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Early Botanists of Colonial America, Part 2

I certainly didn't expect it to take me almost a year to follow up with part two of this series - I'm sure you all have been waiting with bated breath! - but here goes: let's learn all about John Banister.

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John Banister was born during 1650 in Twigworth, England - around one hundred miles west of London - of common people. Evidently, he must have shown some degree of brilliance, as he was sent to Magdalen College in Oxford at the tender age of seventeen. After his first year of university, the young Banister was selected as a chorister at the college chapel - one of only sixteen. He served in this capacity for the rest of his undergraduate career. Banister then earned a master's degree in 1674. Following graduation, he entered the ministry for the next four years, first as a clerk and then as a chaplain in the Oxford region. Notwithstanding his dedication to the preservation of souls, Banister also developed a passion for preserving botanical specimens, eventually creating almost four hundred sheets of carefully labeled plants.

Banister's travels to Virginia is undisputed, though how the travels came to be is shrouded in a bit of mystery due to lack of records. It is known that during this time period, King Charles II wrote letters to Oxford requesting ministers to work in Virginia. The ministers sent would receive a three-to-four-year absence to practice botany in the New World, pending they send an annual letter that they were alive and unmarried. It is likely that John Banister crossed the Atlantic in an arrangement of this fashion.

The botanist arrived in Virginia early in 1678, and made his headquarters with William Byrd I at a fort the latter commanded near present-day Richmond. A year later, Banister wrote a letter to his friend and the Scottish botanist Robert Morrison - not only ascertaining his health but also a report of the countryside. Banister mentioned several species of lady slipper, iris, and grasses, before describing his interactions with indigenous tribes and the local fauna.

However, the amount of time Banister could devote to botany may have varied. In 1680 he recorded that he had not had much time to collect plant samples. Around the same time Banister was recorded as baptizing infants in the local minister. It appears that he balanced, whether to his satisfaction or not, his duties as preacher and planter.

A drawing of a pink lady's slipper, albeit not by Banister, published by Franciscus Sansom in 1793. Banister's drawings were of a similar style.

John Banister's reputation as a stellar botanist grew ever higher in the minds of his colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic. He descriptions of Virginia plants - in both words and drawings - were highly sought by scientists such as Leonard Plukenet and John Ray for inclusion in their natural history books, in addition to shipments of specimens. Examples of species collected by Banister for shipment to London include Liquidambar styraciflua, Quercus rubra, and Ostrya virginiana. Drawings included those of walking fern, passionflower, and side-saddle flower. By 1688, Banister's correspondence increasingly reflected the desire to create his own natural history of Virginia. Writing to a colleague in England, Banister pined

"Had I an Estate would bear out my Expense, There is no part of this, or any other Country that would afford new matter, though under ye Scouring Line, or frozen Poles my genius would not incline me to visit." (Ewan and Ewan, John Banister 82)

However, Banister's natural history was not to be. In May 1692, Banister accompanied Byrd and a few others on a field trip southwest of Richmond, to collect botanical samples along the Roanoke River. Byrd's son was to inherit the land and the father desired a solid survey. Unfortunately, one of the party members - Jacob Colson - mistook Banister for a wild animal and shot him dead. Banister was only forty-two years of age. Botanists across Europe mourned his loss. While his specimens and drawings would be sent on to London, it would be well into the eighteenth century before the pursuit of serious botany would be taken up again in Virginia.

To be continued...

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Ewan, J., and N. Ewan. 1970. John Banister and his natural history of Virginia 1678-1692. University of Illinois Press, Urbana Illinois. 485 pp.

John Banister, Virginia’s First Naturalist - Virginia Natural History Society

John Banister - Encyclopedia Virginia


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