The Antebellum Period (Prior to 1860)

(Excerpts from Plant Life of Kentucky by Dr. Ronald L. Jones)

The Antebellum Period in America was an era of great explorations into the unknown wilderness, with the discovery of many new species of plants and animals, and of active specimen exchanges between America and Europe. MacFarlane (2001) referred to these years as the “Pioneer Century of American Natural History.” This period of great intellectual interest and excitement extended from 1725 to 1850 in eastern North America, peaking in the decade of 1830--1840. See Gilmour (2002) for a bibliographic overview of early botanical explorers in the southeastern United States.

During this time period, Kentucky was a focal point of studies by many of the leading botanists of the day. The authors of two major works on the flora of North America based their books in no small measure on their experiences in Kentucky. The most enigmatic and controversial botanist of the 19th century, C.S. Rafineque, blazed his own path through Kentucky. A series of publications listing species for Kentucky or major regions of the state appeared during this period, including those of M’Murtrie (1819), Rafinesque (1824), Riddell (1835), Short (1828, 1828--1829), Short et al. 1833, Short (1837, 1840); Short & Peter (1834, 1835), and Spilman (1853).

François André Michaux (1770-1855)

Francois Andre MichauxThe son of André Michaux, François André Michaux (1770–1855), was sent to America in 1801, charged by the French government to conduct studies of the forestry and agricultural practices in the states (see Savage & Savage 1986; Thwaites 1904). He arrived in Kentucky on 1 August 1802, at Limestone (now Maysville). It was one year after Thomas Jefferson had been elected the third President of the United States, and one year before the Louisiana Purchase. Fifty-two years had passed since Dr. Thomas Walker crossed the Cumberland Gap, and only 28 years since James Harrod and Daniel Boone helped establish the first settlement in Kentucky at Harrodsburg. By 1802 Lexington was a city of 300 inhabitants with two newspapers a week, and numerous settlements were scattered throughout the region, with “fine plantations,” potteries, powder mills, and many other industries under development. Michaux estimated the population of Kentucky at 200,000 and noted the rapid population growth. He described a thriving agricultural business in the state, the major crops being corn, tobacco, hemp, wheat, rye, and oats. He noted that fine estates produced 25 to 30 bushels of corn per acre without manuring the ground or tilling it more than once. Michaux observed that Kentucky’s climate and extraordinary soil fertility gave it a great advantage over Virginia in the raising of tobacco. Exports of tobacco during this time averaged several thousand hogsheads (each hogshead about 1100 lbs) annually. Hemp was also a major crop, with about 42,000 pounds of raw hemp produced for export in 1802. Although the region seemed ideal for the cultivation of many types of fruit trees, Michaux observed that Kentuckians limited themselves mostly to peaches and apples, and that the peaches were most often converted into brandy, of which there was “great consumption in the country.” Michaux also documented the early beginnings of the thoroughbred industry in the state, noting that “For some time past the inhabitants of Kentucky have taken to the rearing and training of horses, and by this lucrative trade they derive considerable profit.” As he traveled to Lexington and then westward through Harrodsburg to the Green and Barren rivers, he made numerous detailed observations on the flora and vegetation, as well as the early frontier society of Kentucky (Thwaites 1904).

Michaux’s writings offer a glimpse of the natural environment of the state two centuries ago. Kentucky had undergone rapid growth in the previous 50 years, but in 1802 it evidently still contained many intact natural communities, as evidenced by his vivid descriptions of the wide expanses of forest, the huge trees, and the great natural beauty of the region.

Michaux provided one of the most detailed early descriptions of the “Big Barrens.” On approaching the mostly treeless regions near the Green and Barren rivers, Michaux wrote:

The Barrens, or Kentucky Meadows, comprise an extent from sixty to seventy miles in length, by sixty in breadth . . . I was agreeably surprised to see a beautiful meadow, where the grass was from two to three feet high. Amidst these pasture lands I discovered a great variety of plants, among which were gerardia flava [Aureolaria flava], or gall of the earth, the gnaphalium dioicum [Gnaphalium obtusifolium], or white plantain, and the rudbekia purpurea [Echinacea purpurea], or purple coneflower . . . I gathered about ninety different species of them which I took with me to France.

Michaux left Kentucky on 27 August, 1802, on his way through Tennessee and eventually to the Carolinas, observing that Tennesseans (even then) were less independent and less religious than Kentuckians. He returned to Paris in 1803, to news of his father’s death, and assisted in the publication of his fathers’ Flora Boreali-Americana. F.A. Michaux developed a distinguished career as an author and scientist, eventually publishing his own great contribution to the botany of America, a three-volume account of the trees of North America, the North American Sylva (1817–1819). Included in these volumes were many references to his observations in Kentucky, emphasizing the important role that the Kentucky flora played in formulating his ideas.

Constantine S. Rafinesque (1783-1840)

Constantine S. RafinesqueThe next significant contributor to Kentucky floristic botany (as well as faunistic zoology) was Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. More has been written on the life and work of Rafinesque than of any other American naturalist, and he continues to be a source of fascination as evidenced by the continuing appearance of articles related to his life and works (Brandenburg & Thieret 2001; Bryant 1997b; Flannery 1999; Stuckey 1998; and Stuckey & Pringle 1997). Other pertinent references are the following: Kastner (1977), Meijer (1973), Perkins (1938), and Stuckey (1971 a,b, 1986). Born in Turkey and raised in France, Rafinesque was a child prodigy and already a learned naturalist when he arrived in America at the age of 20. He later described himself as a botanist, naturalist, geologist, geographer, historian, poet, philosopher, economist, and philanthropist. He botanized for a few years in the middle Atlantic states, then returned to Europe, lived in Sicily for about 10 years, and returned to America in 1815 with a cargo of botanical drugs and 50 boxes of books and collections, all of which he lost in a shipwreck off Block Island, New York.

Discouraged but full of excitement about all the discoveries that awaited him, Rafinesque launched himself into a frenzy of activity over the next few years, traveling back and forth across the Alleghenies; at one point he provided this accounting in a letter to Charles W. Short on 27 September 1818: “The results of my labours during this Journey are the discovery of about 25 new species of bats, rats, and other quadrupeds, about 20 new species of birds, about 15 new species of snakes, turtles, lizards, and other reptiles, 64 new species of fishes of the Ohio; more than 80 new species of shells, besides some new worms and fossils. And in Botany I have collected about 600 species of plants, of which one-tenth part at least are new” (Perkins 1938).

From 1818 to 1826 Rafinesque focused his attentions almost entirely on Kentucky and was employed as a Professor of Botany and Natural History at Transylvania University in Lexington from 1819 to 1825. He traveled mostly in central and western portions of the state, collecting 1000’s of specimens in Kentucky. After leaving Transylvania University he eventually settled in Philadelphia, but there he fell upon hard times and died in 1840.

During his lifetime this prodigious naturalist proposed more new names than any other American naturalist, a phenomenal total of about 2700 new genera and nearly 6900 new species, the majority being vascular plants (Stuckey 1971b). His work was generally frowned upon by his contemporaries (see Stuckey 1986), for a number of reasons, including his difficult personality, his fanatical desire to describe new species, and his atypical methods of publishing his discoveries.

Sadly, most of his lifetime collections(containing an estimated 50,000 specimens and possibly 10,000 Kentucky specimens) have been lost. His herbarium was put on public sale, but without a single bidder it was left abandoned in a storage room, where the collection was heavily damaged by rats. In 1841 Elias Durand, the Curator of the Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, purchased the collection. Durand, finding most specimens damaged or poorly prepared, discarded virtually the entire collection. Stuckey (1971a) found only 275 Rafinesque specimens in the Philadelphia Herbarium, and only 20 specimens could be traced to the original Rafinesque herbarium disposed of by Durand (the other 255 were found as duplicates in the collections of C.W. Short and others). Stuckey estimated that 16 of these 20 could be considered as types and that 35 of the remaining 255 were possible types. Stuckey (1971a) also noted that at least a few other Rafinesque duplicates survived and are housed either in the Darlington Herbarium at West Chester State University or in the Natural History Museum in Paris. There seems no doubt that thousands of possible type specimens were lost. It was a tragic loss for botanical science and for Kentucky botany, but it is a loss that seems somehow sadly appropriate as a postscript to the life of Rafinesque.

Rafinesque’s many travels and discoveries, his comic adventures with John James Audubon, and his many eccentricities are legend, but there is no doubt of his legacy. His published articles and books total over 900 titles. Included among them is the first descriptive outline of the vegetation regions of Kentucky (Rafinesque 1819), as well as the first general account of the plant life of Kentucky (Rafinesque 1824). Flannery (1999) wrote of the great influence that Rafinesque’s Medical Flora (1828-1830) had on the development of medical botany in the United States His many descriptions of new genera and species have been studied over the last few decades, and many of his names have been resurrected. Among the species named in memory of Rafinesque are Viburnum rafinesquianum and Viola rafinesquii.

Although disheartened and increasingly disassociated from the scientific community in his later life, Rafinesque found solace in his memories of the naturalist’s life, that “Every step taken into the fields, groves, and hills appears to afford new enjoyments. Here is an old acquaintance seen again; there is a novelty, a rare plant, perhaps a new one! . . . This peaceful conquest has cost no tears, but fills your mind with a proud sensation of not being useless on earth, of having detected another link of the creative power of God.”

Charles W. Short (1794-1863)

Charles W. ShortDr. Charles Wilkens Short was the most widely acclaimed botanist west of the Alleghenies during the mid-1800’s. His life and work has also been the subject of many studies (see Davies 1945a,b, Skaggs 1982, Stuckey 1978a,b). Short, a native of Woodford County, attended Transylvania University in Lexington, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1811, and left two years later to attend medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. He had an inclination toward natural history studies, and while in Pennsylvania he enrolled in a field botany course taught by Benjamin Smith Barton, one of the premier botanists of the day. This course evidently whetted his appetite to learn more about plants, and botanical studies became his life-long avocation. He earned his M.D. in 1815, a few months before his 21st birthday, and returned to Kentucky to begin his medical practice.

Short practiced medicine in Hopkinsville until 1825, when he accepted the Chair of Materia Medica and Medical Botany at Transylvania University, and moved to Lexington. It was the same year that Rafinesque left the institution. Short remained in this position until 1838, helping to establish the University’s Transylvania Journal of Medicine and Associate Sciences and then lectured at the Medical Institute of Louisville from 1839 to 1848.

Throughout his professional career, Short maintained his interest in the Kentucky flora, making regular collecting trips, and meticulously preparing and labeling specimens for his herbarium. In his early trips he was often accompanied by his family members, or by associates at Transylvania University, especially Hezekiah Hulbert Eaton (1809–1832), a young assistant professor of chemistry, and the discoverer of Spiranthes (Neottia) lucida (see Stuckey 1976–77). His later botanical associates included Robert Peter and Henry Griswold. Short collected heavily in the 1830’s, reporting that between 1833 and 1838 his collections totaled over 28,000 specimens (Davies 1945a,b).

Short regularly corresponded with other physician/botanists such as David Drake of Cincinnati and William Darlington of West Chester (Stuckey 1978b, 1983). He developed an active exchange program with the leading botanists of the time, both in the United States and in Europe, including Asa Gray in Cambridge, John Torrey in New York, Thomas Nuttall in Philadelphia, and William Hooker and George Bentham in England. He eventually sent over 25,000 plant meticulously-prepared specimens to these correspondents, earning himself an international reputation. Asa Gray (1863) praised him after his death as “the first in this country to prepare on an ample scale dried specimens of uniform and superlative excellence and beauty...the vast improvement in the character of the dried specimens now generally made by our botanists may be mainly traced to the example and influence of Dr. Short.”

Short’s career is forever associated with that of his contemporary, C.S. Rafinesque. Upon arriving in Kentucky in 1819, Rafinesque initiated a correspondence with Short that continued until 1834 (Perkins 1938). Many of these letters have been preserved and were requests for specimens or advice on how to preserve and identify his specimens. Short was evidently cordial and cooperative at first, answering his letters and sending sets of specimens but receiving few in return, and was often appalled at the poor condition of Rafinesque’s collections. Eventually Short grew tired of Rafinesque’s demands and stopped responding to his requests. Short noted later that because of Rafinesque’s tendency to publish in foreign or ephemeral journals, his many discoveries had been rendered of little use to American botanists (Short 1836).

Short’s major contribution to Kentucky botany, written with Peter and Griswold, was “A Catalog of the Native Phaenogamous Plants and Ferns of Kentucky,” published in 1833 and followed by four supplements (Short et al. 1833, Short 1837, 1840; Short & Peter 1834, 1835). Included in this catalog and its supplements is a listing of over 1300 species and varieties. He also published floras of the Lexington area (Short 1828, 1829–1829) and a history of botany in Western America (Short 1836). In this latter work, Short provided an account of his own work in Kentucky:

For the past 20 years we have paid some attention to the Botany of Kentucky . . .in that portion of the state so inaptly called “The Barrens,” . . . In many a long and solitary ride through these natural flower-gardens, have our fatigues been lightened, and our spirits cheered by their floral beauties . . .and then, in endless vista, was stretched before the eye, a waving sea of gigantic grasses. . .In our subsequent efforts in the cause of Western Botany, it has been our good fortune to be associated, at different levels with a few fellow-labourers. . .Of these, the late Mr. Eaton must first be mentioned; whose amiability of character, and zeal in the pursuit of natural science, greatly endeared him to us . . .About the time of the death of Mr. Eaton, his loss to the cause of Science in the West, was fortunately supplied by two individuals . . .these were Dr. Robert Peter and Mr. Henry A. Griswold. In connection with one or both of these gentlemen, we have been diligently engaged for the last five years, as leisure and opportunity permitted, in exploring various portions of Kentucky. . .we have been enabled to form a very extensive Herbarium which is daily increasing; and thus are we becoming gradually possessed of materials and information, out of which we trust may be ultimately compiled a full and faithful Flora of Kentucky.

Davies (1953) noted that Short, Peter, and Griswold had planned to publish an illustrated flora of Kentucky with keys, but for various reasons their plans never materialized. Griswold is credited with establishing the first herbarium in Louisville, but it was destroyed by fire in 1837 (Davies 1950). Short and Peter were the discoverers of several species new to science, including the Kentucky pearlwort (Sagina fontinalis) and top-pod water-primrose (Ludwigia polycarpa). Short and Peter also established the first university herbarium in the state at Transylvania University. About 1876 Robert Peter, then still a professor at Transylvania University, donated his private herbarium to the newly established University of Kentucky. These specimens provided the original foundation of the University of Kentucky Herbarium; it was transferred to the Department of Botany, Agriculture, and Horticulture in 1880 and later to the Department of Biological Sciences. The botanical activities and correspondence of Robert Peter were the subject of a recent paper by MacFarlane (2001).

Short’s many contributions to botanical science were widely recognized, and he was repeatedly honored by having his name associated with a number of species, including Aster shortii, Carex shortiana, and Solidago shortii, as well as a genus, Shortia.

Thus, no doubt exists of the significance of Short’s botanical legacy. At Short’s death in Louisville in 1863, his personal herbarium of 15,000 specimens, the largest collection from west of the Alleghanies, was sent by his family to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where it is still preserved. The loss of this collection from Kentucky was a portent of things to come when, again and again, major sets of natural history collections, botanical and otherwise, have found no home in the state and have been shipped to out-of-state herbaria and museums.

Robert Peter (1805-1894) & Henry A. Griswold

Robert PeterHenry. A. GriswoldRobert Peter and Henry Griswold are primarily known for their floristic work with C.W. Short. Peter is also credited, along with Short, with establishing the first university herbarium in the state, at Transylvania University, in ___. Short and Peter were also the discoverers of one of our rarest species, the Kentucky pealwort (Sagina fontinalis). The dwarf bristle fern, Trichomanes petersii, which occurs south of Kentucky, was named by Asa Gray in honor of Robert Peter. About 1878 Peter, then still a professor at Transylvania University, donated his private herbarium to the newly established University of Kentucky. These specimens provided the original foundation of a herbarium that was transferred to the Department of Botany, Agriculture, and Horticulture in 1880 and later to the Department of Biological Sciences. The botanical activities and correspondence of Robert Peter were the subject of a recent paper by MacFarlane (2001).

This publication also included a list of Peter’s collecting sites and a list of his 384 surviving herbarium specimens, together with complete label information. Henry A. Griswold moved to Louisville in 1834, taking with him a considerable personal herbarium of several thousand specimens, thus establishing the first herbarium in Louisville (Davies 1950). It was short-lived, being destroyed by fire in 1837.