Missouri's First Botanists

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

The quest for knowledge of the world around us has fascinated humankind throughout history. Native Americans, who lived without grocery stores, pharmacies and home improvement superstores, depended directly on the natural world for survival and, in particular, on the diverse plant life of the region.

They knew about the uses of plants for food, medicines and ceremonial purposes. Unfortunately, because of cultural differences and a lack of a written language, most of this information was never passed on to later colonists of European descent.

Early European and American naturalists who joined in the westward expansion of the United States depended less on plants for survival, but they were on a mission to gather knowledge about the wilderness. This developed out of a European philosophy of science that involved cataloging the natural world in an attempt to make sense of the order and rules governing the universe.

Although many of the early scientific explorers were funded by wealthy patrons to collect new ornamental plants for horticulture or other presumed economic benefits, the scientists themselves were driven to know more about the world.

Lewis and Clark

The earliest phase of botanical studies in Missouri involved expeditions that set out from the St. Louis area to explore the western United States. The first such expedition did not include a trained botanist. When President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to search for a new route to the Pacific Ocean in 1804, he instructed them to make scientific observations and to collect seeds and botanical specimens along the way.

During the first weeks up the Missouri River on their famous three-year journey, Lewis collected about 15 specimens in what is now Missouri, including such wildflowers as golden seal and wild ginger and cottonwood and willow trees. These were part of a shipment of goods sent back to Jefferson from Ft. Mandan (now in North Dakota) during the winter of 1804-1805. Unfortunately, none of the Missouri specimens appears to have survived, so only observations printed in the expedition's journals record the plant life seen by Lewis and Clark in the state.

Nuttall and Bradbury

The earliest professional botanists to explore the Missouri River floodplain were British. In 1811, Thomas Nuttall and John Bradbury joined a fur-trading expedition seeking to retrace the Lewis and Clark route to the Pacific Northwest.

Bradbury was an older, seasoned botanist who kept careful notes and eventually published a travelogue of his journey. Nuttall was a young upstart who

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