Early North American Exploration: Maryland and Virginia

4 Catesby Bison

Illustration of bison and Robinia hispida in Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In the last post, I discussed the botanical explorations of the Anglican clergyman John Banister in colonial Virginia.  Before considering some that followed him to the colony, I want to mention three men who collected a little to the north, in Maryland.  James Petiver, whose name keeps coming up in these posts on collections of exotic plants, was among those who supported Reverend Hugh Jones’s explorations of the area (Frick et al., 1987); Petiver also received plants from David Krieg, a physician, while William Vernon was sponsored by Hans Sloane and Bishop Henry Compton (Reveal, 1992).  All three were collecting in the late 1690s and the British recipients of their work—specimens of about 650 different plants—rushed to describe new species, with Petiver, his rival Leonard Plukenet, and John Ray all involved.  The details are confusing but fascinating, as they show how specimens moved from hand to hand, often behind the backs of other botanists.

An example involves a noteworthy collector of the next generation, John Clayton (~1694-1773).  He arrived in Virginia in 1715, but probably didn’t become interested in collecting plants until he met the most noted natural history collector of this time, Mark Catesby, on his first trip to North America when he visited Virginia with a side trip to the West Indies (1712-1719).  Through Catesby, Clayton connected with Jan Frederik Gronovius in the Netherlands.  Catesby sent Clayton’s specimens and seeds on to Gronovius who grew and studied them (Ewan, 1969).  Eventually, working with Carl Linnaeus in identifying Clayton’s plants, Gronovius published the 200-page Flora Virginica in 1743.  Clayton didn’t feel he received enough credit for his collections and thought about writing his own book, which was never completed.  However, William T. Stearn (1975) argues that Gronovius did the work of naming and describing the plants after careful study, and he included Clayton’s name on the title page, so this was hardly a case of using another’s work without credit.

Catesby himself did not collect much on his first visit, but he returned in 1722 and spent four years with the express purpose of studying the flora and fauna for an illustrated book.  What resulted was the famous Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas.  This is a massive work in two volumes published from 1729 to 1747 (1,2).  Though I’ve focused totally on plants in these posts, I should note that Catesby, as well as Banister, Clayton, and many other early collectors gathered animal skins, insects, shells and minerals for their patrons.  Petiver and Plukenet, in turn, didn’t just describe plant material, though that was their main focus.  Because of the plant blindness that is common today, Catesby’s plates are often presented as animal portraits, even though many of them depict at least one species of plant and animal together.  These could not be termed ecological portraits as those of Maria Merian are, with an insect pictured on its host plant.  Catesby seems to have been more interested in creating intriguing compositions that often ignored scale.  One of my favorites is a bison dwarfed by a rose locust bloom (see figure above).

Catesby is the best known of the colonial North American plant collectors thanks to his publications.  While some of the earlier botanical works were illustrated, such as Plukenet’s Phytographia, none had such sumptuous images.  Catesby did his own engravings, supervised their hand coloring, and had the volumes published in large format.  They are magnificent and are available to view through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Another interesting way to look at the pages is at Botanica Caroliniana, where the illustrations are paired not only with the explanatory text, but also with the herbarium specimens of the plants pictured.  This is a wonderful approach to studying these two very different visual presentations of a plant.  Also on the site are images of several other colonial herbaria, making Botanica Caroliniana an amazing resource that deserves to be better known and comes out of a collaboration between Furman and Clemson Universities.

With this post, I am coming to the end of my brief and cursory examination of early plant explorations in North and South America.  I have hardly scratched the surface and have relied heavily on evidence available from the Sloane Herbarium (SH) at the Natural History Museum, London.  In part this is because I have depended largely on English language sources, but also because the SH is about the largest pre-Linnaean herbarium in existence.  Since the time it was in Sloane’s hands it has always been valued, cared for, and studied.  Despite my rather narrow viewpoint, I hope I’ve managed to convey something of the excitement with which plant specimens and seeds of new species were received in early modern Europe.  The recipients had a variety of reasons for their excitement.  Some couldn’t wait to see them growing in their gardens.  Others wanted to be the first to describe them in print.  Still others were interested in the uses to which these plants could be put, primarily as medicines, but also as new food sources, new fibers, new fragrances, etc.  When looking at the specimens now, it may be difficult to imagine how they could have been received with such anticipation, but that’s where historians come in.  They can flesh out the stories behind these specimens and give them new life.  An example of what is possible is the Reconstructing Sloane, a collaborative project among the British Museum, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum, London, all holders of massive Sloane collections.


Ewan, J. (Ed.). (1969). A Short History of Botany in the United States. New York, NY: Hafner.

Frick, G. F., Reveal, J. L., Broome, C. R., & Brown, M. L. (1987). Botanical explorations and discoveries in colonial Maryland, 1688 to 1753. Huntia, 7, 5–59.

Reveal, J. L. (1992). Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America with Illustrations from the Library of Congress. Washington, DC: Starwood.

Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of natural science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

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