Early North American Exploration: Carolina and Virginia

3 White Milkweed

John White watercolor of a milkweed plant done in 1585, British Library.

In the last two posts (1,2) I’ve discussed botanical explorations in Canada and New England; now I want to move south to areas where there was more work done on plants and more collection of specimens rather than just seeds.  As with almost all issues in the history of botany, there were political, economic, and cultural factors influencing how plants were studied.  Plymouth and the other early New England colonies were founded by Puritans and other religious dissenters.  They were not wealthy nor were they in most cases linked to the wealthy and powerful in Britain.  The situation was very different in Virginia and adjacent areas.  From the beginning, these colonies were founded with economic development in mind.  British monarchs rewarded those who did their bidding with large parcels of land, and these individuals had the wherewithal, along with the government backing, to succeed.  Admittedly, the early settlers had a rough time particularly at first as they had to find suitable sites, learn about the perils and opportunities of the land, and negotiate with indigenous peoples.  Early attempts at settlement were financed by Sir Walter Raleigh on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina.  The colony ultimately failed but the 1585 expedition there included the scientist Thomas Harriot who wrote the first book in English on North American flora and fauna, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, and the artist and mapmaker John White who documented the people and landscapes he saw, as well as some plants and animals, though many of the original watercolors did not survive (see figure above).

By the mid-17th century there were thriving British colonies in New England and in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas.  The coast provided many useable harbors, plenty of fish and other wildlife for food, and fertile land for agriculture.  However, the purpose of these colonies was not just to successfully settle the land, but to develop resources that would make its British landlords wealthier and provide them with novelties to impress their peers.  While the Spanish found gold and silver to the south, Britain has to be satisfied with other kinds of riches.  The thick forests were one resource.  As the British navy expanded and the homeland continued to develop, Britain needed ever more wood and had already lost a great deal of its woodlands, which were being cut down from the Middle Ages onward.  So there was need for kind of trees abundant in North American forests, those that yielded long, straight boards and wood that resisted rot.

There was also another reason for tree hunting: to find new species to plant in the expanding gardens of the British upper classes.  As the country’s naval power increased after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, so did its economic strength and for those who benefitted from this, gardens became a significant way to display their wealth.  Even today, if you look at garden catalogs, you’ll see that new introductions tend to be expensive, but people in the know are often willing to pay the price to be the “first on the block” with the latest hybrid.  This was equally true in the 17th century when many with means were passionate gardeners who were learning about new plants, creating hothouses for finicky species, and encouraging collectors to send seeds and specimens.  Seeds were being sent back from Spanish and French explorers since the first half of the 16th century.  The 17th century British botanical scene was interested in botany as well as gardening, so specimens were sent along with the seeds.  Specimens also gave gardeners some sense of what those seeds might produce, so they could encourage collectors to provide more seeds of particularly intriguing species.

In an earlier post, I discussed the major role that Hans Sloane, James Petiver, and Leonard Plukenet played in supporting plant collectors and amassing specimen collections that are now found in the Sloane Herbarium (SH) at the Natural History Museum, London.  Mark Laird (2015) has written about their work in relation to gardeners including one of my favorites, Mary Somerset, the Duchess of Beaufort who kept her own herbarium, now part of SH. It gives some sense of her attention to her garden, and how she was attempting to document what varieties she grew there, with pages full of different varieties of the same species, tulips for example.  In other cases, she preserved specimens of exotic plants that she had nursed to health in her hot houses.

Among the collectors supported by Sloane et al., was John Banister, who had studied at Oxford and was the first university-trained collector to send specimens back to England.  He was encouraged by Bishop Henry Compton, himself a member of Sloane’s botany club that met at the Temple Coffee House in London.  Banister was dispatched to Virginia as a clergyman but he had prepared for his role in natural history as well.  Before he left, he studied specimens that had already been sent from North America, including many grown from seed collected by French explorers.  Banister brought with him a herbarium of such plants and left a catalog of them in Oxford so that botanists there would know what he was referring to.  In all there are over 300 of his specimens in Oxford and many more in SH.  He communicated with his professor at Oxford, Robert Morison, who was also in contact with the coffeehouse group.  Both Petiver and Plukenet published on Banister’s collections but Plukenet’s work was the most extensive.  He described almost 100 species and in many cases included illustrations made from Banister’s drawings (Ewan & Ewan, 1970).  Morison also collaborated with John Ray in studying the Virginia plants, some of which were described in Ray’s, Historia plantarum (Raven, 1950).  Though many botanists were using Banister’s specimens, he still wanted to write his own book but after collecting for many years he was killed in a hunting accident in 1692.


Ewan, J., & Ewan, N. (1970). John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Raven, C. E. (1950). John Ray Naturalist: His Life and Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.