Knowledge Comes Naturally

IN OUR DAY it has become common for remote parts of the world to be explored, mapped, botanized, and described before they are densely settled by migrants. The explorer, the geographer, and the naturalist now go first; the settler follows. The stock of novelty is thus used up—or appropriated by specialized scientists—even before a settled culture begins to develop. For some time now, for example, we have had more varied, more voluminous, and more precise knowledge about Africa, Inner Mongolia, and the Arctic than provincial Americans possessed about any but a narrow strip along the Atlantic seaboard.

The haze which covered the New World in that age probably covers no part of the world today; America was one of the last places where European settlers would come in large numbers before the explorers, geographers, and professional naturalists. With little more than hearsay and advertising to guide them, early Americans had many of the joys and tasks, the surprises and disappointments of explorers though they lived the lives of permanent settlers. This was a crucial fact; it would brighten their thinking about the world around them; it would affect their ideal of man; it would liberate them from many of the metaphysical and dogmatic problems which plagued the more introspective, library-oriented man of Europe; it would entice their eyes and minds to varied, shifting, unpredictable shapes of the world around them—shapes on which every man, sometimes the first viewer, was his own authority. The time had come for the overcultivated man of Europe to rediscover the earth on which he walked.

Perhaps never before in a civilized country had physical and intellectual expansion been so clearly synonymous. To enlarge the country and to populate it automatically enlarged man’s knowledge of the world. The crowning symbol of this American identity was the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), conceived and fitted out by Jefferson for the most mixed intellectual-political reasons. Even from the earliest records of Captain John Smith, William Bradford, or John Winthrop, the enlarging of knowledge of America was simultaneous with the enlarging of the new American community. We sometimes forget how gradual was the “discovery” of America: it was a by-product of the occupation of the continent. To act, to move on, to explore meant also to push back the frontiers of knowledge; this inevitably gave a practical and dynamic character to the very idea of knowledge. To learn and to act became one.

The continent itself was a great reservoir of the unknown, and it remained so until well into the 19th century. It was not only that a new species of plant or animal might be encountered near a rural doorway; many of the simplest facts of geography were yet to be described. Anyone who reads Jedidiah Morse’s pioneer one-volume American Geography (1789) sees vast unknown areas which challenged the leading American geographers of that day. The first extensive and systematic geography of America was produced by an industrious German scholar, Christoph Daniel Ebeling (1741-1817), whose seven-volume Erdbeschreibung und Geschichte von Amerika: Die Vereinten Staaten von Nordamerika (1793-1816) collected and sifted bits of knowledge from a hundred different sources. Americans were too busy exploring their land to write elaborate books about it. While the provincial age produced many regional surveys like Belknap’s History of New Hampshire, Williams’ History of Vermont, and Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, and useful handbooks like Morse’s, American interest was directed to the uses of the land rather than to a full schematic description of it. Even before Ebeling’s multivolume work, the most important contributions to the writing of American geography had not been made by Americans. “So imperfect are all the accounts of America hitherto published, even by those who once exclusively possessed the best means of information,” Morse explained in his Preface, “that from them very little knowledge of this country can be acquired. Europeans have been the sole writers of American Geography, and have too often suffered fancy to supply the place of facts, and thus have led their readers into errors, while they professed to aim at removing their ignorance.”

Although the eastern seaboard was known in some detail, knowledge of the area across the Appalachians was full of conjecture. Some of these vagaries had political consequences. Jefferson’s plan for future Western states makes no sense on a correct modern map; it must be understood in the light of the conjectural geography of the West which was current in his day. Morse’s New Map of North America “from the latest and best Authorities” (1794) placed the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Lake Superior! It designated “Head of the Misouri unknown” and omitted the Columbia River and anything like the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Morse frankly confessed ignorance of the geography of all North America except the Atlantic seaboard: of the bays, sounds, straits, and islands of the continent “(except those in the United States …) we know little more than their names.”

The heart of the continent was so uncharted that hypotheses about it were commonly used to explain peculiarities of the climate of the settled seaboard. The impenetrable forests, which were supposed to cover the interior parts of the continent (presumably keeping the land from being heated by the sun), explained the relatively cold climate of America. On the seaboard where the land had been deforested and where the sea-winds could reach inland, the winter climate was said to have become progressively milder since the earliest settlements.

New “facts” of natural history, both real and imaginary, were the very substance of the earliest promotional tracts designed to bring settlers to America or to sell them land here. The authors of these brochures were no more cautious or prone to understatement than the advertising copy-writers in any other age. The writers of travel-books were always tempted to turn up, or if necessary to invent, exotic novelties. Few went so far as the Turkish writer Ibrahim Effendi who in 1729 described the delightful “Wakwak” tree whose fruit was ripe and attractive women, but many others exercised their imagination in describing bizarre plants and the Eldoradan wonders of the water and climate.

Much of the authentic knowledge of the New World was the byproduct of travels undertaken for some specific practical purpose. When William Byrd in 1728 served on the commission to survey the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina, he kept a journal, the “History of the Dividing Line,” which deserves to be a more widely-read classic of the truly New World literature. In his naïve and colloquial fashion, Byrd not only described the actual problems of surveying an American wilderness. He collected all the miscellaneous remarkable details of life around him: the superstitious Indian fear “to provoke the Guardian of the Forrest, by cooking the Beasts of the Field and the Birds of the Air together in one vessell”; how Indian men on horseback “rode more awkwardly than any Dutch Sailor, and the Ladies bestrode their Palfreys a la mode de France, but were so bashful about it, that there was no persuading them to Mount till they were quite out of our Sight”; the habits of the wild turkey; the qualities of rattlesnake root as an antidote against snakebite; the virtues of the American wild grape; the habits and edibility of the bear; and the surprisingly sweet flavor of polecat meat.

A hundred other practical missions produced thousands of oddments about the New World: from official surveyors like Byrd, Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas), and Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon who spent five years (1763-68) surveying the ominous line which bears their name; from private speculators like George Washington, bent on discovering and claiming the best land; from itinerant ministers like the Anglican Charles Woodmason, the Quaker Thomas Chalkley, or the Wesley brothers, each determined to save souls in his own particular way; and from merchants like the fanciful bookseller James Dunton. From remote Fort Pitt, one of its British officers Henry Bouquet on Feb. 3, 1762 sent John Bartram in Philadelphia a parcel of specimens. “I thought it might be agreeable to you to know what nature produces, in those wildernesses. … I should be much obliged to you, to send me, at your leisure, a catalogue of trees and plants, peculiar to this country, which are not natural to the soil of Europe; as I propose to send a collection to a friend, when we have more peaceable times.”

All knowledge in America seemed to come in small, miscellaneous parcels. The almost overwhelming temptation was simply to gather up these parcels as one came upon them, not worrying too much whether they were marketable in the familiar European categories. While Americans collected the novelties, the more academic and bookish Europeans systematized them. European, and especially English, gardeners and naturalists helped make Americans aware of the wealth around them. John Bartram, the self-educated Philadelphian who probably discovered more plants than any other American and founded the first Botanic Garden in America, owed his start in botanical collecting and the funds for his extensive travels to Peter Collinson, London botanist and dealer in nursery-goods who distributed American imports to English gardeners. But Bartram was, as a contemporary described him, “more collector than student” and, though “a Wonderful Natural Genius,” possessed a scanty knowledge of botanical principles. The significance of his seeds and plants for systematic botany was discovered by English naturalists like Sir Hans Sloane and Mark Catesby, by the Dutch botanist Johann Friedrich Gronovius, and by the great Swede Carl Linnaeus. Bartram’s aptness for collecting new items and his inability to systematize them symbolized tendencies in American thought.

Perhaps the other, most famous American botanist of this type was John Clayton, the clerk of Gloucester County, Virginia, whose specimens provided the raw materials for Gronovius’ famous treatise Flora Virginica (1739-43), which was extensively used by Linnaeus himself. It was thoroughly in character that Flora Virginica, the leading methodical treatise on American botany in the colonial age, should have been the work of European scholarship.

During the provincial age the most conspicuous American effort to contribute to systematic science was made by the energetic and brashly speculative Cadwallader Colden. Born in Scotland, Colden had secured a master’s degree at Edinburgh and a medical education in London. He came to the colonies in 1710. From 1718 until his retirement from public life in 1750 he held a number of public offices in New York—surveyor-general, member of the Governor’s Council, and eventually Lieutenant-Governor. For most of his life he carried on these jobs through deputies and, while supported at public expense, devoted himself to the scientific pursuits in which he was determined to attain immortality. Of a systematic turn of mind, he was very early attracted by Linnaeus’ classification. Although Colden thought and wrote a great deal about a mythical “natural” botanic system and liked to speculate on the most general scientific problems, these thoughts brought little notice or recognition; it was his collection and description of American botanic novelties that brought him international fame. His Plantae Coldenghamiae, a list of plants found in the neighborhood of his New York farm, was probably the closest approach to a systematic botany by an American hand during the provincial age. It was never fully printed in America.

The atomizing influence of the American environment seemed contagious. When in 1748 Peter Kalm, a learned Swedish professor, came here at the expense of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Stockholm to survey plants and trees of possible use in Sweden, he too was seduced by the fascinating miscellany of America. Though he added some new species, and even genera, of American plants, his principal product was nothing systematic. His Travels in North America included such assorted items as the brevity of Canadian women’s skirts, the wastefulness of American farmers’ methods, and the habits of black ants.

Buffon and Linnaeus encouraged Americans to explore and discover their New World: European interests coincided with American opportunities. But the Americans, well located to provide raw materials for European systematizers, seldom served their knowledge up à l’Europe. Sometimes the very existence of so many systematizers in contemporary Europe seemed to make Americans feel that they themselves did not need to seek large generalizations. Anyway, they lacked the leisure; they were far from ancient libraries and centers of learning, and their new world beckoned with many varieties of “unthought-of phaenomena.” In Europe, discovering something new in the natural world required the concentration of a philosopher, the researches of a scholar, or the industry of an encyclopedist. In America it took effort to avoid novelty.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!