, he embarked for Amsterdam and was shipwrecked on the coast of Holland. He is said to have been nearly drowned himself, and a large part of his collections were lost. He remained in France for several years, studying his collections and preparing the manuscript for his "Flora." In 1800 he joined an expedition to Australia, but, becoming disgusted with the management, he landed on the Island of Mauritius, but from there he soon went to Madagascar; here he established a botanical garden and began collecting extensively; but he soon fell victim to the unhealthy climate, and died on November 13, 1802.

Michaux probably traveled more extensively in North America than any other early botanist. He was the author of numberless new species and many new genera of American plants. Unfortunately, the genus, Michauxia, which commemorates his name, is one discovered by himself in Persia; so that his name is not thus associated with North American botany, which was so greatly advanced by his studies and explorations.

Immediately following the exposition held at St. Louis in commemoration of the purchase of Louisiana from France, there was held another exposition upon the Pacific coast to celebrate the centennial of the arrival of the Lewis and Clark expedition at the mouth of the Columbia River. This expedition was the first to penetrate overland to the Pacific coast and the results of its successful termination were of immense importance to the entire northwestern country. The journals of the expedition contain many references to plants seen, and especially to those which were peculiar or interesting, or which were used by the Indians.

In the previously mentioned attempt at the exploration of the northwest country, Michaux was to accompany the party. In the expedition which finally did make the journey there was no person who could be called a botanist. Although Captain Lewis was a very keen and observant man, he could not overcome his lack of botanical training, and the results in this regard were hardly what they would have been had Michaux been with the expedition. The journey up the Missouri River was made in boats manned with oars and, owing to the rapid current of the river, progress was slow, thus affording opportunity for a considerable amount of collecting to be done. During the ascent of the river quite an extensive collection of plants was made, but this had to be left behind when the Rocky Mountains were crossed, and was consequently lost. During the much more hurried return of the expedition another collection was made, but it was much smaller than the first, and comparatively few species seem to have been collected about St. Louis. While this expedition did but little for St. Louis botany directly, it turned the public attention to this section, and finally led to careful botanical exploration by a number of capable botanists a few years later.

Captain Meriwether Lewis[3] was born near the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 18, 1774. His family was one of the most

PSM V73 D496 Meriwether Lewis.png

Fig. 1. Captain Meriwether Lewis; from Analectic Magazine and Naval Chronicle, Vol. 7, 1816.

distinguished of that state. Several of bis uncles were very prominent in their time, one of them having married a sister of George Washington. Meriwether lost his father early in life, and one of his uncles acted as his guardian. At the age of thirteen he was sent to the Latin school, where he remained until he was eighteen, when he returned home to help run the farm. At the age of twenty he entered as a volunteer a body of militia which was called out by General Washington to quell troubles in the western states, and from the militia he entered the regular service as a lieutenant. When twenty-three years old he was promoted to a captaincy and made paymaster of his regiment. He was personally well known to Thomas Jefferson, and when the latter proposed that two persons should be sent up the Missouri River, across the Rockies and down the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, he eagerly offered to go. A few years later Jefferson, remembering the eagerness of Captain Lewis to make the trip, made him leader of the expedition, which successfully carried out the plans, and is now known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Captain Clark was made the leader in the absence of Lewis. The expedition started in 1803 and returned in 1806. Congress gave both leaders grants of land, and Lewis was made governor of the territory of Louisiana, while Clark was made a general of militia and agent for Indian affairs. Upon assuming his duties as governor, Lewis found many factions and parties, but his even-handed justice to all soon established respect for himself, and eventually removed animosities. While on a trip to Washington he suffered a temporary attack of insanity, and committed suicide on October 11, 1809.

Pursh has named a genus of the Portulacacæ Lewisia, in his honor.

During the early part of the nineteenth century it was much the fashion for botanists to collect living plants and cultivate them in gardens, these gardens sometimes being quite extensive. Sometimes they were but temporary resting places for the plants until they could be sent to European countries as novelties to be introduced there because of some desirable quality. André Michaux had such gardens into which he gathered his plants, and when opportunity offered sent them to France. Many of our early botanists had their own gardens in which they cultivated all of the different plants they could find, and thus became acquainted with every detail concerning them. The Bartram and Marshall gardens near Philadelphia were good examples of these early collections of living plants.

Among many persons sent from Europe to this country for the purpose of collecting new and rare plants was one John Bradbury,[4] who was commissioned to act as the agent of the Liverpool Botanical Society. Comparatively little seems to be known about Bradbury. He was a Scotchman who had lived for a long time in England, when he received his commission from the Liverpool Botanical Society in 1809. Upon arriving in this country, Bradbury spent several days at the house of Thomas Jefferson, so that the latter became acquainted with him and his abilities. Jefferson spoke highly of him as a naturalist, and Short, a later writer, mentions him as "an English gentleman of very respectable attainments as a naturalist." In the light of our present knowledge he seems to have fully deserved such an estimation, as he discovered a considerable number of new species as well as a new genus of plants during his travels in the Missouri country. Indeed, several of our more characteristic species bear his name, and in later years he was honored by Torrey and Gray, who named a new genus Bradburia, in commemoration of his services in exploring our western flora.

Mr. Bradbury at first intended to make New Orleans his center of operations, but following the advice of Jefferson he changed that intention and came to St. Louis instead. He descended the Ohio River by boat, making such observations and collections as he could at the various stopping places, arriving at St. Louis on the last day of the year 1809. The entire season of 1810 was spent about St. Louis, making short excursions of not more than eighty or one hundred miles distance in all directions, and he accumulated a considerable collection of plants which were sent to Liverpool the succeeding autumn. No definite data can now be obtained as to the number of species contained in these collections, as Bradbury never published a complete list of them, although he did give a list of the rare and more interesting plants in his journal, which was published after his return to England.

Early in the spring of 1811 Bradbury, accompanied by a young and zealous botanist named Thomas Nuttall, joined a fur-trading expedition, and with them ascended the Missouri River as far as the Mandan villages, not far from the site of the present town of Bismarck, North Dakota. Upon reaching this point the expedition divided and part of it, including Bradbury, returned to St. Louis. The others went on still farther, and Nuttall remained with them until their return to St. Louis some months later. This voyage was made in a steamer, and progress was necessarily slow while going up the river, so that our naturalists had ample time and opportunity for collecting. A collection even larger than that which had been made around St. Louis is said to have been accumulated.

Before Bradbury had finished his preparations for departure to England, the war of 1812 broke out, and he remained for several years in this country until the close of hostilities. He finally reached Liverpool in 1815, and found that during his long absence his plants had been inspected by Pursh, who was at that time in England preparing the manuscript for his "Flora Americanæ Septentrionalis." Pursh published the most interesting of these plants in an appendix to his work, and this seems to have discouraged Bradbury from publishing as extensively upon them as he probably would have otherwise done. In 1817 Bradbury published his journal of travels on the Missouri in the years 1809-10-11, and in an appendix to this gave a list of the rare and most interesting plants of his collections. He did not, however, issue a complete list, and so far as now known no such list has ever been published. The second edition of his travels was issued in 1819, and in the editor's preface it is stated that Mr. Bradbury had already returned to St. Louis and taken up his residence there. Baldwin, who passed through St. Louis in 1819 with the Long expedition, mentions meeting Mr. Bradbury there at that time. His name is given in the St. Louis city directory for 1821,[5] but no definite information regarding him after this date has yet been found.

During the early part of the nineteenth century it was the policy of the national government to send expeditions of a military character to explore the unknown sections of the western country. Shortly after Bradbury made his tour of the Missouri, an expedition was fitted out and placed under the command of Major S. H. Long. This was intended to make more complete and detailed exploration of the Missouri and its main tributaries, and to make more accurate scientific observations of the country passed through. The necessity of having competent scientific men accompany the expedition was recognized, and several such men were appointed for the purpose.


The botanist of the expedition was Dr. William Baldwin.[6] He was a son of a minister of the. Friends in Pennsylvania, being born in Newlin, Chester County, in 1779. He studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and took his degree in 1807. Meanwhile he had become interested in the study of botany, and upon settling in Wilmington, Delaware, to commerce practising his profession, he collected extensively in the vicinity. Pulmonary weakness forced him to remove to Georgia in 1811, where he served as surgeon to a gunboat flotilla during the war of 1812. He kept up his collecting and study of the plants of this new region, and because of his ability as a botanist he received an appointment as surgeon to the U. S. frigate Congress, during a cruise to various South American ports. Baldwin made extensive collections and notes wherever opportunity offered, and he returned with a very considerable amount of valuable material. About this time the Long expedition was being organized, and Baldwin was recommended to act as botanist for the party. His health was delicate and the appointment was accepted in the hopes that it would be improved by the journey.

Baldwin joined the other members of the scientific staff at Pittsburg and embarked upon the steamer which was to take the expedition to Council Bluffs. This being the early days of steamboating, the one used by the expedition gave more than ordinary trouble and caused

PSM V73 D500 William Baldwin.png

Fig. 2. Dr. William Baldwin; from Darlington's "Reliquiæ Baldwinianæ."

vexatious delays. According to the letters of Baldwin it also leaked continually, and this made the interior damp and totally unsuited for such a prolonged voyage. Baldwin's health constantly grew worse, and even while descending the Ohio River the party halted to allow him to recover from an attack of illness, and he was forced to depend upon the others to bring specimens to him on the boat, as he had not sufficient strength to walk any considerable distance. St. Louis was finally reached on June 9 and a stop of several days was made. The voyage was resumed on the twenty-first, and on July 13 they reached Franklin, then the uppermost town of any importance on the Missouri. Here Baldwin was left behind at the house of Dr. Lowry, where he remained until his death on August 31. During his stay in Franklin Baldwin botanized as much as his limited strength would permit, and entries were made in his diary as late as August 8, the date of the last entry. A list of plants found around Franklin by him during this time attests the earnestness with which he pursued his beloved science. The journals of the expedition show that he collected about one hundred species in the vicinity of St. Louis and on the Missouri to Franklin.

His companions all unite in praise of his devotion to science and his persistence under such extremely trying circumstances. Notwithstanding his extensive travels and his earnest study of the botany of several different sections of this country and of South America, he published but little. Two short articles, presented for publication just before starting with the expedition, are all that are known to have been published by him. He left numerous manuscripts and notes which have aided Torrey and Gray in their work on the flora of America. His herbarium was extensive and very valuable, and has contributed much to the works of Pursh and Nuttall. Baldwin also contributed to Muhlenberg's catalogue, and he maintained an active correspondence with many of the foremost botanists of his day. Nuttall has honored him by naming a genus of the Compositæ Baldwiniana, and has thus connected him in a most permanent manner with that science to which he so earnestly devoted himself.

The Long expedition proceeded and on September 17 went into winter quarters near Council Bluffs. Major Long meanwhile went east, and on his return brought with him Dr. Edwin James, who had been appointed to take the place of Dr. Baldwin.

Edwin James[7] was born in Weybridge, Vermont, on August 27, 1797. Edwin was the youngest son of Deacon Daniel James, who was a native of Rhode Island, and had moved to Vermont at the beginning of the Revolution. In youth he was very industrious and applied himself to his studies with perseverance. His education was obtained at the district school, and later he attended Middlebury College, where he graduated in 1816. Subsequently he studied medicine with his elder brother in Albany, New York, for three years. During this time he became interested in botany and the natural sciences, which were then being taught by Professor Amos Eaton. Upon the recommendations of Captain Lewis Le Conte and Dr. John Torrey he was appointed to the place left vacant by the death of Dr. Baldwin. The trip with Major Long was a hurried one, although it was made overland from St. Louis to Council Bluffs and but few plants were collected near St. Louis. James remained with the expedition until its close. His efficient labors are proved by the subsequent publications founded upon his observations and collections. The present Pikes Peak was first named James's Peak, by Major Long, but for some unexplained reason the earlier name has not remained in use.

The next two years after the return of the expedition were spent in compiling his results, which were published in 1825, and were of much historical and scientific value. During the next six or seven years he served as a surgeon in the regular army at extreme frontier posts, and here he studied the Indian languages and translated the New Testament into the Ojibwe tongue. He also published a biography of John Tanner, a man who was captured by the Indians while a child, and was brought up by them. When the medical department of the army was reorganized he resigned and returned to Albany, where he was associate editor of a temperance periodical. Upon leaving this he went west and settled near Burlington, Iowa, where he spent the last days of his life in agricultural pursuits. On October 25, 1861, he was run over by a wagon and injured so seriously that he died three days later.

The genus Jamesia, of the Saxifrage family, was named in his honor by Torrey and Gray.

The results of the exploring expeditions seem to have directed attention to the Missouri country, so that a number of men of ability came to that section and made botanical explorations of greater or less extent. Before the Long expedition had finished its work an amateur botanist, Dr. Lewis C. Beck, was collecting about St. Louis.

Dr. Lewis Caleb Beck[8] was born in Schenectady, New York, on October 4, 1798. In 1817 he graduated at Union College; he then studied medicine and began to practise at Schenectady in 1818. He moved to St. Louis in 1820 and lived here until 1822. During this time he collected quite extensively and later published a list of his collections. His introductory note is self-explanatory and is as follows:

During my residence in Missouri, in the years 1820, 1821 and 1822, a portion of my time was occupied in the investigation of the vegetable productions of that and the adjoining state. Upon my return I was so fortunate as to receive, uninjured, the collections which I had made. Until the present season (1826), however, I have not had leisure to examine them with the necessary attention, and to revise my notes upon the recent plants. This work I have now commenced, and submit to you the first part, for publication in your valuable journal. Those species which are presented as new are minutely described, and in all cases where the western specimens of known plants differ from the eastern, this difference is stated. By this means we shall become acquainted with, at least, some of the peculiarities in the vegetation of that interesting section of the United States. Concerning the more common plants, the habitats and times of flowering only are mentioned. The catalogue, it is hoped will contribute somewhat to increase our stock of knowledge, and will be particularly interesting to geographical botanists, and to future waiters upon the botany of the United States.

This annotated list, which was continued in three volumes of Sillimans Journal, mentions about two hundred species of plants, and is the earliest extensive list known to the writer. Many of Beck's plants are cited in Riddel's "Synopsis of the Flora of the Western States," published in 1835, but apparently only a portion of them are so mentioned.

In 1822 Beck moved back to Albany and remained there the rest of his life. He held positions as professor of botany and other sciences at a number of institutions up to the time of his death; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rutgers College and Albany Medical College being those with which he was most prominently connected. Dr. Beck was well known in botanical circles, being the author of a manual of the botany of the northern and middle states, 6f which two editions were issued. He also published a number of botanical papers. He was a well-known writer on chemical and medical subjects besides; and published a manual of chemistry which passed through four editions. He seems to have been a conservative writer, as his bibliography contains but twenty-three titles. Dr. Beck died at Albany on April 20, 1853.

After Beck closed his work in the vicinity of St. Louis there seems to have been a period of nearly ten years when there was no botanical work done. In 1831, however, there began a period of activity which has continued more or less regularly up to the present time. The first botanist to start this activity was Thomas Drummond.

(To be continued)

  1. Published by permission of the Secretary of Agriculture.
  2. Hooker, W. J., Amer. Jour. Sci. and Arts, 1st series, 9: 266-269, 1825.
    Gray, Asa, Ditto, 1 ser., 42: 2-9, 1842.
    Coulter, J. L., Bot. Gaz., 8: 181-183, 1883.
    Rusby, H. H., Bull. Torrey Bot. Club, 11: 88-90, 1884.
    Sargent, C. S., "Scientific Papers of Asa Gray," 2: 23-31, 1889.
    Thwaites, R. G., "Early Western Travels," 3: 11-19, 27-104, 1904.

  3. Jefferson, Thomas, '"Biography of Capt. Lewis in Analectic Magazine and Naval Chronicle," 7: 329-333, 1816.

    Allen, Paul, "History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark," etc., 1814, reprint by New Amsterdam Book Company.

  4. Bradbury, John, "Travels in the Interior of America in the Years 1809, 1810 and 1811," 1-346, 1819, 2d edition.

    Short, C. W., Transylvania Jour, of Med., etc., 34: 12-13, 1836.

    Britten, Jas., and Boulger, G. S., "Biographical Index of British and Irish Botanists," 21, 1893.

  5. Learned by the aid of the St. Louis Historical Society.
  6. Thwaites, R. G., "Early Western Travels," Vol. 14.
    Darlington, William, "Reliquiæ Baldwinianæ," 1-346, 1843.
    Redfield, John, Bot. Gaz., 8: 233-237, 1883.
    Harshberger, J. W., "Botanists of Philadelphia," 119-125, 1899.
  7. Thwaites, R. G., "Early Western Travels," Vol. 15.
    Parry, C. C, Amer. Jour. Sci. and Arts, 2d series, 33: 428-430, 1862.
    Sargent, C. S., "Silva of North America," 2: 96, 1891.
  8. Appleton's "Cyclopedia of American Biography," 1: 213, 1887.
    Anonymous, Amer. Jour. Sci. and Arts, 2d series, 16: 149, 1853.
    March, Dr. Alden, Gross's "Amer. Med. Biography," 679-696, 1861.
    Beck, L. C., Amer. Jour. Sci. and Arts, 10: 257-264, 1826; 11: 167-182, 1827; 14: 112-121, 1828.