With the nation a mere 43 years old, a party of “scientifick” explorers hurtled into the mysterious West and discovered a cornucopia of new life.
In May 1819, a bizarre apparition headed west from Pittsburgh down the Ohio River, bound for the vast wilderness beyond the Mississippi. The steamboat beam for working in tight quarters, and had its paddlewheel in the stern to minimize damage from snags and floating trees. The official account of Western Engineer was 75 feet long, with a narrow 13-foot the expedition dryly noted that “some peculiarities in the structure of the boat attracted attention” along the river.
A newspaper reporter caught the colorful details: “The bow of this vessel exhibits the form of a huge serpent, black and scaly, rising out of the water from under the boat, his head as high as the deck, darted forward.” The gaping mouth poured forth waste steam from the engine, as if breathing fire. At the stern, “a stream of foaming water, dashing violently along” came up from under the boat. “All machinery is hid….Neither wind or human hands are seen to help her….Her equipment is at once calculated to attract and awe the savage” with the illusion “that a monster of the deep carries” a painted vessel upon its back.
The name of President James Monroe was painted on one side of the steamboat and that of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun on the other, as the “propelling powers” behind an expedition that was to make its way up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, then proceed on horseback and foot to the Rocky Mountains. Calhoun urged Major Stephen Harriman Long and his party of explorers to “conciliate Indians by kindness & by presents,” while ascertaining “the number and character of the various tribes.” But he also emphasized the “scientifick purposes” of the expedition: to record “everything interesting in relation to soil, face of the country, water courses and productions whether animal vegitable or mineral” of a region “which is daily becoming more interesting.”
Those marching orders would reshape our understanding of the American West. If we tend not to realize it now, that’s partly because the expedition has always lived in the shadow of the far more celebrated journey of Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Northwest 15 years earlier. Several generations of historians also discredited the expedition for concluding that the vast plains region east of the Rockies was “utterly unfit for cultivation” and constituted “the Great American Desert,” a label that stuck and discouraged settlement into the 1880s. But if that finding frustrated mid- 19th-century notions of America’s “manifest destiny,” it was nonetheless a fair description of the arid, unwelcoming landscape that pioneers would eventually confront.
The expedition’s other results have also begun to receive more favorable treatment from modern historians. Unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, this was a true “corps of discovery” in the scientific sense, including botanists, zoologists and geologists trained in the latest scientific methods. In an era when discovery of new species was among the most exciting topics of popular, patriotic and intellectual interest, their discoveries helped define the United States of America beyond mere laws and institutions—as a living place of creatures and habitats.
Now undeservedly forgotten, Thomas Say was the expedition’s 32-year-old chief naturalist. He had grown up in Philadelphia, learning scientific methods from some of the best naturalists in the world. His great-grandfather John Bartram had collected plants as far south as Florida and west to the Ohio River. The Bartram family home just outside Philadelphia had the best botanical garden in North America, and there young Say had learned the art of classifying species from his great uncle, William Bartram, and from a neighbor, the bird artist Alexander Wilson.
Philadelphia then prided itself on being America’s intellectual capital, and Say was also able to study natural history in the country’s first national museum, the Philadelphia Museum founded by artist Charles Willson Peale. Say was himself a founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and often worked so late at both institutions that he ended up sleeping beneath the skeletons of the animals on display there. He came away with a deep faith that cataloguing, describing and displaying specimens of uniquely American plants and wildlife would help draw the nation’s motley citizenry together into a common sense of destiny. Through his work on the expedition to the Rocky Mountains, Say would introduce America to some of its most iconic animals, including the coyote, the swift fox, the Great Plains wolf, the lazuli bunting and the orange-crowned larkspur. But in a sorry twist of fate, his reputation would become entangled with that of a wandering naturalist named Constantine Rafinesque, whose zeal for identifying new species bordered on lunacy.
As the Western Engineer started its voyage, Say’s 19-year-old sidekick Titian Peale, who had lived upstairs from his family’s museum collection as a boy, was sufficiently nervous about traveling among “lawless and predatory bands of savages” to take stock of the expedition’s arsenal: a brass 4-pounder mounted in the bow, four howitzers, two smaller artillery pieces, 12 muskets, six rifles, several fowling pieces and an air gun (presumably for collecting birds with minimal damage to feathers), 12 sabers, pistols, assorted private arms “and a great sufficiency of ammunition of all kinds.”
In fact, the expedition would enjoy remarkably friendly relations with the Indians, apart from a few minor incidents. That was partly because Say came from a Quaker family with a history of defending Indians. On a previous expedition with Peale to Florida, he had protested against the government’s “most cruel & inhuman” treatment of “these poor wretches whom we call savages.”
But even before the Western Engineer departed Pittsburgh, Say was blindsided by a genuine nemesis: The brilliant crackpot Constantine Rafinesque would continually shadow his work, though they never traveled together. One of the first species Say and company fished up from the Ohio River on a hook and line was an odd underwater salamander with lungs as well as gills, now commonly known as the mudpuppy. Say was a careful follower of the rules of taxonomy developed in the mid-18th century by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. The new Linnaean system had launched a great age of biological discovery, by enabling naturalists to make sense of species and talk about them in a shared language. That system called for classifying organisms with two names, generally in Latin, indicating genus and species, followed by the name of the individual responsible for the classification. Thus the new salamander became Triton lateralis Say.
In the notes to the official account of the expedition, Say described the creature in characteristically meticulous detail over four single-spaced pages (“tail much compressed, subacutely edged above and beneath, lanceolate”), including notes on his dissection of a comparable species at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. It turned out later that Rafinesque had described the same species in print a year earlier, in 1818. His report was slapdash, also characteristically. But priority—being the first to publish— counts in scientific discovery. So the name Necturus maculosus Rafinesque prevailed.
Say and Rafinesque were cut from radically different cloth. Say was tall and patrician, with a high forehead and thick, unruly hair. By contrast Rafinesque, a restless spirit who was born in Constantinople, was described by a woman who met him on his travels as a “lone, friendless, little creature,” slight, with dark eyes and silky hair, but so absorbed in his work that he often forgot to clean off the mud from his field trips or wash his face. Say and Rafinesque also represented polar opposites of the scientific world. Say was a meticulous observer determined to describe only what was genuinely new and always with the thorough detail that would enable other naturalists to build on his work. Rafinesque was a species-monger too drunk on the elixir of discovery to take much care with his work. He often put names on species he had never seen, much less collected, relying on a passing reference in somebody else’s travel book.
As the expedition proceeded westward, the most immediate hazard it faced, apart from equipment failures, illness and hunger, turned out to be members of the company itself. Major Thomas Biddle Jr., from a prominent Philadelphia family, quit at the end of the first season because he thought the expedition “chimerical & impossible”—and also because he was “mortified” by an episode in which he and the naturalists under his protection had been robbed of their horses by Pawnee renegades. Biddle and Stephen Long held the same rank, so Long’s status as commander may also have rankled. He described Long as “I daresay respectable in his own department” (probably meaning steamboats and other machinery) but “entirely unqualified for an expedition of this description.”
Biddle’s replacement, Captain John R. Bell was also resentful, and with a histrionic manner fit for bad melodrama. At one point, he snarled at Long, “We are out of the U.S., enforce your orders if you can,” and “By God, we both wear pistols.” Geologist Edwin James, also a second-year replacement, complained about the haphazard salary arrangements, accusing Long of “contemptible knavery” for trying to pay wages in a Kentucky currency “now at 37 cents below par and on the decline.” Congress had drastically cut funding midway through the expedition, leaving Long under orders to explore a huge swath of the American West while also bringing the expedition to “as speedy a termination as possible.” Thus the company often proceeded at a half-starved trot, routinely covering 20 miles a day. “I have been allowed neither time to examine and collect nor means to transport plants or minerals,” James fumed, adding that he had also gone for weeks without bread or salt, and eaten “tainted horse flesh, owls, hawks, prairie dogs, and other uncleanly things,” hardships he seemed to think Long imposed for the subsequent “amusement of the publick.”
Caught between the “detestable parsimony” of the government, as the North American Review soon put it, and the grumbling of malcontent subordinates, Long performed his mission with skill and even grace. His critics charged that he failed at two of his assigned tasks, to discover the sources of the Red and Platte rivers. But their East Coast perspective clearly led them to underestimate the vast scale of the Western landscape. The expedition did provide a good basic map of the American West and a remarkably intelligent guide to its human inhabitants and wildlife. Long also led his fractious expeditionary force over thousands of miles of wilderness, through the territories of numerous Indian nations, thickly populated with grizzly bears and other dangerous animals, with only a single death: Botanist William Baldwin had thought travel in open country would help his tuberculosis. Instead, it soon killed him.
The naturalists Say and Peale also displayed grace under difficult circumstances, especially near the end when they suffered what Say called “the greatest of all privations.” As they were coming down the Arkansas River in August 1820, the explorers found themselves in a race for survival across an endless succession of “bends & hills & hollows & ravines,” in Captain Bell’s words, driven forward by swarms of green-headed flies and held back by the constant danger of rattlesnakes. The heat was so debilitating that one of the expedition’s dogs threw itself down in front of the horses to force a halt. The explorers were reduced to a single meal a day, consisting at one point of “a few mouldy biscuit crumbs, boiled in a large quantity of water, with the nutritious addition of some grease.” A skunk got tossed into the pot when one of the hunters got lucky and “tasted skunkish enough.” Then, on August 31, three soldiers deserted in the night, taking the best horses with them.
Worse, they stole saddlebags containing five notebooks Say had filled over that season’s 2,000 miles of travel. In his journal, Say wrote, “All these, being utterly useless to the wretches who now possessed them, were probably thrown away upon the ocean of prairie, and consequently the labour of months were consigned to oblivion by these uneducated vandals.” The deserters were never heard from again. The rest of the party reached the relative comfort of Fort Smith, on what is now the Oklahoma-Arkansas border, nine days later.
Back in Philadelphia, after a bout of malaria, Say reconstructed his notes from memory and from the specimens that had survived. In all, he brought back 13 new mammals, 13 birds, 12 reptiles and amphibians, 4 arachnids and crustaceans, and more than 150 species of insects. At one point, Say recounted how he was seated with a Kansa chieftain, “in the presence of several hundred of his people assembled to view the arms, equipment, and appearance of the party,” when a darkling beetle came scurrying out from among the feet of the crowd. Diplomatic dignity wrestled briefly with the passion for species. Then Say went plunging after the beetle and impaled it on a pin, for which the astonished Kansa admiringly dubbed him a medicine man. The beetle is now known as Eleodes suturalis Say.
But the spectral presence of Constantine Rafinesque continued to haunt Say. As with the mudpuppy, several discoveries from the expedition had already been described sketchily by Rafinesque, among them the prairie rattlesnake and the pocket gopher.
Rafinesque’s work would prove particularly exasperating in the case of the mule deer. Near the end of the expedition, Say and Peale had offered a reward for the perfect specimen of mule deer, which they thought was “without doubt, a new species.” But when one of the expedition’s hunters finally carried a trophy buck into camp one evening, the rest of the party was too famished to have much patience with science. Peale had to set up the deer by the light of the fire to make a quick sketch, with half-starved soldiers sharpening their knives nearby. Say managed to salvage the skin and the head, with its large, handsome antlers and characteristic mule ears, to be preserved and carried home to Philadelphia.
There it later turned out that Rafinesque had already named the species without ever actually having laid eyes on it. His source was a published account by an alleged captive of the Sioux that is now considered a hoax. Decades later, even more bizarrely, a taxonomic revision would move all North American deer, including the mule deer, into the genus Odocoileus, originally proposed by Rafinesque based on what he took to be the fossil tooth of a dwarf oxen. As for Say, the mule deer specimen he had gone to such trouble to collect and carry home was ravaged by insects. But back at the Peale family’s museum in Philadelphia, Titian Peale was able to work some taxidermy magic, along with a little unintended poetic justice: When the head of the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus Rafinesque) went on display, it was under the foot of a coyote (Canis latrans Say).
There is a sorry postscript to this tale. In 1825 James Fenimore Cooper was working to complete the third novel in his Leatherstocking series, a sequel to his bestselling The Last of the Mohicans. For The Prairie, Cooper created a new character named Obed Bat, or as he liked to hear himself called, on the Latinate model of Carolus Linnaeus, Dr. Battius. It was a comic caricature of the naturalist, as one scholar has put it, “absently endangering himself and others in an addled quest for new species, and spouting unintelligible Latin phrases from the new Linnaean taxonomic system.” It was a caricature, in fact, of Constantine Rafinesque.
At one point, having spotted a strange monster bounding across the countryside, Battius describes it aloud as a new species: “Quadruped; seen by star-light, and by the aid of a pocket-lamp, in the prairie of North America—see Journal for latitude and meridian. Genus—unknown; therefore named after the discoverer, and from the happy coincidence of having been seen in the evening—Vespertilio Horribilis, Americanus….Greatest length, eleven feet; height, six feet…horns, elongated, diverging, and formidable; color, plumbeousashy with fiery spots; voice, sonorous, martial, and appalling…an animal…likely to dispute with the lion his title to be called the king of beasts.” A young woman of no scientific background points out to him that the “new species” he has seen is in fact his own donkey.
Vespertilio was the genus into which Rafinesque had put many bats he had discovered. But another naturalist also informed Cooper’s caricature. His background reading for The Prairie included the official Account of an Expedition From Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, which had been published in 1823, to considerable popular interest. There, in keeping with his “scientifick” marching orders, Thomas Say had included detailed descriptions he considered essential to good natural history. Of the coyote, Canis latrans, for instance, Say wrote, “head between the ears intermixed with gray, and dull cinnamon, hairs dusky plumbeous at base…tail bushy, fusiform, straight, varied with gray and cinnamon, a spot near the base above, and tip black.”
It was easy pickings for Cooper’s satire.
To what must have been Say’s everlasting horror, Cooper’s fiction had wrapped him up in the same shroud with his dismal opposite, Rafinesque, to molder together for eternity.
Richard Conniff is author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, which will be published by W.W. Norton in November 2010.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.