Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
No Cover Image

California's Frontier Naturalists

Richard G. Beidleman
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 499
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    California's Frontier Naturalists
    Book Description:

    This book chronicles the fascinating story of the enthusiastic, stalwart, and talented naturalists who were drawn to California's spectacular natural bounty over the decades from 1786, when the La Pérouse Expedition arrived at Monterey, to the Death Valley expedition in 1890-91, the proclaimed "end" of the American frontier. Richard G. Beidleman's engaging and marvelously detailed narrative describes these botanists, zoologists, geologists, paleontologists, astronomers, and ethnologists as they camped under stars and faced blizzards, made discoveries and amassed collections, kept journals and lost valuables, sketched flowers and landscapes, recorded comets and native languages. He weaves together the stories of their lives, their demanding fieldwork, their contributions to science, and their exciting adventures against the backdrop of California and world history.California's Frontier Naturalistscovers all the major expeditions to California as well as individual and institutional explorations, introducing naturalists who accompanied boundary surveys, joined federal railroad parties, traveled with river topographical expeditions, accompanied troops involved with the Mexican War, and made up California's own geological survey. Among these early naturalists are famous names-David Douglas, Thomas Nuttall, John Charles Fremont, William Brewer-as well as those who are less well-known, including Paolo Botta, Richard Hinds, and Sara Lemmon.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92750-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Prelude
    (pp. 1-6)

    Captain Cook’s three oceanic expeditions between 1768 and 1778 set a pattern for the scientific exploration of the world. The first expedition was made to observe the transit of Venus (the passage of Venus across the face of the sun)in Tahiti and to search for a possible southern polar landmass to “balance” those in the Northern Hemisphere. This expedition’s distinctive significance was its inclusion aboard HMSEndeavourof naturalists, financed and headed by an affluent amateur botanist, Joseph Banks. Cook’s next expedition was, in part, a continued search for a southern polar continent, while the third sought for the hypothetical...

  6. PART ONE The Oceanic Expeditions

    • The French La Pérouse Expedition at Monterey, 1786
      (pp. 9-16)

      It was September 1786. Most of the varied bird species of the Monterey Peninsula had long since ceased singing, the flowers of the California springtime had come and gone, and the wild oats from Europe gave the cattle-grazed slopes among the oaks and pines a sunburned hue. Dimly visible through the late-summer fog shrouding the bay were two specially refitted French frigates,L’AstrolabeandLa Boussole, anchored in twelve fathoms about four hundred feet from Monterey’s shoreline.

      Aboard was the greatest scientific entourage ever assembled for a worldwide exploring expedition up to that time, under the command of Jean-François de...

    • The Spanish Malaspina Expedition with Naturalist Haenke, 1791
      (pp. 17-23)

      Two Spanish corvettes,Descubiertaand its consortAtrevida, comprising Spain’s primary eighteenth-century scientific oceanic expedition, sailed south in mid-September 1791 along the Pacific Coast, passing Cape Mendocino and the Farallon Islands, and finally swung into Monterey Bay. When their cannonading request to enter the harbor at Monterey was not immediately acknowledged by cannons from the presidio, they cruised on south past Point Piños (now generally called Point Pinos) and anchored off present-day Pebble Beach. Early the next morning (September 13, 1791), guided back north through dense fog by one of their small boats, they finally moored at eight o’clock, a...

    • The British Vancouver Expedition with Menzies, 1792–1795
      (pp. 24-41)

      Of all the early naturalists who visited California, Archibald Menzies surely had the greatest influence over the longest period of time. It helped that he lived almost to ninety, from his birth at Aberfeldy, Scotland, in 1754 to his death in 1842 at London. Yet he certainly did not obey the modern dictum “Publish or perish,” since he published barely a thing during his long and busy career, which included a lengthy stint as a peripatetic surgeon with the British navy. Nor did he personally name and describe many botanical specimens. But his extensive plant collections were garnered from around...

    • The Russian Rezanov Expedition with Langsdorff, 1806
      (pp. 42-47)

      It had been sixty-five years since Georg Steller, a German naturalist with Bering’s second exploration of the North Pacific on behalf of the Russians, had collected a Steller’s Jay specimen and jotted down (in Latin) the West Coast’s first botanical observations at Kayak Island off Alaska. Now, coasting south past California’s “Pinto de los Reys” on April 8, 1806, came theJuno, newly purchased in New Arkhangel (Sitka, Alaska) and associated with Russia’s first around-the-world venture, the Krusenstern Expedition, sent out by Emperor Alexander I. Aboard as captain was Count Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, and Dr. Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, a...

    • Russia Visits Again
      (pp. 48-60)

      The Russians in 1815 embarked for geographic and scientific discovery with a newly built ship, theRurik, a two-masted, nine-gun brigantine. The specific purposes of this expedition were to search once more for the Northwest Passage (although optimism had declined), to cruise South Sea islands, and incidentally to impress the Spanish in Alta California, who had begun grousing about Russian developments at Bodega and Fort Ross, up the coast from San Francisco Bay. The expedition was under the command of Otto von Kotzebue, son of a famous German writer and dramatist, an able amateur naturalist who had served with both...

    • HMS Blossom’s Visit with Beechey, Collie, and Lay, 1826–1827
      (pp. 61-70)

      Captain Frederick William Beechey’s trip south to California in 1826 with HMSBlossomwas in a sense for rest and relaxation, but especially for supplies. During the summer, Captain Beechey had been cruising eastward above the Arctic Circle in the hopes of encountering Captain John Franklin’s Expedition, which was sailing from the east, and thus of completing at last the Northwest Passage, albeit at a very high latitude. The two expeditions never met, even though Franklin, despite being thwarted by bad weather, had gotten within 146 miles of Beechey’s farthest point east (Point Barrow).

      TheBlossom, a British sloop, had...

    • HMS Sulphur’s Visits with Belcher, Hinds, and Barclay, 1837 and 1839
      (pp. 71-82)

      The British naval vessel HMSSulphurwas new, commissioned in 1835, but its captain was an old salt, Frederick William Beechey, who had brought HMSBlossomto California a decade earlier, with Collie and Lay as his naturalists. In 1836 Beechey embarked on another British surveying expedition in the Pacific “for the advancement of science and the safety of navigation” on the HMSSulphur, with her consort HMSStarlingcommanded by Lieutenant H. Kellett, sailing for the Hydrographical Office of the Admiralty.

      Aboard were two assigned naturalists, Richard Brinsley Hinds and George Barclay. Hinds, with an amateur’s interest in botany,...

    • The French Visit Again
      (pp. 83-93)

      In September 1786, the two ships of La Pérouse’s grandiose expedition had sailed into Monterey Bay. In the intervening forty-one years, momentous happenings had beset France: the French Revolution had come and gone; Napoléon had come and gone; the Louisiana Purchase had come and France’s hold on the American hinterland had gone. In late August 1827, just over four decades later, the initial fate of the La Pérouse Expedition was finally revealed at Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz island group, nearly five hundred miles southeast of Guadalcanal, with artifacts and word-of-mouth verification of the expedition’s two shipwrecks.

      In that same...

    • The United States Exploring Expedition in California, 1841
      (pp. 94-110)

      On the evening of September 28, 1841, an overland party from the United States Exploring Expedition made camp for the twenty-fourth time, in a broad valley on the mountainous 42nd parallel right on the border of Alta California. Several of the group’s riding horses had given out by this time. Everyone in the expedition had experienced intermittent fever, but botanist William Rich and Midshipman George W. Colvocoresses were still extremely ill with high fever and chills, for which quinine proved of little help. “Colvo” indeed was so delirious that his gun was taken away from him. That night the temperature...

  7. PART TWO The Early Peripatetic Naturalists

    • David Douglas: Don David El Botánico
      (pp. 113-124)

      On December 22, 1830, the Hudson’s Bay Company brigDryad, from the Columbia River, came to anchor in Monterey Bay, Alta California. Undoubtedly the passenger most eager to get ashore was a short, sturdy Scotsman. Baggage that accompanied the chap—nine gallons each of Madeira wine and of brandy, two Barnagore silk handkerchiefs, a large moose skin, one Jew’s harp, and 150 Spanish dollars—provided little clue to his vocation; but the package of one hundred dried plant specimens suggested a botanist. David Douglas indeed was a plant collector, underwritten by the London Horticultural Society and on this trip also...

    • Thomas Coulter: First to the California Desert
      (pp. 125-131)

      While a young man, Thomas Coulter developed an obsession with lizards and snakes, keeping them as pets, carrying live ones in his pockets, and holding them in his palm as he whistled to keep them motionless. An Irishman, he regretted the lack of snakes in the Emerald Isle and threatened to ship a crate of writhing ones back to his homeland. With such an interest in reptiles, Coulter seemed the ideal naturalist to be first to explore the natural history of the California desert.

      Born in County Louth, Ireland, in 1793, Coulter attended the University of Dublin (Trinity College), where...

    • A Frontier Naturalist and His Protégé Visit California Separately
      (pp. 132-150)

      In St. Louis at Henry Shaw’s old garden, now the Missouri Botanical Garden, there is an obelisk to the memory of Thomas Nuttall, inscribed “born in England, 1786, Honor to Him the Zealous and Successful Naturalist, the Father of Western American Botany.”

      After a childhood in the Ribble River Valley of Lancashire, England, Thomas Nuttall became an apprentice in his uncle’s printing business in downtown Liverpool, although he was more interested in hiking the hills and vales of the Ribblesdale countryside looking at flowers. When the term of Nuttall’s apprenticeship ended early in 1807, Uncle Jonas expected his nephew to...

    • Karl Theodor Hartweg
      (pp. 151-160)

      Karl Theodor Hartweg, a German naturalist, came to California on a British warship to discover that he had disembarked into a war between the United States and Mexico. Hartweg was another of the London Horticultural Society’s collectors, according to that society’s report a “steady, well-informed and zealous young man” sent out to the Americas more than a decade after the time of David Douglas. Born the same year as Charles Darwin (1812), he was one of a number of young Germans who left their homeland in the 1830s and 1840s to escape the growing unrest there. Another of these expatriates...

  8. PART THREE The Overland Expeditions and Their Naturalists

    • John Charles Frémont: In Pursuit of the California Flora
      (pp. 163-184)

      It may seem strange that John Charles Frémont—the intrepid explorer, the “Pathfinder”—was concerned about flora. But actually his interest in natural history went back to teenage years at Charleston College in South Carolina, where he had shown aptitude as a student in the sciences, though easily distracted by feminine allures. Frémont was born in Savannah, Georgia, on January 21, 1813, but grew up in Charleston. As a young man he caught the attention of Joel Poinsett, the nation’s first minister to Mexico. Poinsett had strong interests in agriculture and botany and lent early support to the establishment of...

    • Battles and Botany: Emory and the Army of the West, 1846–1847
      (pp. 185-196)

      On August 18, 1846, the Army of the West under General Stephen Watts Kearny marched into the famous old town of Santa Fe (New Mexico), and the Mexican War on the upper Rio Grande was concluded without a single shot being fired. In the late afternoon of September 25, at the temporary headquarters there, First Lieutenant William Hemsley Emory, Kearney’s chief topographical engineer, with his advance guard surveying party, was ready to depart for Alta California with General Kearny and three hundred dragoons to join in the fighting continuing there.

      The red-haired, bearded, serious-minded lieutenant Emory was much more than...

    • The Mexican Boundary Surveys
      (pp. 197-234)

      In mid-September 1847 the United States Marines had at last entered the “Halls of Montezuma” in Ciudad de México, and the major fighting in the Mexican War was over. In California the war had come to an end much earlier, with the military commandant of California, Lieutenant Colonel John Charles Frémont, adding his signature to the Articles of Capitulation on January 13, 1847. But it would still be more than a year before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—signed on February 2, 1848, and ratified by the Senate on March 10—essentially brought a formal end to the war. Patriotically...

  9. PART FOUR Iron Horses and River Steamers:: The 1850s Surveys

    • Williamson’s Railroad Survey for Southern Mountain Passes, 1853
      (pp. 237-255)

      Anyone who attempted to reach California by land or water prior to 1850 waxed enthusiastic about the idea of a railway from sea to shining sea. Even before gold made the West Coast especially attractive, New York entrepreneur Asa Whitney, interested in trading with China, proposed in 1845 that Congress grant a right-of-way from the Great Lakes to the end of the Oregon Trail for train tracks. About the same time Missouri senator Benton, vocal exponent of “manifest destiny,” pushed for a railroad to the West Coast.

      With the coming of the California gold rush and statehood, as well as...

    • The 35th Parallel: Whipple and the Naturalists, 1853–1854
      (pp. 256-270)

      In the early autumn of 1853 the survey for the 35th parallel had already started west from Albuquerque (New Mexico) for California under the command of Lieutenant Amiel Whipple, who was by now very familiar with parts of the Golden State. He was also well respected by all who served under him. As one of his natural scientists, H. B. Möllhausen, later wrote, Whipple possessed “special professional qualifications united with particularly pleasing manners which inspired confidence in all who approached him.”

      There was a tremendous number of applications for this expedition, and many qualified individuals had to be turned down....

    • Parke Heads East while Beckwith Heads West, 1854
      (pp. 271-282)

      On January 24, 1854, Lieutenant John G. Parke departed from San Diego with fifty-five men to survey eastward along the 32nd parallel. His staff included as topographer Henry Custer, a Swiss, who would serve again with Parke at the end of 1854 on the railroad survey along the Southern California coast and in 1857 with him on the Northwest Boundary Survey. In 1867 Custer became one of Clarence King’s 40th parallel topographers. Also with Parke from Williamson’s survey were naturalist Adolphus Heermann and Lieutenant George Stoneman with twenty-eight dragoons. The only piece of new equipment Parke was unable to obtain...

    • Expeditions Up and Down California
      (pp. 283-293)

      In November 1854 Lieutenant John Parke was undoubtedly still recovering. He and Lieutenant Williamson had surveyed from the Sierra Nevada down to San Diego in 1853, and in January 1854 Parke had led his own railroad survey eastward along the 32nd parallel to New Mexico. Now, back by ship from New York with his party, he was at California’s Benicia army depot ready for yet another survey: to “determine the practicability” of a railroad line running west of the Coast Ranges from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

      Parke was assisted by Albert H. Campbell, Brown University Class of 1847, a...

    • Up the Colorado River with Ives and the Naturalists, 1857–1858
      (pp. 294-306)

      Many were the naturalists, and others, who had visited, crossed, tramped, and collected around California’s side of the Colorado River since botanist Thomas Coulter’s brief visit in May 1832. In 1850 Lieutenant George Derby of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, a flippant author who hid behind the pseudonyms “Squibob” and “John Phoenix,” was assigned to survey the lower Colorado River to see if supplies could be carried by boat up to Fort Yuma. In the Gulf of California he was provided with an oversize 120-ton ship that barely managed to get upstream using flood tides. Derby pressed on,...

  10. PART FIVE The California Geological Survey

    • The California Geological Survey’s Formative Years, 1849–1862
      (pp. 309-332)

      Dr. John Boardman Trask of Massachusetts first set foot in California on October 15, 1849, crossing the Colorado River to Fort Yuma on a scow fashioned out of a wagon body. Also on the “ferry” was John Woodhouse Audubon, John James Audubon’s younger son, leader of a large party of gold seekers and emigrants that included Trask. Audubon had finished working with his father on a monumental book of American mammals with paintings by father and son, and on this trip to California, in addition to mining, he hoped to continue collecting and painting objects of natural history. But so...

    • The Geological Survey Continues, 1863–1874
      (pp. 333-356)

      The year 1863 commenced on an optimistic note with the issuance of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1. While William Brewer waited to resume the California Geological Survey, he delivered a lecture on the third in San Jose, his subject “The Mountain Scenery of California.” By now the botanist-geologist was recording secretary of the California Academy of Natural Sciences, and within a month he was offered a consulting position with a Mexican silver mine that he reluctantly declined, since he knew practically nothing about mining. Then one day he visited a “small-fry” college in Oakland, where he chatted with...

  11. PART SIX Institutions and Naturalists

    • The California Academy of Natural Sciences
      (pp. 359-360)

      On the evening of June 27, 1821, seven dignitaries met in Sydney, Australia, at the home of Judge Barron Field and founded the Philosophical Society of Australasia (later the Royal Society of New South Wales), Australia’s first scientific society, modeled on the Royal Society of London. Although New South Wales was a new British colony in a raw frontier land and the so-called tyranny of distance isolated it from the manifold sophistications of the home country, an early priority was the creation of a scientific society.

      In the gold-booming frontier state of California, with its own tyranny of distance, the...

    • “Scientist and Savant” Joseph LeConte and the University of California
      (pp. 361-368)

      At the May 4, 1863, meeting of the California Academy of Natural Sciences, Josiah Whitney, the state geologist, spoke about the progress of the California State Geological Survey and was concerned that no provisions had yet been made to provide a permanent home for its collections. He reminded the audience of a recent and very important legislative act authorizing the appointment of a committee including the state geologist, superintendent of public instruction, and surveyor general to report to the next legislature “upon the feasibility of establishing a State University, embracing an Agricultural College, a School of Mining and a Museum,...

    • Astronomy Devotee James Lick and the Lick Observatory
      (pp. 369-375)

      There is a bounty of sky above the state of California—about 165,000 square miles of it. And in the early days it was easy to see the night sky, there being few distracting illuminations and little haze in the air except from dust, humidity, and smoke from Indian fires and occasional hamlets. All the early expeditions spent plenty of time observing stars using the sextant for location, and recording comets, meteors, eclipses, halos, and other astronomical phenomena.

      Members of the U.S. Coast Survey recorded the May 26, 1854, solar eclipse at Humboldt Bay, Benicia, and Loma Prieta, while three...

    • Edward Lee Greene: The University of California’s First Bona Fide Botanist
      (pp. 376-382)

      In late July 1883 an unorthodox man of the cloth executed an ecclesiastical assault in Berkeley, California. Locked out of his church by a disgruntled vestry because he was injecting too much Catholic doctrine into his ministrations, Reverend Edward Lee Greene, with a small band of zealous supporters, charged down Bancroft Way to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. With the axe he had been carrying over his shoulder, Greene smashed the padlocked doors and stormed into the church. Donning cassock and surplice, he intoned morning prayer, two long passages from Job, selections from the Psalter, and an unorthodox sermon to a...

  12. PART SEVEN The Postwar Naturalists

    • The Latter-Day Peripatetic Naturalists
      (pp. 385-400)

      During the February 17, 1868, meeting of the California Academy of Sciences there were two presentations about ongoing western surveys. One was by geologist Clarence King, who now headed the government’s 40th Parallel Survey. In the winter of 1867–68 King’s survey men had stayed in Nevada, the geologists in boomtown Virginia City and the rest of the scientific staff in Carson City. Although the previous field season’s discoveries needed writing up and the collections needed organizing, King took time for a quick trip over the snowy Sierra to San Francisco. At the academy meeting—where his former superior, Josiah...

    • Frontier Naturalists Calling California Home
      (pp. 401-434)

      John Muir first arrived in San Francisco on the morning of March 28, 1868, coming from the Panama Isthmus bound for “California’s weeds and flowers.” He died on Christmas Eve 1914 at the California Hospital in Los Angeles, after becoming ill at the Van Dyke Ranch in the Mohave Desert.

      University of California professor Willis Jepson said of Muir: “He was many things: a geologist, a geographer, and a zoologist—but he liked best to be thought a botanist.” Muir indeed developed an intimate appreciation for western flora, especially Giant Sequoias. But ornithologists laud Muir’s observations of the American Dipper,...

  13. Postlude: The End of California’s “Frontier”
    (pp. 435-440)

    The World’s Columbian Exposition, commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492, opened on May 1, 1893, in Chicago. At a special meeting there of the American Historical Association, a University of Wisconsin history professor read a landmark treatise titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Frederick Jackson Turner began his paper with a quotation from the superintendent of the 1890 census: “a frontier line” no longer exists for the nation and consequently the frontier “cannot, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” The frontier opened by Columbus had—supposedly—...

  14. Selected References
    (pp. 441-464)
  15. Index
    (pp. 465-484)