Historical Markers
The Woodlands Historical Marker
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The Woodlands

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
4000 Woodland Ave., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
December 28, 1996

Behind the Marker

"No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden."

Thomas Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale, August 20, 1811.

One of the primary missions of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was to expand the nation's knowledge of natural history. During his three-year exploration, Captain markerMeriwether Lewis collected samples of soils, minerals, animals, and plants, many of which, at the time, were known only by Native Americans.
Watercolor of the Woodlands Inscribed: The Seat of Me. Wm. Hamilton, Pennsylvania. Dark clouds hover over a white pillared home. Arched windows and doors and white steps leading up to the home. A cluster of trees are to the left, with a white statue between three of them, with two on one side and one on the other. A large pine tree is in the right foreground.
William Russell Birch, "Woodlands, the Seat of Mr. Wm. Hamilton, Pennsylvania,"...

In 1805, before crossing the Continental Divide, Lewis and Clark shipped trunks of specimens from what is now North Dakota back to President Thomas Jefferson. These included marker an exciting collection of Indian artifacts, plants, skins, horns, bones, and six live animals. Many of these treasures, which survived a four-month return journey by river and ocean, went straight to Monticello, where Jefferson proudly displayed them in his spacious entry hall or cultivated them in his garden. Others, including a live prairie dog and four magpies, Jefferson had sent to Philadelphia where Charles Willson Peale displayed them in the nation's first natural history museum, then located in Independence Hall.

An avid gardener, Jefferson had a special interest in the botanical specimens marker contained in the trunks. He sent dried specimens of plants to markerBenjamin Smith Barton and the packets of seeds and cuttings of the Osage orange, gooseberries, and Ariskara tobacco to Philadelphia's William Hamilton.
Watercolor of The Long Room, Interior of Front Room in Peale's Museum, with shelves housing plant and animal specimens and art.
The Long Room, Interior of Front Room in Peale's Museum, by Charles Willson...

The grandson of one of Philadelphia's richest men, Hamilton had used his considerable inherited wealth to pursue the life of a country gentlemen and to indulge his interests in art, science, and horticulture. At The Woodlands, his 600-acre country estate overlooking the Schuylkill River in what is now West Philadelphia, Hamilton presided over the finest greenhouse and horticultural gardens in the nation. There he modeled his gardens after the country estates he had visited while making a "grand tour" of England in 1785.

On the banks of the Schuylkill Hamilton landscaped meadows and gardens, planting his walks with the most beautiful and curious of flowers and shrubs, and arbors of wild grapes, jasmine, and honeysuckle that perfumed the air. Woodlands" hot house and green house included horticultural collections as rare and diverse as any in the country.

When Philadelphia was the nation's capital in the 1790s, a visit to The Woodlands made an impressive and unforgettable stop for visiting dignitaries. In warm weather, Hamilton furnished his large, pillared portico with elegant chairs and sofas, overlooking his meadow to the Schuylkill. There he held forth for his guests on many subjects of interest: fine arts, cigars, architecture, and horticulture. As Hamilton's servants served tea, he presented illustrations in his botanical books, and then had the actual specimens brought from his greenhouses.
Portrait of William Hamilton and his niece By Benjamin West
Portrait of William Hamilton and Ann Hamilton Lyle, by Benjamin West, circa...

In the fall of 1806, American naturalists were thrilled to learn that Lewis and Clark would be bringing back more botanical specimens. When Lewis returned to Washington in December of that year, Jefferson advised him to turn over the care of his seeds to Hamilton and Bernard McMahon, the Philadelphia nurseryman who so often advised them. The following spring, Hamilton and McMahon became the "depositories of these public treasures." Soon they were able to report on their successes with this new batch of seeds, roots, and cuttings. (At Monticello, Jefferson kept and cultivated for himself the Expedition's seeds for peas and Mandan corn.)

All told, Lewis collected samples of well over 200 species of plants; a majority of which were from west of the Continental Divide and seventy to seventy-five of which were new to science. Lewis, however, never received the credit he deserved for his discoveries in botany or natural history. Before his suicide in 1809, he had failed to stake his rightful claim to the Expedition's botanical discoveries. Benjamin Smith Barton, who had agreed to write a book on the plants Lewis collected, then found that his own declining health prevented him from completing the project.
Frederick Pursh,  Mountain Laurel [Plate 14, Catalogue] from Flora Americae Septentrionalis  Kalmia Lataforia
Frederick Pursh, Mountain Laurel [Plate 14, Catalogue] from Flora Americae Septentrionalis...

Instead, German botanist Frederick Pursh, whom McMahon had introduced to Lewis to help catalogue his discoveries, documented most of what scientists eventually learned about the plants from the Expedition. In 1811, Pursh, who also worked for Hamilton at The Woodlands, took thirty-nine specimen sheets with him back to Europe. Three years later, he published Flora Americae Septentrionalis - the most comprehensive study of North America flora to date. In his book, Pursh described 134 plants collected by Lewis and Clark, illustrated thirteen of them, and named three species after Lewis. After changing hands several times, this collection from the Lewis and Clark Herbarium was returned to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 1876. It resides there today, reunited with the specimens that remained in Philadelphia.

After Hamilton's death in 1813, McMahon served as the keeper of the Expedition's plants, and at Jefferson's request, sent samples to European collectors. McMahon also sold seeds of Arikara tobacco, kidney bean, flax, and Indian corn in his own American Gardener's Almanac. Today, trees descended from Lewis' original cuttings of the Osage orange still grow in the cemetery of Philadelphia's Saint Peter's Church.

Of the living plant specimens brought back by Lewis, none proved of commercial value. The flora and fauna brought back by Lewis and Clark did, however, inspire naturalists to cross the Mississippi and head off into the Continent's interior in search of its natural wonders.
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