The energetic intellectual climate that followed the War of 1812 in the United States stimulated the establishment of natural history societies in the new nation’s largest cities.1 These societies encouraged systematic study and scientific illustration of North American plants and animals.

The pirated publication of the botanical discoveries of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in London, England, scooped Philadelphia naturalists involved with the task and made them aware of the need for prompt scientific press.2 With growing interest in organized scientific exploration, Philadelphia-based naturalists such as Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), Thomas Say (1787-1834), Thomas Nuttall (1786- 1859), and Titian R. Peale (1799-1885) traveled in the Southeast before they made their reputations in the Far West. That is, they followed in the footsteps of William Bartram (1739-1823).3

James J. Audubon (1785-1851) visited Philadelphia for early direction and advice, and he, too, headed south. For these men, observation of plants and animals was an art as well as a science, and despite the primitive conditions of frontier travel, they developed a sense of the beautiful in nature, as remarkably non-European as it was enthusiastic.

Traveling naturalists responded to the flora and fauna and to the landscape in which they worked. They recorded notable features of the terrain as well as their reactions to those vistas. As a result, landscape descriptions took up significant portions of their journals. American naturalists described with interest irregularities-giant shadows, moving clouds, rocky turrets, and roaring cataracts.4 Many elements of these descriptions were not new to readers familiar with Romantic literature of the early nineteenth century.5

Like the gifted British Romantic poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, naturalists also responded to the complex aesthetics of the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque, articulated by Edmund Burke. In the American Southeast, naturalists actually experienced the elements that Burke associated with the sublime: difficulty or access, a feeling of privation, and a sense of power, magnificence, vastness, and even infinity.6 These responses defined public expectations for landscape descriptions of the Far West.

Naturalists’ understanding of the frontier landscape differed from that of the Romantics in at least one important way. Instead of regarding the wilderness as an “incomprehensible,” “awesome” or “romantic chasm,” they discerned a geological system. Seeking to know, they gathered taxonomic specimens in “the wild secluded scene,” and behind “the purple shadow” they discovered new genera and species.7

Like naturalists abroad, these early nineteenth-century travelers were applying the tools of classification to flora and fauna with success. Their interest in taxonomy helped them organize their observations of the landscape, but channeled their interest away from other natural phenomena, for example, dramatic lightning displays.8 Despite Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia fame, lightning and fire were not parts of their understanding of natural landscapes.