Sarah Chesney Department of Anthropology College of William and Mary 2013-2014 Research Fellow
This dissertation project explores the world of early American botany and its development in Federal-era Philadelphia by examining the experience of an individual botanical collector, William Hamilton, and his extraordinary greenhouse complex at his country estate known as The Woodlands. Utilizing both traditional historical sources as well as evidence from three seasons of archaeological investigation, my dissertation brings to light the intricate and complex nature of the early Philadelphia botanical community, enriching the narrative of early American botany with archaeological and historical evidence of the everyday experience of the individuals involved in the early modern botanical exchange. This project suggests new motivations for their participation and new perspectives for exploring the often-murky history of “pre-professional” science as its participants experienced it. A key component of this project is the contextualization of the archaeological evidence through an in-depth examination of the wealth of archival material on early Philadelphia botany and its practitioners. Through the generous support of a PACHS dissertation fellowship I was able to spend the fall of 2013 focusing my research on some of the lesser-known but still prominent Philadelphia-area naturalists who traded plants and information with Hamilton in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In particular, my focus during my PACHS fellowship was on tracking down details about Hamilton’s botanical colleagues who appeared in his own records, but about whom I knew very little other than their names. I knew that the wealth of published and manuscript material available in the PACHS consortium libraries about early science in Philadelphia would be the perfect place to search for this information. I began my PACHS-supported archival research at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where I took advantage of the wealth of information they hold on early Philadelphia residents. William Hamilton’s family was a prominent one in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics, and Hamilton family papers can be found in a number of HSP collections, including both the George Smith collection and the Society Miscellaneous Collection. A recent addition to the HSP’s holdings was also extremely useful to me: The Woodlands, Hamilton’s original estate, became a rural cemetery beginning in 1840 (almost three decades after Hamilton’s death), and The Woodlands Cemetery Company recently reached an agreement with the HSP for the curation and storage of a number of original cemetery papers. This collection can now be accessed through the HSP, and provides an important postscript to the story prioritized in my project. Sorting through both the cemetery records and the early biographical notes for Hamilton was an important place to start my PACHS research, as it led me to other individuals with whom Hamilton corresponded about botanical topics, including John and William Bartram, Bernard McMahon, Benjamin Smith Barton, Frederick Pursh, and many others. This preliminary work helped me to compile a list of other botanically inclined Philadelphia residents to research during the rest of my tenure as a PACHS dissertation fellow. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania I moved from the most specific research on Hamilton as an individual botanist to more general research on early botany in the city of Philadelphia and the other individuals who participated in it alongside Hamilton. This led me first to the collection of books and manuscripts housed in the Rare Book Library of the University of Pennsylvania, where I focused on the published and unpublished material from a former Penn botanist John Harshberger. Penn’s Rare Book library also holds a number of materials related to prominent Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush, which is always useful in helping to paint a picture of the early Philadelphia scientific community, but it was the discovery of Harshberger’s papers and correspondence in the collection at Penn that proved to be an unexpectedly rich source of information. Although he post-dates Hamilton considerably, Harshberger spent considerable time doing his own research into the early days of botany in Philadelphia, and provides an important perspective as an early historian of science reflecting back on his own discipline. Perhaps the most intense part of my PACHS research fellowship was spent at the American Philosophical Society where I was able to dive into the six boxes of correspondence they hold from Benjamin Smith Barton, a friend and colleague of Hamilton, and one of the early professors of botany and materia medica at the University of Pennsylvania. I had been made aware of this collection from an earlier short-term research grant through the APS itself, and the PACHS fellowship allowed me to spend some time diving more deeply into this collection than before. Due to my PACHS fellowship I was able to return to this collection and cross-reference Barton’s correspondence with that of William Hamilton, and so track down details about the more elusive Philadelphia naturalists with whom they corresponded. The Barton Collection at the APS provided invaluable details about Barton’s botanical colleagues (and his personal feelings about them) as well as the ins and outs of participation in the international botanical trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This collection also provided first-hand accounts of collecting and teaching practices of early botany, as the last box in this collection contained some of Barton’s own lecture notes for teaching botany to medical students, which was truly amazing. The last archive that I consulted during my time as a PACHS fellow was the library at the Academy of Natural Sciences (of Drexel University), which was a great experience, and dovetailed nicely with my research at the APS, as the ANS holds a number of early editions of Barton’s published works, such as his Elements of Botany, which was the first botanical textbook published in the United States, and an 1807 treatise that he presented to the Philadelphia Linnaean Society entitled A Discourse on some of the Principle Desiderata in Natural History and on The Best means of Promoting the Study of this Science, in the United States. Looking at Barton’s published works immediately after combing through his unpublished correspondence really gave me a feel for the community of botanists in early Philadelphia, and the ties that bound them to one another and to correspondents far and wide. I had never had the opportunity to visit the Academy of Natural Sciences library on previous research trips to Philadelphia, and the PACHS fellowship made that all possible. The research I was able to do thanks to a PACHS dissertation fellowship has proved invaluable to completing my dissertation. Due to the rich and varied resources of the consortium collections – in particular, the manuscript collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and American Philosophical Society, and the published and archival collections of the University of Pennsylvania and the Academy of Natural Sciences – I was able to get a sense of the complicated and fluid nature of early American botanical practice. This research provided insights into early American botany as both a commercial as well as a scientific endeavor, and formed the basis of an entire chapter on the variety of ways that Philadelphia naturalists found to participate in and leave their mark on the international botanical trade of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These details not only helped me to tell the story of Hamilton’s participation in this exchange, but also allowed me to discuss more broadly the community of botanists in early Philadelphia as a living, breathing network embroiled in a transatlantic scientific exchange. I hope to expand this discussion from its first introduction in my dissertation to a full-length article in the near future.