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Plant collector Joseph Burke and the American West

Katherine Harrington
21 August 2013
The fascinating correspondence of nineteenth century plant hunter Joseph Burke is being made available online for the first time through the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Project.

From Africa to America

The Directors' Correspondence team is currently digitising a collection of nineteenth century letters to Kew's senior staff from North America. We have especially enjoyed a series of letters from Joseph Burke (1812-1873), a seemingly little-known plant collector. In fact Burke had undertaken a successful natural history collecting trip to Africa in 1839 for the 13th Earl of Derby. The Earl introduced Burke to Kew's first official Director, Sir William Hooker who, greatly impressed by his efforts, arranged for Burke to collect for the two gentlemen in the remote west of North America with the assistance of the Hudson's Bay Company.

In June 1843 Burke sailed from Gravesend to York Factory on the supply ship Rupert. We have digitised fifteen letters concerning Burke's travels. Though relatively few in number they are crammed with fascinating stories: dangerous encounters, wonderful wildlife, Blackfoot, Flathead and Nez Perce Indians, and news of emigrant parties heading for Oregon, then just on the verge of becoming an American territory.


Detail of a map of western America from Hudson's Bay to the Rocky Mountains

A challenging expedition

Burke's engrossing letters give a clear indication of the many difficulties he encountered, not least the poor communications: there was only one mail a year that would bring Burke letters and word from home. Travel was difficult with horses up to their saddles in swamps, and passage through dense, impenetrable woods. Burke reports his dog sledges and drivers falling through ice-covered rivers into the freezing waters below. On occasion supplies ran very low.

"We had scarcely anything to eat for three days. The people killed a dog to eat him. I was not quite hungry enough to join them." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.149]

Burke and his party traded for supplies with local Indians but this could be far from straightforward.

"At the little lake we found an Indian called the little chief & his party. They were not inclined to be very friendly with us. The Spaniards from Taos[?] had commenced fighting & had killed many of the Youtas... They made strict enquiry concerning the strength of our party, & would not trade their furs without the whole of the goods were brought [here]. Although they had abundance of trout, they would not trade any. The little chief's brother, who has always been friendly with the whites, gave us some fish... [&] told us unknown to the others, to saddle our horses and retreat as fast as possible for they were then holding a council against us. Some were for killing us at once, & others thought it better to try & persuade us to bring the rest of the party & all the goods." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.149]

The weather also had a deleterious effect on Burke's plant collecting;

Extract reads: "The past summer has been the most unfavourable the oldest persons about this place ever remember witnessing... We have had frost, snow, or cold rain, nearly the whole time. I expect in a few days to be able to cross the Athabasca, on my way to the Columbia, I fear I shall find but few ripened seeds on account of the unfavourable season." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.147]

Burke gives lively descriptions of the landscape, the successes and failures of hunts, and his meetings with various Indians. In the autumn of 1845 Burke travelled with Hudson's Bay Company men to obtain buffalo meat for the winter. Their party joined a large camp of Nez Perce who were suffering a great deal of sickness, especially amongst the children.

"The Indian doctors were all busily employed, & a great noise they made. It was enough to give a person in health the headache, to be in the same lodge with them. The Medicine man... has several helpers, who beat with sticks on a piece of wood laid across the lodge. They all sing at the top of their voices... They say it is to frighten away the sickness. These Medicine men are often shot. When the patient gets worse... Although it is a dangerous calling it is so profitable that there is no want of doctors. Amongst the Crows[?] the Medicine bag is more dreaded than any enemy." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.151]

Success at last

Although Burke felt his collecting was thwarted he did meet with success and reported to Hooker that he was sending the Earl of Derby: male & female skins of Mountain sheep, the skin of a wolverine, 29 small quadrupeds, 80 birds, two species of fish, a few birds' eggs and a small box of butterflies. Another letter provides detailed notes regarding various seeds collected during the summer of 1845. One of these includes Camas grass, the bulbs of which were collected by Indian women for food. A ground kiln was constructed and when sufficiently heated the ashes were removed and the space filled with camas. A large fire was made over the top and in three days the camas was perfectly baked. It was then taken out and worked by hand into cakes.


Type specimen of Lupinus burkei collected by Burke in 'Snake Country', RBGK herbarium specimen K000829353.

An unfortunate conclusion

In the autumn of 1846 Burke was stunned to receive a letter from Hooker informing him that his funds had been cut off, in spite of the fact that Burke had clearly explained the difficulties he had encountered and at a time when all his collections had not yet reached England.

"I think Sir William it is a very hard case if a collector is sent from the Royal Botanic Garden to a country where he cannot send his collections by any means by the time mentioned in your letter, that his funds are to be stopped. If it only means my salary I think very little of that, but should it mean that my supplies are to be stopped in the country, it would dishonour me for life." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.142]

Burke hoped Hooker would forgive him for retiring from his employment without awaiting an answer as it "would be two years upwards before I could receive one." [Archive ref: DC 63 f.142]

Burke returned to England and did eventually resolve his financial relationship with Hooker before emigrating to Missouri with his family in 1848. Burke's fascinating correspondence will shortly be made available via the JSTOR Global Plants website.



Further information:

The following works can be found in RBG Kew's library:

  • The Man Who Did Not Go To California: A paper read to the Canadian Historical Association at Edmonton, R. Glover, 5 June 1975.
  • A Hard Case in the Oregon Country: Letters of English Botanist Joseph Burke 1844 – 1846, D.R. Johnson, 2001.
  • A Region Of Astonishing Beauty: The Botanical Exploration of the Rocky Mountains, R.L. Williams, 2003.

Related links: 


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