Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Retracing Thomas Nuttall’s botanical journey

FORT SMITH, Ark. — Thomas Nuttall may not be a name as famous as other early 1800s explorers like Meriwether Lewis or William Clark, but for those who study the natural world, he is an iconic figure.

Fort Smith served as Nuttall’s base of operations the summer of 1819 for what would become his “Journal of Travels into the Arkansa Territory” and local restorative ecologist Steve Patterson has organized a field trip through the Kiamichi Technology Center in Poteau to retrace some of Nuttall’s steps and talk about native plant species.

Because the program was so popular the first try last month, another field trip is being planned for the fall.

“Nuttall is really the beginning of plant science for this part of the world,” Patterson said. “In general, he’s not just the first botanist to explore this area, but he also talks about geology and the people.”

Randy Easley, one of those who took part in the June field trip, points out Nuttall classified hundreds of species, and his journal is regarded as a “classic of frontier writing and a valuable source on frontier settlements and early Arkansas history.”

The Times Record reports that the post of Fort Smith was just 16 months old and no other scientist had documented the native plants. Nuttall’s Arkansas journal came out in 1821, about five years after he published “The Genera of North American Plants.”

Those who take part in the program are encouraged by Patterson to get the Nuttall journal edited by Savoie Lottinville and published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Although Nuttall’s original journal used “Arkansa,” without the extra “s,” later editions use the accepted spelling.

Nuttall’s contributions to science may be well known among botanists, foresters and other scientists, but to the general public he is obscure. Patterson would like to change that.

The 19th century botanist discovered and named many species of plants, including the Mondarda russeliana he found locally in what is known as the Massard Prairie. It’s named for a Dr. Russell, the fort doctor at Fort Smith when Nuttall was there. Russell died between the time of Nuttall’s first stay at the fort and when he returned a few months later.

Patterson said he has tried to get an estimate of how many plants Nuttall named, but so far has been unsuccessful because the task is not easy. Many things Nuttall named have been renamed by others in the years since.

“That’s the way botanical taxonomy works, names change as understanding of relationships grows, as was in fact the fate of his Monarda russeliana” Patterson writes.

Nuttall named the genus Maclure for the bois d’ark or Osage orange for a patron of his in Philadelphia, but someone subsequently gave it a new species name and kept Nuttall’s genus.

“By the rules of botanical nomenclature, you aren’t supposed to name things for yourself,” Patterson explained. “So the many species named for Nuttall are another testament to the high regard he was held by others. Just one locally known example is Nuttall oak, widely planted as an ornamental yard tree.”

Based on his later explorations of the West Coast, there are reportedly more than 40 more species and genera of marine organisms named after him, Patterson adds.

“I’d love to see people more aware of it, especially for the Fort Smith bicentennial,” Patterson said of Nuttall and his works.

Nuttall reached Fort Smith from Philadelphia by river on April 24, 1819, just 16 months after Maj. William Bradford and his troops landed at Belle Point to set up the post. According to a 1905 copy of Nuttall’s journal edited by R.G. Thwaites, Nuttall set out from Fort Smith with Bradford and a company of soldiers on May 16 and crossed the wilderness to the Red River following the Poteau and Kiamichi.

Patterson says Nuttall was “half explorer, half absent-minded professor.” At the mouth of the Kiamichi on that first excursion, Nuttall got separated from the troops and it took him more than a month to get back to the fort.

Thwaites puts it like this: “While loitering to collect some curious plants, he became separated from his companions and was compelled to spend three weeks with the squatters, awaiting the departure for a party for Fort Smith, where he finally arrived after an absence of five weeks.”

All comedy aside, Nuttall was a serious scientist who went on to be appointed curator of the botanical garden at Harvard College in 1822 where he contributed to journals for the Academy of Natural Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. While at Harvard, he also wrote “Introduction to Systematic and Physiological Botany” and produced the “Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada.”

Eleven years behind a desk at Cambridge, Mass., was about all the explorer could handle, though. The flash point, according to Thwaites, was a collection of plants he received from Capt. Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth from a journey overland to Oregon. By late April 1834, Nuttall was on the march again to the great Northwest before joining former student Richard Henry Dana Jr. in a voyage back to Boston that Dana would turn into the book, “Two Years before the Mast.”

The day trip led by Patterson includes visits to the Fort Smith National Historic Site, the Poteau River riparian and bottomland forests and both the Massard and Pickle prairies.

At the National Historic Site, Park Ranger Cody Faber offers information to the group regarding not only Nuttall’s time there and his botanical interests, but the interactions with Native Americans and soldiers.

“This was quite an enlightening story, and one that after living 30 years in Fort Smith as an adult I had never heard,” Easley noted. “Anyone interested in early Arkansas history or Native American history should really invest in both a copy of the book and following up with a visit to the Fort Smith National Historic Site.”

In the Massard Prairie portion of the Nuttall field trip, Patterson introduces Jay Randolph, course superintendent at Ben Geren Golf Course. Randolph has worked for several years to restore native plants to the Massard Prairie in Fort Smith where the golf course lies.

“Jay initially was looking at ways to manage the ‘rough’ areas in such a way as to reduce the amount of maintenance required,” Easely writes. “What he did was stumble upon remnants of the Massard Prairie that with a little TLC allowed them to reclaim their former majesty. He invested time to learn about the species and provide ways for them to recover through prescribed fire and suppression of competing species. Jay is doing a great job and combining ecology and recreation.”

In the Poteau River bottoms Easley said they “had an interesting discussion regarding the Osage Orange (Bois d’Arc) or Hedge-apple and how they might have been important enough source of wood for bow making and that the plants or trees were traded and cultivated for that purpose.”

Donna Deaton, one of the dozen or so who took part in the Nuttall field trip, grew up in the area of Pickle Prairie near Poteau, but she still learned something and became more aware of the need to both preserve the remaining prairies and restore as much as possible.

“I grew up just a couple of miles from the Pickle Prairie,” Deaton wrote in an email. “My family and the Pickle family have been friends for almost a century. I have passed by that prairie many times and didn’t even realize it was a prairie. The Thomas Nuttall tour helped me see the very place I lived as an important piece of history. I’m now much more aware of the flowers I pass on local roads and highways. I have learned that the weeds we often cut or even poison have been around for a long time and need to be protected.”

In his account of the trip, Easley tells of meeting with Wes Pickle, whose family has owned a patch of the prairie for about 100 years. The Pickle Prairie location was where Nuttall set camp the first night out from the fort. Pickle told of his family’s practice of haying the meadows in such a way as it has been a sustainable source of hay for nearly a century.

“Perhaps knowingly, this family has preserved an important piece of natural landscape in eastern Oklahoma,” Easley writes. “One of the species located there was Russell’s Bee Balm or Russell’s horse mint.”

The plant was named by Nuttall after the fort’s doctor who accompanied Nuttall in this leg of his travels.

In a handy guide for the group, Patterson created a “Thomas Nuttall Bicentennial” Facebook page that offers some extra details about Nuttall’s scientific journey in the area.

“After two months using Fort Smith as the base for his botanizing and exploring, Nuttall left the garrison on July 6,” Patterson writes. “He continued traveling upstream on the Arkansas River with the Three Forks area his next goal. He arrived there on July 14. Three Forks refers to where the Verdigris and Grand Rivers enter the Arkansas very close to each other. Nuttall says they were only a quarter mile apart; on a current map it looks like about three-quarters mile. Whereas Fort Smith was a brand new fort in 1819, Three Forks was a landmark and trade routes node of long standing. There were four trading posts in operation when Nuttall arrived.”

The Poteau River oxbow lakes, wetlands, and Nuttall’s camp on his second night out, are also intended parts of the field trip pending time availability.

Danielle Matthews of the Kiamichi Technology Center said they would “definitely” plan to do another Nuttall program, but no date has been set yet.

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