Thomas Nuttall was born in England in 1786 and worked as a journeyman printer while also studying botany and geology on his own time. Eventually, in 1808 he traveled to America where Benjamin Smith Barton fostered his interest in natural history.
In 1810 he joined William Price Hunt’s expedition up the Missouri River on behalf of John Jacob Astor. This began a series of journeys where he collected plants for his major work: “Genera of North American Plants”.
Early Life and Education
Nuttall was born into humble circumstances in Yorkshire, England in 1786. As an apprentice printer and studying botany and geology he soon embarked upon field collections that would establish him as one of America’s premier naturalists.
Nuttall was an amateur botanist who enjoyed exploring the wilderness. His adventurous spirit earned him a reputation for recklessness; twice Indians nearly killed him; one time even hiding for days until one took pity on him and offered sanctuary.
In 1820, Townsend accepted a lecturer position at Harvard University but his fascination with nature outweigh this position; thus leading him on an expedition through the Pacific Northwest together with ornithologist John Kirk Townsend.
Thomas Nuttall was a printer by trade but had the heart of an explorer. His passion for nature led him to travel widely in order to collect botanical specimens. Nutall became known as the father of American Rhododendrons due to his tireless work collecting specimens. His studies contributed significantly towards understanding American flora.
Nuttall abandoned his printing apprenticeship and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he encountered Benjamin Smith Barton who introduced him to natural history and its study.
Within a year he embarked on his first of many plant collecting expeditions. In 1810 he visited the Great Lakes area; one year later he joined William Price Hunt’s Missouri River expedition; additionally, he also traveled with Nathaniel Wyeth and John Kirk Townsend up Arkansas and Oregon rivers.
Achievement and Honors
Thomas Nuttall was a pioneer of American botany and natural history, contributing significantly by identifying numerous species of plants as well as writing extensively about how Native Americans and settlers in early Arkansas used them.
He was an accomplished author and influential force in the evolution of botany, with publications on geology, botany, and ornithology to his credit that have earned him widespread renown even today.
He was an honored member of both the Linnean Society in London and Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, but more importantly was an avid traveler with nerve. This allowed him to journey into parts of Africa that had yet to be explored by non-natives – making him one of the world’s foremost naturalists of his era.
Nuttall spent 34 years exploring and collecting plants across western wilderness areas, amassing an amazing diversity. Due to his systematic work across continent, science was made aware of many such as sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata or cat-brier [smee-LACKS]). Furthermore, his journals remain invaluable sources for Oklahoma history research.
After his return to Philadelphia in 1820, Nuttall began lecturing at Harvard University; but his wanderlust drove him elsewhere again – leading an expedition into the Pacific Northwest before spending 1835 traveling California and Hawaii before finally heading back home via his uncle’s will in England.
Nuttall was an accomplished botanist, zoologist, geologist, ornithologist and Harvard instructor renowned for his naturalist travels across North America as well as Hawaii and Pacific Islands where he conducted botanizing expeditions. Additionally he contributed his knowledge and botanical expertise to Asa Gray’s Flora of North America as well as hosting popular lectures about plants and animals.
Nuttall’s depictions of the frontier were influential in creating an idealized and romanticized image of western life that still resonates today and glosses over its much more violent realities.
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