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.
- For the early history of the Academy, see Academy of Natural Sciences, Notice of the Academy of Natural Sciences or Philadelphia (Philadelphia. 1831), and Patsy Gerstner. “The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1812-1850,” in Alexandra Oleson and Sanborn C. Brown, eds., The Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early American Republic: American Scientific and Lamed Societies from Colonial Times to the Civil War (Baltimore, 1976), 174-188.
- See Charlotte M, Porter, ”The Concussion of Revolution: Publication and Reform at the Early Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, 1812-1842,” Journal of the History of Biology, XII (Fall, 1979), 273-292; Jeannette E. Graustein, Thomas Nuttall, Naturalist: Explorations in America, 1808-1841 (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 88-93, 96-97, 120-121; Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854 (Urbana, 1962). 469-470, 493-644.
- William Maclure, the Academy’s president from 1817 to 1840, encouraged publication by purchasing a printing press so that Academy members could produce their own journal. See Academy, Notice of the Academy, 5.
- Marjorie H. Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Ithaca, 1959), 12-16.
- For a discussion of this point, see Hans Huth, Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes (Berkeley, 1957), 30-37.
- John Conron, ed., The American Landscape: A Critical Anthology of Prose and Poverty (New York, 1973), 141,143.
- The quotations are from, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream,” 1.12, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” 1.21; and William Wordsworth. “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” 1.6, all in W. H. Auden and Norman H. Pearson, eds., Romantic Poets: Blake a Poe (New York, 1968), 153, 160, 192.
- See Alexander Wilson’s description of the midwestern thunderstorm “with all its towering assemblage of black alpine clouds,” in his “Particulars of the Death of Captain Lewis,” Portfolio, VII (July, 1812), 47.