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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Thomas Nuttall, Fort Vancouver naturalist

By Martin Middlewood for The Columbian
Published: June 24, 2023, 6:00am

The foremost naturalist of the first half of the 19th century spent about a year at Fort Vancouver hunting flora and fauna around the Pacific Northwest and its coast. Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) joined the second Nathaniel Wyeth expedition in 1834, which was headed for the Pacific Ocean. At the time, Nuttall was the country’s top naturalist.

Wyeth’s expedition traveled roughly the same route Lewis and Clark did until reaching the fort in late 1834. Nuttall’s scientific companion was 22-year-old John Kirk Townsend (1808-1851). Townsend made his mark by publishing the notebook of his Pacific Northwest travels with Nuttall, “Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River.”

As printers’ apprentice to his uncle in England, the 14-year-old Nuttall educated himself in botany and geology during his free time. Concluding his seven-year apprenticeship, he sailed to Philadelphia to pursue scientific studies. There he met a University of Pennsylvania professor of natural history and botany, Benjamin Smith Barton. With some training, he began plant collection trips for his professor.

In 1810, Nuttall traveled to the Great Lakes. The following year, he headed up the Missouri River with the Astor party led by William Price Hunt. When the War of 1812 erupted, he sailed back to England, returning after the war. In 1819, the American Philosophical Society backed his exploration of the Arkansas and Oklahoma territories.

On this trip, Nuttall witnessed and wrote about Indigenous dwellings and customs and remarked about the unsophisticated and uneducated manners of the settlers. He gathered 300 new plant species, and his efforts made him the preeminent naturalist of the era when he published “A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory in 1819.”

Although Nuttall lacked a degree, Harvard University named him a natural history lecturer in 1822. He spent 11 years there. In the wild, however, his behavior tended toward weirdness. Once he hid for days from his search party, thinking they were hostile Indigenous people. Another time, he was so lost and exhausted, a Native took pity on him and canoed him back to his camp. Nuttall also abused his rifle by storing seeds in its barrel.

Despite his eccentricities, Nathaniel Wyeth invited Nuttall on his second expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, he and Townsend collected specimens. Near Fort Walla Walla, a gale dampened Nuttall’s plant collection. His scientific companion, Townsend, journaled that Nuttall was busy drying off and trying to save his samples.

After a journey of six months, the Wyeth party arrived with the two scientists at Fort Vancouver in late 1834. The naturalists botanized the area and along the Pacific Coast before sailing to Hawaii and collecting samples in a less wet winter environment. Upon their return, they continued exploring the area, collecting specimens throughout the Hudson Bay Company’s dominion. Chief Factor John McLaughlin enlisted Townsend to replace the post’s sick surgeon in 1835. Nuttall departed in the fall, returning east with Townsend’s collection.

Although now long forgotten, Nuttall’s name lingers around the Pacific Northwest in the scientific botanical name for the western flowering dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, which John James Audubon named after the naturalist.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.