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Early Botanists of Colonial America, Part 3

The Curious Mister Catesby.

Books, videos, online articles - so many sources which discussed Mark Catesby described him as "curious". Which, of course, made me even more curious to learn about the man who is the next botanist of Colonial America we'll learn about.

Mark Catesby was born in 1683, the fifth son of English gentleman John Catesby, in a stretch of countryside just a bit northeast of London. Records indicate that his father was fairly well-to-do, and left to his son a sizeable acreage upon the former's death in 1703.

Four years prior, Mark's older sister Elizabeth had married Dr. William Cocke without parental permission. In 1710, Cocke was appointed as the personal physician of Alexander Spotswood, Virginia's newest lieutenant governor, and the two sailed across the Atlantic. The next chronological trace of Mark Catesby comes from his own writing, stating that he had landed in Virginia on April 23, 1712. This data is collaborated by William Byrd II, the son of William Byrd I on whose expedition Bannister met his unfortunate fate, in writing that a Mrs. Cocke had arrived on the 22nd of April. Nelson et al. (2015) postulated the connection:

"Mark traveled to Virginia probably as chaperone and guardian, responsibilities necessary at a period when it would have been unwise, even for an evidently married lady with a young family, to travel without a suitable male escort. Not being married himself, and presumably not having over-riding responsibilities in England, Mark was able to escort Elizabeth and to sail across the Atlantic." (p. 4-5)

Shortly after arriving, Mark along with his sister and brother-in-law, spent time with William Byrd II at his Westover estate, just outside of Williamsburg. Byrd's being the first home the newcomers called upon probably has to do with Cocke and Byrd being good friends from their grammar school days. Byrd was influential in politics and had a passion for the natural world. He had been elected to the Royal Society in 1696. Between Byrd's interest in nature and his position in the Virginia gentry, Catesby had many opportunities for conversation and collection.

On their first visit with Byrd, William Cocke stayed for four days. Catesby and his sister stayed for a month. Byrd recorded particular delight at showing Catesby a hummingbird in his garden, along with the bird's nest and eggs. In the fall of 1712, Catesby returned for another visit with Byrd. During this stay, Catesby captured and unfortunately shot two snakes and a bear cub who was eating grapes.

"Virginia was the Place," Catesby exuded, "(I having Relations there) [which] suited most with my Convenience to go Curiosity was such, I soon imbibed a passionate Desire of viewing as well the Animal as Vegetable Productions in their Native Countries." (Nelson p. 95)

Catesby started collecting specimens intended for Samuel Dale, an apothecary from Catesby's hometown who was very enthusiastic about botany. Seeds collected by Catesby were planted in London's Chelsea Physic Garden. Catesby also kept some for himself to plant in his own Williamsburg garden. While the evidence is limited, there are indications that Catesby visited the Appalachian mountains and Bermuda during his time living in Virginia.

Catesby lived with his sister and brother-in-law in the capital city of Williamsburg, which had been established just thirteen years prior in 1699. While the Governor's Palace and Capitol were erected by the time of Catesby's arrival, little else besides a few houses was present. Most colonists lived off of the land producing the cash crop of tobacco, and the amount of land needed to make a living in this manner reduced the number of close neighbors one had. Williamsburg - due to its' legal buildings and college - was the exception to the rule.

Mark Catesby did not leave many records behind of his time in Virginia, save for the herbarium specimens sent to England and a few entries by William Byrd II in his journal. However, what remains paints a vivid picture of this eager young botanist.

"Later in his life, Catesby criticized himself for not accomplishing more during his visit. "In the Seven Years I resided in that Country, (I am ashamed to own it)," he reflected, "I chiefly gratified my Inclination in observing and admiring the various Productions of those Countries." He did make paintings of birds, which Samuel Dale used to argue on Catesby's behalf for support for Catesby's work. It is likely that Catesby was also kept busy helping his sister and his brother-in-law. William Cocke left Williamsburg and traveled to England on business for the colony of Virginia in 1716. Cocke stayed in England until 1718. It was typical to ask for a male relative's or a friend's assistance in such situations. Cocke may well have requested his brother-in- law's help with maintaining his affairs in Williamsburg. William and Elizabeth Cocke had seven children by 1707 and owned eight lots in Williamsburg, forty acres of woodland, and other holdings. In addition, Cocke was a member of the colony's Indian trading company. It is reasonable to conclude that Cocke would have wanted someone with some personal interest in his family assisting them in his absence." (Nelson p. 108)

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In somewhat of a surprise, Catesby returned to England in 1719. This was possibly to take care of family affairs, as his older brother has passed away in 1717 and Mark was the head of the family. Or it could be that with Cocke back in Williamsburg, Catesby wanted to change things up. Regardless of the reason, Catesby used the opportunity to renew old friendships and fundraise for a possible second expedition to the New World. In his first trip, he was out for an adventure and found familial responsibilities a sufficient reason to go. Now, at age 36 and with the experience of a first expedition full of returns to sponsors in London, Catesby's reputation for precise scientific work was becoming known. His name became known in elite scientific circles, and by 1720, the incoming governor of South Carolina (Francis Nicholson) was mentioning to the Royal Society of London that he wished Mark Catesby to come and explore his new domain.

Botanist William Sherard recorded the following as preamble before asking a friend to help fund Catesby's next trip:

"Mr. Catesby, a Gentleman of small fortune, who liv'd some years in Virginia with a relation, pretty well skill'd in Natural history who designs and paints in water colours to perfection, is going over with General Nicholson, Governor of Carolina..." (Nelson p. 11)

However, between securing funds and settling affairs at home, it was early 1722 before Catesby was once more ready to cross the Atlantic Ocean. It was a long passage, but he finally arrived at Charleston on May 3. Henceforth he kept up frequent correspondence with Sherard, botanist Peter Collinson, and naturalist Hans Sloane. Catesby set up headquarters in Charlestown while making frequent trips into the interior of the Carolina country to explore. He wrote to Sherard,

"My method is never to be twice place in the same season. For if in the spring I am in the low Country, in the Summer I am at the heads of Rivers, and the Next Summer in the low Countrys, so alternately that in 2 years I visit the two different parts of the Country." (Nelson p. 119)

However, botanizing in the 18th century was no bed of roses. Chief of Catesby's concerns when exploring was both getting lost on his own accord and being found by hostile Native American tribes.

Knowing Governor Nicholson opened doors for Catesby, especially those of leading citizens. One such example was that of Thomas Waring, whose Pine Hill estate Catesby lodged at along the Ashley River in Dorchester.

"Despite a few elegant plantations, the upper Ashley region was still a frontier. Catesby became acutely aware of this one morning when he was having tea. In the next room, the housemaid who was making his bed found a rattlesnake...between the sheets where Catesby had slept. He said it was "vigorous and full of ire, biting at every thing that approach't him. Probably it crept in for warmth in the Night, but how long I had the company of [the] charming Bedfellow I am not able to say." Catesby did not seem to be overly concerned, for rattlesnakes were simply native to South Carolina's subtropical coastal vegetation." (Nelson p. 119)

Pine Hill was the only site on his travels where Catesby saw the water locust tree and likely served as inspiration for his later drawing of the tree species with a goldfinch perched on it.

At one point, Catesby worked out an arrangement to travel to Fort Moore, a frontier outpost on the Carolina side of the Savannah River, across from present-day Augusta, Ga. Catesby found himself indebted to his Indian guides' thoughtfulness in protecting his supplies and impressed at the beauty of the region, which even the deprivation and challenges of the journey couldn't take away from him.

Fort Moore was to "guard the nearby Savannah Town, an Indian village and trading center, and to protect the Savannah Path, the principal route from the Creek Nations to Charleston. Buildings inside the fort consisted of barracks, officers; houses, a guardhouse, a magazine, storehouses, a corncrib, and possibly shelter for horses. As many as forty South Carolina provincial soldiers garrisoned the fort." (Nelson p. 120)

Analysis of surviving herbarium specimens lends credence to the western extent of Catesby's travels when comparing his collections to modern-day ranges of those same specimens. Birds that Catesby drew included the now-extinct passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and ivory-billed woodpecker.

"Transporting his specimens safely was a big problem. Catesby had trouble getting brown paper and boxes to protect plants, but gourds were useful for seeds. He placed snakes and other small animals in jars filled with rum, but sometimes thirsty sailors drank the rum before the ship reached Britain. He also used rum for preserving birds, but more often, he dried them in an oven and sprinkled them with tobacco dust. It was difficult to transport enough samples or paintings to satisfy his sponsors. Catesby wrote to Sloane, "My Sending Collections of plants and especially Drawings to every [one] of my Subscribers is what I did not think would be expected from me." He explained that he needed to keep all of his drawings in order to have them engraved. Catesby's specimens have tremendous scientific value as a historic record of plants growing in the region in the 1720s." (Nelson p. 126)

This lifestyle of discovery and collection in the Carolinas continued for three years, before Catesby moving to the Bahama Islands for a year. Little is known about Catesby's time in the Bahamas, except that he saw a loggerhead turtle and the drawings he produced.

"Altogether, Catesby published illustrations of about 4to identified species (excluding duplications of the same species): 246 were from the North American mainland, and 124 were from the Bahamas. Catesby also illustrated seven species from Jamaica and thirteen from miscellaneous other localities. Sixty-five of his Bahamian species were flowering plants, and all of these have now been identified. Besides these plants, he figured about thirty Bahamian fishes, about fifteen birds, about five crustaceans, about four gorgonians, two sea turtles, a few insects, one gastropod shell, one lizard (an iguana), and one native mammal. Catesby illustrated more than fifteen bird species that occur in the Bahamas, but the others were not specifically mentioned from the islands, some are migrants." (Nelson p. 133)

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In the spring of 1726, Catesby returned to England, intent on publishing his findings. While he had found patrons to support him on his journey to the New World, unfortunately, his patrons did not have funds to aid Catesby in printing his work. Thus, Catesby learned how to etch and color all his drawings by hand, a process that was tedious to say the least. In order to start making a profit, Catesby chose to publish his Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahama Islands in installments: the first appeared for sale in 1729. The entire Natural History was not completed until 1747, twenty years later. It was heralded by many as a "noble work" and a treasure for all those curious about the birds, plants, and other flora and fauna of the region.

Two items are worthy of note. First, Catesby was elected as a member of the prestigious Royal Society in 1733. Second, in 1730 he set up house with a certain Elizabeth Rowland, with which he had at least four children. However, the two did not unite in marriage until October 1747, shortly following the completion of Catesby's Natural History. He was sixty-four years old. Just over two years later, Mark Catesby died at the age of sixty-six.

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I hope I've whetted your curiosity about Mark Catesby. He's the influential botanist and really naturalist that few people have ever heard of. However, you might recognize some names of historical figures that did read Catesby's Natural History and hold him in high regard:

"Catesby's The natural history of Carolina... had more of an impact in Virginia than he knew. More than thirty years after Catesby's death, Thomas Jefferson complimented Catesby's work as the only "complete, reliable, illustrated natural history of America." Jefferson used Catesby's studies to compile his own table of common North American birds in Notes on the State of Virginia, Finally, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark consulted Catesby's The natural history of Carolina... before heading west on their own explorations." (Nelson p. 108)

No portrait of Mark Catesby was ever made, but the images he made are priceless treasures of the flora and fauna in 18th-century Colonial America.

Resources for Further Learning:

The Curious Mister Catesby by E. Charles Nelson - a fantastic book that much of this article was based on, can be bought on Amazon

William Cocke - Encyclopedia Virginia

The Curious Mister Catesby - a great documentary

Mark Catesby - Wikipedia


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