Historical Markers
Benjamin Smith Barton (1766 -1815) Historical Marker
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Benjamin Smith Barton (1766 -1815)

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
712 Arch Street

Dedication Date:
December 19, 2004

Behind the Marker

Portrait of Barton by Samuel Jennings
Benjamin Smith Barton, by Samuel Jennings, circa 1810.
Since Columbus's first return from the "New World," Europeans had been fascinated by the exotic and useful fauna and flora to be found in the Americas. Potatoes and corn, both New World plants, revolutionized European agriculture and fueled explosive population growth. Another New World plant, tobacco, had introduced "smoking" to Europe, fueled the settlement of the Chesapeake region, and created the fortunes of Virginia planters and English merchants. American flowers, bushes, and trees adorned the gardens and greenhouses of European horticulturalists and amateur botanists, who clamored for the addition of exotic new species to their collections.

In 1803, the 820,000 square miles of the vast and uncharted Louisiana Purchase tempted its new owners with dreams of discovering plants that would revolutionize the economy, satisfy the hunger, and decorate the gardens of the new nation. But in order to find these specimens, the explorers had to know what to look for - and what to bring back. For an education in botany and natural science, President Thomas Jefferson sent Expedition leader markerMeriwether Lewis to study with Benjamin Smith Barton of Philadelphia.

Image of plant Heliotropium indicum
Heliotropium indicum, from Bartram’s Garden, 1795.
Benjamin Smith Barton had grown up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where his parents gave him both a wonderful home and an enviable education. His father, Thomas, was an Episcopalian Rector whose interest in botany and mineralogy led him on forays across the countryside. His mother, Esther Rittenhouse Barton, was a sister of astronomer David Rittenhouse, who guided the labeling of Barton's own growing collection of all kinds of birds, plants, and insects.

When Barton was fifteen, both of his parents died and he went to live with an older brother in Philadelphia. Here, Barton continued his studies in the field as well as the classroom. He met surveyor markerAndrew Ellicott , also from Lancaster, while assisting in the survey of Pennsylvania's western boundary. Barton traveled to Edinburgh, London, and Gottingen, Germany to study with the best naturalists of his time. After earning a medical degree from Gottingen, he returned to Philadelphia in 1790 and, at the age of twenty-three, became a professor of natural science and botany at the University of Pennsylvania.

Barton was soon a respected scholar of the natural world, writing about everything from hummingbirds and rattlesnakes to alligators and earthquakes. He explored the origins of Native American tribes, as well as the natural history of Pennsylvania, and in 1792 named a flowering plant for Jefferson, who was then Secretary of State. Before visiting Philadelphia in 1803, Lewis paid $6 for a copy of Barton's just-issued Elements of Botany, the first American textbook of its kind. At the time, Barton was already at work on his next book. Issued the following year, Collections for an Essay Towards a Materia Medica is considered the first systematic treatise on American medicinal plants.
A line drawing of "A Draught of John Bartram's House and Garden as it appears from the River"
Line drawing of his house and garden by John Bartram, 1758.

A portrait of Benjamin Smith Barton and some of his botanical images.
A portrait of Benjamin Smith Barton and some of his botanical images.
During his visits with Barton, Lewis learned not only what plants to collect but how to preserve and label them for scientific interpretation. Barton realized, however, that no matter how much he could teach Lewis, the explorer was bound to leave behind valuable specimens. Barton desperately wanted to join the expedition, but he had a history of poor health. Insisting that his health would not be a problem, he wrote about joining Lewis "as far as the Illinois," a prospect that Lewis thought "would be extremely pleasing to me for many reasons."

Barton never did join the expedition. He did, however, loan Lewis his copy of Antoine Le Page du Pratz's History of Louisiana, which Lewis took on the trip and personally returned to Barton four years later. In an inscription to Barton dated May 9, 1807, Lewis declared that the book was "conveyed by me to the Pacific Ocean through the interior of North America on my late tour thither." Today, this literary treasure is in the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

During the twenty-eight months of the Expedition, Lewis and Clark collected a herbarium of more than 200 botanical specimens -all carefully collected, mounted, and labeled as Barton had instructed. At the conclusion of the Expedition, Lewis invited Barton to write the book about their scientific findings, and Barton fully intended to do so. In the end, however, Barton's declining health prevented him from working on markerNicholas Biddle's official history of the expedition. Jefferson was extremely disappointed when he learned that the book, not published until 1814, lacked an account from Barton of the "botanical and zoological discoveries of Lewis." An irritated Jefferson finally accepted that this "will probably experience greater delay, and become known to the world thro" other channels before that volume will be ready." At the time, the "other channels" anticipated by Jefferson were already at work on Lewis' discoveries; including horticulturist Bernard McMahon and German botanist Frederick Pursh. (see markerWoodlands )

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