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Early Botanists of Colonial America, Part 4

If you are a long-time, very faithful reader of this blog, you may remember that in my first installment of Early Botanists I mentioned my interest in the subject was piqued by a visit to the apothecary shop at Colonial Williamsburg. Today, I'm going to be sharing about a botanist that actually lived and worked around Williamsburg in the 18th century!


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His name was John Clayton and was born in England in 1694. While sources differ on exactly how early Clayton arrived in Virginia, it is generally agreed upon that the young man had arrived in the Old Domain by 1720. It was at the time he was documented as holding the role of Gloucester County Clerk, the county just across the York River from Williamsburg.


There is some evidence to support that Clayton had some Virginia connections through his father, who came to Virginia in 1705 to commence a well-respected political career.

The elder Clayton initially found employment as the Register of the Court of Admiralty, then assistant to the Attorney General. He served as attorney to familiar names such as William Byrd II, John Custis, and Robert Carter. In 1710 he was appointed to the influential Committee of Propositions and Grievances in Williamsburg. Clayton's temperament and skills were of such that the following year he was appointed as a mediator in a dispute between the lieutenant governor and deputy governor of North Carolina. In 1713, Clayton was appointed as Attorney General of the Virginia colony. Perhaps more importantly for his son, the elder Clayton was a good friend of William Byrd II. You may remember from the last installment of Early Botanists that Byrd II was the owner of the Westover estate, a passionate gardener, and had previously mentored botanist Mark Catesby. There is the possibility that Catesby and the botanist Clayton spent time with each other while they were both in Virginia.


As Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley note in their book John Clayton: Pioneer of American Botany,


"County clerks in eighteenth-century Virginia were responsible, as they still are, for the records of the courts, the filing of wills, land surveys, and other such documents. The clerk was paid in tobacco and it was, on the whole, a lucrative post...Although the duties of the clerk of court of the wealthiest Virginia county may have been onerous at times, there was one tremendous virtue to that office. Since there was no stipulation that the clerk be present each day, a deputy could serve in his place. This comparative freedom was ideal for Clayton and gave him the opportunity for extended collecting expeditions as well as field trips in his own area." (p. 25-26)


John Clayton was married to Elizabeth Whiting, the daughter of a powerful area planter, in 1723. With this marriage, Clayton became even more well-connected in Virginia society. For example, Clayton's brother-in-law Beverly was the godfather of George Washington and Elizabeth's sister married the uncle of our first President. Other relatives served in a variety of distinguished professions. Unfortunately, little is known of Elizabeth other than her interest in satin, flowered calico, and linin fashion. Clayton established a sizable tobacco plantation of four hundred and fifty acres, unfortunately with the support of slave labor. Clayton also oversaw the raising of animals and food. The couple had in all eight children.


As in his personal life, John Clayton was well-connected in his professional life. He regularly sent plant specimens to Mark Catesby in England. Catesby would forward botanical deliveries to Dr. John Gronovius of Leiden, Holland. Gronovius was a frequent correspondent of the great Linnaeus and the collections of Clayton were a common discussion topic. The two great men must not have kept their thoughts only on the European side of the Atlantic, as Clayton - buoyed by their enthusiasm - soon began trying to identify plants as well as send specimens eastward. In 1739, Gronovius took the liberty of publishing John Clayton's plant specimens under the title Flora Virginica, seemingly without Clayton's permission. Linnaeus assisted in the preparation of the manuscript. Clayton is not recorded as being particularly distraught at Linnaeus and others publishing his work; he seemed content with his friendships rather than fame.



The Berkeleys write in John Clayton,


"While Linnaeus definitely contributed much to the first edition of the Flora, so did Gronovius and Clayton add their share to Linnaeus' publications...Linnaeus lost no time in recognizing his debt to Clayton. In 1737, he bestowed upon him the most lasting testimonial which a botanist may hope for, the naming of a genus in his honour. This was the Claytonia, whose delicate pink and white blossoms are well-named "Spring Beauties." (p. 70)


One of Clayton's neighbors was a physician by the name of John Mitchell, who worked in Middlesex County (north of Gloucester County) as the official physician serving the poorer classes of residents. Mitchell was intrigued by botany, as well as zoology (he once dissected an opossum!) and map making. Mitchell focused on studying trees and especially pines. In honor of Mitchell's contributions to botany, Linnaeus named the partridge berry Mitchella repens. I happen to think that's really cool as one of the common herbaceous species I have found in my field sites is Mitchella repens!



In 1738, English botanist (and correspondent of basically anybody who was anybody) Peter Collinson attempted to arrange the meeting of Philadelphia botanist John Bartram with John Clayton. Unfortunately, despite letters of introduction sent to both parties, Clayton was out on a field expedition when Bartram came to town. However, the two colonial botanists did initiate a friendship through letter writing that was gratifying to both parties, until they were finally able to meet face-to-face in 1760.


As you might have picked up, long-distance correspondence was the name of the game for early botanists. In 1743, Ben Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society based on the model of the revered Royal Society of London. John Bartram, a charter member, soon invited botanist Cadwallader Colden of New York and John Clayton to join. While Clayton was never able to attend a meeting in person, membership in the Society did aid him with regard to connections and standing in his correspondence. Clayton and Franklin later became great friends; the latter set up a postal delivery route around the colonies which provided free postage to any mail delivered to Franklin. At Franklin's suggestion, Clayton began sending his correspondence to other colonial botanists first to Franklin, and the lack of postage costs increased the amount of scientific information that moved! In 1747, Linnaeus gave Clayton the ultimate honor: a recommendation and successful admission to the Swedish Royal Academy of Science.


It may be said that John Clayton was one of Colonial America's first true ecologists. The Berkeleys write,


"It should be noted that Clayton gives considerable evidence of interest in ecology. His comments often include not only the character of habitat in which the plant thrives, but also the time of its flowering, other plants associated with it, methods of propagation, other than flowers, effects of weather, and relations with animals." (p. 144).


In his later years, John Clayton retired from active botanical work to more passive botanical appreciation of his gardens. He was blessed with the apprentice boy John James Beckley, around eleven years of age. Beckley was well-behaved and took quickly to the work of clerk. Later in life, Beckley became the inaugural clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. Thomas Jefferson thought enough of Beckley to appoint him first librarian of the esteemed Library of Congress!


In 1773, the Virginian Society for the Promotion of Usefull Knowledge was established at Williamsburg based on the example of Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society. The role of President of the new society was given to none other than John Clayton. The Berkeleys expound that


"It is interesting to note that in such a large and distinguished gathering that, by his election as president, recognition was given to John Clayton's distinction as a scholar, both in America and abroad. It must have been a proud moment for a student who had laboured so long far from others in his field, and far from the stimulation of the learned societies of the Old World." (p. 169)


However, the botanist's health was fast deteriorating. He passed away either in the last days of 1773 or the early days of 1774. John Page, who served as vice-president of the Virginian Society for the Promotion of Usefull Knowledge, "described Clayton as "a strict, though not ostentatious, observer of the practice of the Church of England; and seemed constantly piously disposed. I have heard him say, whilst examining a flower, that he could not look into one, without seeing the display of infinite power and contrivance, and thus he thought it impossible for a BOTANIST to be an ATHEIST." (p. 28)


In an age today where science frequently is presented at odds with faith, I find the life of John Clayton both riveting and refreshing.


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I hope you've enjoyed this latest installment of Early Botanists! As always, please leave a comment on something you found interesting in the article and ideas for any future botanists I should cover.


Resources and References:


John Clayton - Wikipedia

John Clayton - Encyclopedia Virginia

John Clayton herbarium - Natural History Museum


It's out of print, but the book John Clayton: Pioneer of American Botany by Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley is absolutely fantastic. It's what I read in preparation for writing this article.

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