Botanists in Oregon
The procession of botanists in Oregon
[Transcribed from The Call Number, Fall 1960. Copyright University of Oregon.]
For twenty years the home of Albert Raddin Sweetser and his wife, Carrie Phinney, on Alder street in Eugene, Oregon became an increasingly stronger link with Oregon's botanical past. Every plant transferred to its gardens, each inquiring letter written by the botanist, and every new flower portrait in watercolor executed by Mrs. Sweetser, evoked the eventful history of Oregon's fields and forests more clearly.
Professor Sweetser, chairman of the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Oregon from 1909-1932, sought, with the help of his artist-botanist wife, to document the trails and trials of his predecessors through the Oregon country. From 1918 to a peak of activity in 1935-1937, Sweetser carried on a search for information about David Douglas and succeeding plant collectors. Though this search for men rather than plants was strictly avocational, and was never supported by a grant of time or funds, it was nonetheless as eagerly pursued as any field work or museum labor.
Although his hope of a biographical volume dealing with plant explorers was never realized, Sweetser made a magnificent beginning. He collected portraits of individual taxonomists, photographs of the plants they sought, and acquired a wealth of letters and manuscripts relating to the careers of botanists, teachers and explorers. Mrs. Sweetser contributed her own botanical skills, and her diary accounts, kept while retracing field studies of earlier Oregon botanists.
For students of natural history, Sweetser's store of reflections about Oregon botanists, and his search for details of their careers has made him a vital link with the lively history of collecting in the plant paradises of Ft. Vancouver and the valleys of the Umpqua and Rogue rivers. His assembled materials are now in the University of Oregon Library, safe from the corrupting beetle larvae that so annoyed Sweetser and his colleagues in their herbaria. With these collected materials are his own manuscripts and collecting trip records. They, in turn, are proximate to similar records of Martin gorman and Louis F. Henderson, two other Oregon botanists who donated their manuscripts to the University Herbarium.
The materials collected by Sweetser raise detailed questions of particular interest to the technical student. Where, for example, did Nathaniel Wyeth, Boston iceman and western entrepreneur, first find Delphinium bicolor? On what hillside near Waldo, Oregon did Thomas Howell discover two endemic fawn-lilies previously unreported by botanists? Who instructed the unlettered Howell in the proper use of Greek and Latin endings for descriptive botanical nomenclature? Which of the several western botanists operating out of Portland in the 1880s knew each other, exchanged plants, collected together?
By correspondence, by assembling photographs, by field work, by botanical research and through many hours spent examining herbarium sheets, Sweetser solved some of the questions. He found many more riddles than solutions, especially in the field of genealogy.
The history of Oregon botany and natural history has for its chief points of departure many of the same areas important to a general history of white culture in the Northwest. From the well-known Ft. Vancouver base David Douglas traveled to the Umpqua for sugar pine cones. From this fort, and assisted by its chief factor, John McLoughlin, the botanists Thomas Nuttal and John K. Townsend collected on both sides of the Columbia River. From it they sailed, one with Richard Henry Dana before the mast and around the Horn. From this fort the overland party of the Wilkes Exploring Expedition set out in 1841 toward a rendezvous in San Francisco Bay. In this party were naturalists Titian R. Peale, mineralogist James D. Dana, and botanists William D. Breckenridge, who is known to have added new plant species on his journey over the mountains to the Sacramento valley.
A second significant locus for botanical biography was the young city of Portland, where in the latter half of the 19th century lived the brothers John and Thomas Howell, homesteaders of Sauvies Island, Henry Bolander, school teacher and far-roaming botanist, Martin Gorman, forester and scholarly advisor to Thomas Howell. There were other collectors, too, whose names are not so frequently found associated with plant nomenclature.
A third locale is the great open sageland, palouse country, associated in cultural history with John C. Fremont. To it belongs Frederick Lueders, German plant collector, whose near-fatal canoe accident near The Dalles was witnessed by Fremont. Here, too, was the habitat of William Suksdorf, and William Cusick; here the chief collecting ground of John Leiberg , missionary H.H. Spalding, and the Rev. Mr. R.D. Nevius.
A fourth area of great interest and importance is the Josephine County gold region, the southwest corner of Oregon. This section was most significant to Sweetser, because it had yielded a wealth of endemic plants to the collections of Howell, Louis F. Henderson, and to the Sweetsers themselves.
The 42 years that elapsed between the visits of Howell and Sweetser to the ghost towns of southern Josephine County suggest the contrast in collecting equipment and methods between 1881 and 1923. In May 1923 the Sweetsers spent a month collecting, painting, and botanically exploring the Kerby and Waldo areas of the county. Sweetser's record of expenses for the trip is included with the trip diary kept jointly. The month's outlay, exclusive of food, was $102.40. This included rent, the use of an automobile, and the cost of shipping speciments to the University herbarium at Eugene. Expenses were met through a grant of $125 from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Lincoln Savage, the southern Oregon collector, and friend of Sweetser, had found Howell at work in the Kerby area in 1887, making his base in a miner's abandoned cabin, one of many in the vicinity. Howell was the most impecunious of all the Oregon botanists; his food and means of support can only be guessed at; no doubt he tended, in the way of any good botanists, to live "off the country." His chief source of income then, as during all his adult life, was from the sale of speciments [sic] to herbaria and collectors. When his book, volume I (all published) of A Flora of Northwest America it sold for the profitless price of 50 cents.
Sweetser and Henderson, unlike Howell, had accurate means of locating points of collection, a topographic map accurate to the square mile. Thomas Howell knew the county boundaries, approximate distances to the nearest town, and had some knowledge of the drainage systems. But his herbarium sheets refer to such generalities as "coast mountains" or "near base of Mt. Hood." Nevertheless, the importance of Howell, the first taxonomist to publish a regional flora in the Northwest, was much appreciated by Sweetser.
Sweetser also collected much material about his friend and companion Louis F. Henderson, especially before that botanist came to Eugene to be the first curator of the university's herbarium. Henderson's own autobiographical accounts describe his early life, and his second major plant collection.
Henderson was on the scene of descriptive science in the Pacific Northwest early enough to be included in the first scientific party to enter the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula, and to describe some of the last distinct plant species found inn the Oregon country.
The student of the Henderson and Sweetser manuscripts will find, however, that the long-lived Henderson was the fortunate link between the older generation of Howell, Suksdorf, Gorman, Bolander, and the newer generation that began with Sweetser and continued through Roy Andrews, LeRoy Detling, and F.P. Sipe of the more recent group. With Gorman, Henderson was a human classical dictionary and glossary of accepted nomenclature for the unschooled Howell. Because Henderson had taught botany at the University of Idaho, and ranged across the Columbia River plateau his collection documents and interprets the careers of his botanists friends, Piper, Suksdorf, and others of the eastern flora. He is also a link to the present, because we know from the declarations of Roy Andrews, late amateur botanists, and LeRoy Detling, professor of biology at the University of Oregon, that they collaborated with Henderson.
The personal records and recollections of most of the early Oregon botanists are by no means as complete as those left by Henderson. But we have in the manuscripts and correspondence of Albert Sweetser, a group of documents collected over 20 years, information that exposes for us the deep and entwined roots of Northwest botanical history. The natural historians of the future will begin with these roots.
--Edward P. Thatcher.
Special Collections related to botany
The University of Oregon herbarium and its records were transferred to Corvallis in 1993 and are housed with the herbarium of Willamette University, under the management of the Oregon State University Herbarium. The papers and photographs of many of the UO botanists remain at the University of Oregon in Special Collections. OSU also houses the Oregon Flora Project, which continues the botanical work of Sweetser and his colleagues. The Native Plant Society of Oregon is an excellent resource for botanists, and published Rhoda M. Love's biography of Henderson.
Albert R. Sweetser (1861-1940) [includes works by Carrie Phinney Sweetser (1863-1952)]: Papers Ax 075, photographs PH015
Louis F. Henderson (1853-1942) papers: Coll. 190
Roy C. Andrews (1885-1955) [content primarily relates to other aspects of Andrews' life]: Papers Ax 002, photographs PH003
Martin W. Gorman (1853-1926): Papers Coll. 169, photographs PH170
Ralph Works Chaney (1890-1971): Papers Ax 428, photographs PH118
Lilla Irvin Leach (1886-1980): Papers Ax 756, SFM 212
William C. Cusick (1842-1922: Papers Coll. 078
Henry J. Biddle (1862-1928): Papers Ax 645, photographs PH181