Thomas Nuttall Ribblesdale's forgotten Botanist and Explorer

Enid Parker

 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Ask anyone in Long Preston if they have heard of Thomas Nuttall, who was born there in 1786 and educated in the old village school, and the answer would be "No". There is no memorial to him anywhere in the village, yet he was an eminent man of his time, a botanist, Harvard professor, explorer and author.

Thomas Nuttall was the son of James Nuttall of Colne and his wife Margaret. Her family, the Hardacres, had lived in the locality for generations. Little is known of James Nuttall who died in 1798 but Margaret Nuttall continued to live in Long Preston until her death in 1841 at the age of 80.

Thomas left school at fourteen. He was apprenticed to his father's younger brother Jonas, a printer in Liverpool. Any spare time was spent in self education—Latin, Greek, French and natural history.

On completing his apprenticeship, Thomas became very restless and sailed to America in 1808. He settled in Philadelphia, a prosperous and cultivated city which, until 1800, had been the country's capital. Here he found employment as a printer and attended public botanical lectures given by Professor Barton of Harvard. Botany was then an essential part of medical studies. Plants were the physician's living drugs, most universities possessed botanic gardens and were continually enlarging their collections. Gardens, too, had become a status symbol. Frequently, wealthy people, particularly in Europe, were engrossed in laying out and landscaping new gardens and avidly acquired collections of exotic plants from newly explored areas. Many important botanists and botanic gardens employed plant-hunters who were often explorers in their own right.

Barton encouraged Nuttall and introduced him to William Bartram, an elderly pioneer plant collector who welcomed Nuttall to his home. It was here that he met other enthusiastic botanists and ornithologists and heard their accounts of journeys into the wilderness areas of America.

In 1809, sponsored by Barton, Thomas Nuttall made two collecting trips on foot, into the coastal swamps of Delaware Bay and then through New York State to Niagara and on to Lakes Erie and Huron. Barton was so impressed by Nuttall's thoroughness and plant, bird, fossil and mineral collections that he employed him for eight dollars a month, plus expenses, to follow the route taken by the 1803-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, the first to cross the Continental Divide and reach the Pacific Ocean. President Thomas Jefferson had asked him to identify plants collected by the expedition and Nuttall's information would help with that process.

Nuttall travelled by stage coach, on foot and by boat to Lake Huron. Here he joined an expedition organised by the J J Astor Fur Co. to follow the Lewis and Clark journey from St Louis to the Rockies, then travelling down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast to establish a fur trading post. The account of this 60-man expedition is recorded in Washington Irving's "Astoria". It was a hazardous journey and Nuttall could provide little help in defence against hostile Indians as he used his rifle muzzle to dig specimens for his plant collection and stored seed in the bore. He had difficulty preserving animals as friendly Indians drank the alcohol used for preservation.

Nuttall did not complete the journey. War was imminent between Britain and the USA, so he sent Barton his collection and sailed home to England. There he distributed American plants and seeds and made many useful contacts including Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, an eminent botanist who had sailed with Captain Cook. Nuttall returned to America in 1815. His printing job was no longer necessary for he left England with many orders for plants and seeds. His "Genera of North American Plants" was published in 1818. After only seven years in America this self-taught Craven man was recognised as an outstanding naturalist.

The west always beckoned and among the expeditions he made at this period the most notable was an eighteen month journey into frontier territory through the present states of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, which he described in "A Journal of Travels into the Arkansa Territory". The area was scantily settled with military posts established to control the Indians. While staying at Fort Smith he discovered 100 new herbs in one day. His plans to reach the Rockies were dashed when fever broke out, killing soldiers, settlers and Indians alike. To escape the outbreak Nuttall had to abandon his journey.

On his return he was appointed Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, and Curator of the Botanic Gardens at Cambridge (America), a mile from his college. Nuttall enjoyed life at Harvard, and was a popular lecturer. He was frequently accompanied by students on his vacation expeditions.

Nuttall returned to England twice on family business. His uncle, Jonas, had bought an estate, Nutgrove Hall, near St Helens, and his heir had died. He wished to leave the estate to Nuttall or, should he the without issue, to Nuttall's nephew. He always returned to his native Craven to visit his mother during busy business schedules visiting nursery men and contacting renowned botanists such as Dr W J Hooker, Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow, who eventually became curator of Kew Gardens, and Lord Derby his uncle's neighbour, who was an enthusiastic gardener.

Harvard gave him frequent leaves of absence for further expeditions to carry out field investigations and to collect plants for his botanic gardens and ornithological specimens, fossils, minerals and shells. Thomas, always curious and enquiring, became restless when not involved in some collecting trip or expedition.

His interest in birds led to the publication of his book "A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States" in 1832. J J Audubon the great American ornithologist wrote "Nuttall is a gem—a most worthy, agreeable man—quite after our heart". Nuttall met Nathaniel Wyeth who had blazed the Oregon Trail. Wyeth wished to return and establish trading posts and settlements. Thomas Nuttall resigned his post with its salary of $1000 per annum to join Wyeth's 70-man expedition to the Pacific Coast. Nuttall, now 48, balding and stout, was an unlikely frontiersman for he could not hunt, shoot, swim, light a fire or cook and had little sense of direction. But the Rockies had been his dream. It was a long and dangerous journey of 2000 miles. The expedition suffered hunger and thirst, and extremes of temperature. Nuttall saw the plains and mountains in a primeval state with vast herds of buffalo, wild horses, antelope, dangerous grizzly bears and many tribes of Indians. He was rewarded by collecting almost 1000 new species of American plants. This six month continental crossing was the first to be made by an experienced scientist.

Nuttall, indefatigable as ever, sailed from the Pacific Coast to spend the winter of 1835 in Honolulu. On returning to California, he met one of his former students, Richard Dana, who was a seaman on the barque "Alert", on which Nuttall returned to Boston via Cape Horn. Dana wrote in his book "Two Years Before the Mast":

"I had left him quietly seated in the Chair of Botany and Ornithology in Harvard University ... and the next I saw of him he was strolling about San Diego beach in a Sailor's pea-jacket with a wide straw hat, and bare- booted, with his trousers rolled up to his knees, picking up stones and shells".

Audubon was able to complete his "Birds of America" with information and specimens of birds and plants supplied by Nuttall after his long journey west. Nuttall published a further book "Sylva" describing American trees with an autobiographical preface.

Reluctantly Nuttall had to return to England. His uncle, Jonas, had died in 1837, and his aunt in 1841. He felt that his real home and interests were in America, but could not afford to give up his inheritance. He wrote "You talk of English country life. I prefer the wilds of America a thousand times to all domestic arrangements. I love to be free as the air. I care nothing for privation—it is not worth a thought".

A man of great energy, he devoted much time to his estate and gardening, growing many seeds he had collected. He visited North Craven frequently, for he had many friends there, including Richard Clapham of Austwick Hall. One of his closest friends was John Windsor, a former Giggleswick School scholar and keen amateur botanist, who was a doctor in Manchester.

In 1847 he returned to visit friends in America. His previous ten Atlantic crossings had been under sail, this time he travelled by steamship. Journeys in England had become easier too, for there was a new railway station at Rainhill, near Nutgrove.

Jonas Thomas Booth, Thomas's nephew, was interested in botany and longed to travel. After training at Kew, and financed by his uncle, he journeyed to India and Assam. He returned to England with seeds and specimens of rhododendrons and orchids, his uncle's latest interests. Nuttall injured himself opening a box of plants sent by his nephew, which led to his death in 1859. He is buried at Christ Church, Eccleston near St Helens. It is sad that there is no acknowledgement of his life and achievement in his native village. North American plants which Thomas Nuttall introduced to this country flower in Long Preston gardens, yet the botanist, writer and traveller who originally collected them is forgotten.

Thomas Nuttall, reproduced from biography by Graustein. OUP, courtesy of Dr Frans Verdom.