The saga of the Lewis and Clark Plant Collection and the Irish nurseryman Bernard McMahon’s unwitting role in its fate!

This week I’m posting a different botanical illustration of the Pacific Northwest native plant named for Bernard McMahon- and not one of my own. This actual botanical illustration was very possibly created in McMahon’s home. To find out how read on.

Tall Oregon grape. Mahonia aquifolium syn. Berberis aquifolium. Illustrated by Frederick Pursh in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis, 1814.
 According to Joseph Ewan (Frederick Pursh 1774-1820 and his Botanical Associates)
 you can see where Pursh traced the plant from the dried specimen in the Lewis and Clark Plant Collection.

The Lewis and Clark Plant Collection and Bernard McMahon’s role in its fate.

While researching my last blog – Nurseryman Bernard McMahon and the Oregon native plant with an Irish connection– I promised to return to the story of Bernard McMahon’s, sometimes unwitting, role in the fortunes of the Lewis and Clark Plant Collection.

“The convoluted history of the seeds and plants collected by Lewis and Clark, their passage from Washington and Oregon into the botanical record was nearly as arduous as the journey itself… Working largely behind the scenes, one obscure figure, Bernard McMahon, assumed a primary role in nurturing the seeds from field to page.”

Robert S. Cox

From the Pacific Northwest to McMahon’s nursery.

In order to understand how this happened let us go back a little and look at the history of this famed collection once it arrived back in the eastern U.S. The collection was shipped back east in two stages. The first shipment was sent back in 1805 and the second brought back by Lewis & Clark in 1806. There were two parts to the collection- the dried specimens and the live seeds. The dried specimens were sent to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia where, it was understood, Dr. Benjamin Smith Barton would assist Lewis in preparing their description for publication. The seeds were divided between McMahon and William Hamilton who were to propagate and grow them in secret until such time as Lewis would bring the account of his travels and the plant collection to print. Apparently, McMahon proceeded immediately to germinate the seeds whereas Hamilton was slower to set to the task.

From under his nose!

While Jefferson and Lewis were counseling McMahon to keep the precious live plant collection secret fearing some unscrupulous botanist might, on discovering its existence at McMahon’s nursery, rob Lewis of his right to describing them first, in the end it was the dried specimens that were more at risk of being spirited away. Ironically, this was not done by some outside interloper but by the very person McMahon recommended to assist Lewis bring his work to publication; and it was this assistant who ultimately published the collection first, not in the United States but in England – adding insult to injury.

MacMahon helps speed up the plant collection’s journey to print.

For a variety of reasons both Barton and Lewis delayed in preparing the material for publication. McMahon, wishing to be helpful and possibly anxious to shorten the “quarantine” period of the secret plants he had in his care, recommended the young German botanist Frederick Pursh for the job.  Pursh was probably already familiar with some of the dried specimens, having been employed by Barton at the time that the first shipment of plants had arrived back east.

Difficult working conditions bring Pursh to MacMahon’s home.

By all accounts Barton was a difficult person to work for and things did not go well between him and Pursh- so much so that by early 1807 Pursh had moved into MacMahon’s home and begun working on Lewis’ plants there. At this time Lewis was Governor of the Louisiana Territory and living in St. Louis. MacMahon wrote several times to St. Louis seeking instruction on Pursh’s behalf but with no success. He also took it upon himself, while waiting for the arrival of Lewis, to pay Pursh to describe the dried specimens (which had been brought from Barton’s Herbarium.) Pursh had the work more or less completed by early 1809 and grew restless waiting for further instruction. However, in 1809 Lewis died in tragic circumstances. Clark, as executor of Lewis’ will, took over responsibility for the collection material but, while MacMahon kept the live and dried specimens in safe keeping for Clark, Pursh left (or should I say absconded?) with the drawings and descriptions- and as it turns out some of the dried specimens as well.

Somehow, amazingly, during all this time (over a year) while Pursh was living at MacMahon’s and working on the collection, he never discovered the live specimens growing at the nursery (Joseph Ewan- Frederick Pursh 1774-1820 and his Botanical Associates.)

Finally published in London, England.

A description of the well-travelled collection was finally published in England by Pursh in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis (1814.) It is not clear to me if Pursh was ever properly reimbursed  for the work he did for Lewis. Nonetheless does that excuse his behavior? Does a combination of frustrated ambition and impecuniosity justify his conduct? His mysterious disappearance from the U. S. and reappearance in London a couple of years later caused much speculation and criticism amongst American botanists at the time and maybe it is for this reason that his Flora never sold well.

What of the live plant specimens at McMahon’s Nursery?

According to Ewan the first evidence of McMahon advertising plants for sale from the collection was 1815. Sadly he didn’t live long enough to benefit from such sales, dying the following year. But as I mentioned in my last blog, his life and work was memorialized by the botanist Thomas Nuttall who, in 1818, named the genus of shrubs Mahonia for him in his flora, The Genera of North American Plants. According to the record this flora was much more successful than Pursh’s.

Aislinn Adams

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