Exploring new frontiers!

By: Helen Hartley - 04/02/2013

The Director's Correspondence Digitisation Team is embarking on a new project. Join us as we journey back in time to 19th Century North America to uncover more tales of exploration, discovery and tragedy.

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Toward the end of 2012 the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Team completed the digitisation of the Asia correspondence: 26 volumes of letters sent from all over Asia to the Kew from the 1830s to the 1920s.  This phase of the project produced a grand total of 22,508 digital images - a significant achievement for the team.  To date, three quarters of those images are available online. The remainder are still in the process of being quality controlled, but should be available to view in a few months! 

Celebratory bunting made from pictures of botanists who wrote to Kew from Asia

Bunting made from pictures of some of our Asia correspondents to celebrate the successful completion of the Asia project!

Exploring North America

But the work doesn't stop with Asia!  We have already embarked upon our next venture: digitising the North America correspondence.  The first volume of North American letters - dated 1832 to 1834 -  has provided us with a number of interesting characters who wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker (Kew's first Director) while he was Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow.  Some are written by men who became famous for their attempts to chart the Northwest Passage: William Edward Parry, George Back and Frederick William Beechey

Drummond and Douglas

There are also poignant letters from Thomas Drummond and David Douglas, two Scottish botanists who endured numerous hardships in their quest to map and collect the flora and fauna from opposite ends of North America: Drummond in the Eastern and Southern States; Douglas in the Pacific Northwest. 

LAA Drummond and Douglas

Portraits of botanical collectors Thomas Drummond (left) and David Douglas (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Whilst both men had similar goals, the experiences they describe were very different, as illustrated in the following passages:

Drummond wrote from San Felipe de Austin, Texas, in August 1833, that "the weather is said to be warm beyond precedent this season but there is not such a thing as [a] thermometer in the town. I suppose however that the temperature is constantly between 90 & 100 [Fahrenheit]. At this very moment of writing the perspiration is running down my arms in torrents...notwithstanding I am all but naked." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.92]

Douglas noted, from the Columbia River in April 1833, that "This winter has been drier but much more severe than former seasons – The Columbia [River] was closed for the space of 4 weeks at the 'Menzies Island'...22˚ Farh. of freezing, cold for the shores of the Pacific." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.110]

Tragically, neither of these men returned home from their respective trips: Drummond died in Havana in 1835, possibly from septicaemia; Douglas was crushed by a bull after falling into a trapping pit in Hawaii in 1834.  We hope to bring you more detailed stories about these men in future blogs. 

A difficult country for women

Another interesting correspondent was Miss Mary Brenton of Newfoundland, daughter of a government official there.   Brenton collected plants from St John's and the surrounding area.   

Map of Newfoundland with detail of St John's

19th Century Map of Newfoundland, with detail of St John's 

In Brenton's letters to Hooker, she describes the frustrations she has encountered, as a woman, in trying to collect plants:

"...as the best flowering plants usually grow in swamps, it is difficult for a lady to reach them, and I can find but few persons who have enthusiasm sufficient to induce them to penetrate into a bog up to their knees in water in search of what they may not find after all." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.54]

"My walks are generally so limited having but a short time to scramble about on shore, as my father has leisure from his official duties to accompany me...the woods are too thick for a woman to penetrate through & the bogs & marshes too wet & deep." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.55] 

Pioneering spirit

The letters in the first of the North American volumes give a real sense of the pioneering spirit that prevailed in that country in the 1830s: a time when settlers were migrating to the Pacific northwest along the Oregon Trail; Andrew Jackson began his second term as President (30 years before Abraham Lincoln); Native Americans in the Southern States were being forced to move west; and Texas was still part of Mexico.

If you want to delve deeper into the lives of some of these fascinating and brave pioneers, watch this space – we can't wait to share our finds with you!   Or you can keep up to date with our progress by following us on Twitter @KewDC.

- Helen -


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2 comments on 'Exploring new frontiers!'

Kew Feedback Team says

13/02/2013 5:42:39 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your question Jean-Marc. If the announcement is relevant to this post you can leave a comment with a link to further information here.

Jean-Marc says

09/02/2013 9:56:59 AM | Report abuse

Hello, How do I leave a message on this blog for an announcement? Thank you. Cordially. Jean Marc

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