John Torrey: Dealing with Expedition Specimens

Virtual Herbarium Image - LAPI Scan

Dalea fremontii Torr. ex A. Gray, type specimen from NYBG; collection by Frémont in Nevada 1844

As I mentioned in my last post, I had of course heard of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and to a lesser extent of the Wilkes Expedition, but these episodes in American history were of limited interest to me. The Frémont expeditions didn’t ring a bell at all—until I got hooked on herbaria and botany. My last real contact with American history was in high school, and though I was married to a historian, he focused on European history and being a true academic, stuck to his field and ignored the US past. Then herbarium fever struck and I read books like Andrea Wulf’s (2011) The Founding Garderners, which made me look at Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison in a whole new light. It became important to me to know how Jefferson championed American natural history and made sure that Meriwether Lewis knew how to preserve plant specimens. I even read Lewis and Clark’s account of the expedition (DeVoto, 1953). What impressed me most, besides how grueling the trip turned out to be, was how much they used information from earlier explorers and indigenous people. In other words, they didn’t go into the trip as into the unknown. Some of the information proved inaccurate, and there were definitely many surprises, but they had some knowledge of the territories that lay ahead of them.

This combination of information and ignorance is true of all travel, even today. No matter how much preparation, there is always the unexpected—good and bad. That’s what made Jessie Frémont’s (1878) expedition account so riveting, and that’s what made the plants Frémont sent back to Torrey so interesting: they sometimes resembled what had been found in the East but there were also many surprises. Perhaps because he had visited Europe and seen the level of interest in American plants, Torrey lost no time in describing Frémont’s plants as they began to arrive in New York. In essence this was a botanical form of the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny.” This was the idea of the United States’ right to rule from the East to the West coast and was promoted by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who not coincidentally was Jessie Benton Frémont’s father and championed his son-in-law’s participation in these expeditions. Of the five expeditions Frémont led during the 1840s and 1850s, the first three were the most botanically significant.

In 1853, Torrey published Plantae Frémontianae. At the same time, he was working on the plants collected by the massive Wilkes Expedition (1838-1842), officially called the United States Exploring Expedition but usually referred to by the name of its leader Charles Wilkes. There were six ships and 346 men in this entourage, including nine scientists and artists responsible for recording the natural history of the areas visited. The fleet traveled to South America, Africa, Antarctica, and into the Pacific, visiting Australia as well as exploring areas of Oregon and California, territory that at the time was not part of the United States. Preparation was extensive and involved much discussion and correspondence about who would make up the scientific contingent. Torrey was a logical choice but he was too involved professionally and personally to leave for an extended time. Gray almost signed on, but then received a job offer from the newly founded University of Michigan. That fell through, but he ended up becoming professor of botany at Harvard University. The botanist position on the expedition was finally filled by William Rich who turned out to be less that adequate to the task. His “assistant,” a Scottish nurseryman from Philadelphia, William Brackenridge, became the primary collector by default. Over all, the expedition sent back about 50,000 plant specimens to Washington, DC. There were also seeds and cuttings which Brackenridge was put in charge of nurturing in what would be the beginnings of the US Botanic Garden (Viola & Margolis, 1985).

Torrey was asked by Wilkes to take on identification of the plant material, but he argued that he couldn’t do this without traveling to Europe to access the large herbaria there, as well as the extensive libraries. There just weren’t the collections and books in the US to do the job. Wilkes balked: the US plants had to be identified in the US by American botanists. Eventually, the job went to Gray, with Wilkes relenting and funding a European trip for Gray that allowed him to visit collections in France, Germany, and Britain. This was Gray’s second European foray and rather paradoxically, allowed him to become the dean of American botany. He saw enough plant material from North America to put future collections into perspective. Torrey meanwhile continued his bisected professional life in New York and New Jersey, but definitely kept up on collecting in the West, as his publication on Frémont’s plants indicates. The volume on the Wilkes Expedition’s flowering plants wasn’t published for 20 years, with Gray as the primary author but with many contributions from Torrey and other botanists (Gray et al., 1862). Meanwhile, Brackenridge published on the expedition’s ferns (1855), with a great deal of help from Torrey. Around these publications swirled controversy generated by Wilkes and his committee who were editing the contributions. He did not want a book published in the US to include a foreign language, namely Latin, though this was standard for plant descriptions. Torrey and Gray were appalled, and the ban was finally lifted after much ink was used on the argument, especially because the problem came to a head while Gray was in Europe. It must have been frustrating for Torrey who had to wait so long for letters to find out his friend’s response to the crisis. In the end, though Latin was included, the botanists had to give in on other points to keep publication costs in check. I got a taste of this contretemps while I was investigating some of the Gray-Torrey correspondence, a topic I’ll take up in the next post.


Brackenridge, W. D. (1855). Cryptogamia, Filices, including Lycopodiaceae and Hydropterides,. Philadelphia: C. Sherman.

DeVoto, B. (Ed.). (1953). The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Frémont, J. B. (1878). A Year of American Travel. New York: Harper & Bros.

Gray, A., Tuckerman, E., Bailey, J. W., Harvey, W. H., Curtis, M. A., Berkeley, M. J., & Torrey, J. (1862). Botany.Lower Cryptogamia. II. Phanerogamia of the Pacific Coast of North America. Philadelphia: C. Sherman.

Torrey, J., & Frémont, J. C. (1853). Plantae Frémontianae, or Descriptions of Plants Collected by Col. J.C. Frémont in California. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Viola, H. J., & Margolis, C. (Eds.). (1985). Magnificent Voyagers: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Wulf, A. (2011). Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. New York, NY: Knopf.


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