Thomas Nuttall – America’s British Botanist

Thomas Nuttall

Thomas Nuttall was born on the 5th of January, 1786, in Long Preston, Yorkshire, England. He was apprenticed to his uncle, Jonas Nuttall, in 1800 to learn printing, but a passion for the natural sciences had already taken hold of him; perhaps as a result of numerous summer forays in the Yorkshire Dales or on the lofty summit of Pen-y-ghent collecting plants and minerals with his friend, John Windsor, who lived in Settle. In 1808 he left England for America, arriving in Philadelphia aboard the ship HMS Halcyon in April. It was not long before he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Smith Barton, a prominent Philadelphia physician under whose influence and connections he made two short plant collecting trips in 1809. Barton sponsored Nuttall again in 1810-1811 on a longer trip, in the company of Manuel Lisa (of Lewis and Clark fame) and the Scottish botanist, John Bradbury, which encompassed Detroit, the Michigan peninsula, and the upper Missouri River. He sailed to England from New Orleans in 1811 in the wake of growing tensions between the Unites States and Great Britain but, as the conflict eased, he was able to return to the United States, in 1815, to continue his botanical explorations. In 1818 he published Genera of North American Plants, and a Catalogue of the Species to the Year 1817. The same year, Nuttall commenced an exploration to the Arkansas Territory from 1818-1820, and in 1822 was appointed curator of the botanic garden and lecturer of natural history at Harvard. During his tenure at Harvard he produced a textbook on botany, An Introduction to Systematic and Physiological Botany (1827), and two on birds, A Manual of the Ornithology of the U.S. and Canada: The Land Birds (1832), and The Water Birds (1834). In 1834,  he left Harvard to accompany John Kirk Townsend and the Wyeth Expedition on an exploration to the Oregon Territory, Hawaii (Sandwich Islands), and California; finally sailing back to Boston, by way of Cape Horn, in 1836. Nuttall spent the next few years in Philadelphia describing and preparing his many specimens for publication. In 1842, following the death of his uncle Jonas, he returned to England to assume ownership of Nutgrove, a family estate.

Nutgrove Hall, built by Jonas Nuttall near Liverpool, England, in 1810

The terms of the inheritance required him to remain in England at least nine months of the year which prevented him from furthering his explorations of America; although he did manage to make a brief trip to the United States in 1847-1848. His monumental three-volume work, North American Sylva; or a Description of the Forest Trees of the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia, was published in Philadelphia during the years 1842 – 1852. Thomas Nuttall was 73 when he died at his English property, Nutgrove Hall,  on the 10th of September, 1859.

 

 

Selected references:

A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819 (American Exploration and Travel Series)

The Land between the Rivers: Thomas Nuttall’s Ascent of the Arkansas, 1819

Thomas Nuttall, Naturalist: Explorations in America, 1808-1841

The Botanical Explorations Of Thomas Nuttall In California (1899)

 

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