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Introduction ~ James Smithson ~ Smithson's Bequest ~ The Smithsonian Institution
The United States Exploring Expedition ~ References


Picture of poinsettia courtesy of Deborah SimpsonPhoto of California Pitcher Plants by Linda Freeman, July 2001What do Poinsettas and the California Pitcher Plant have in common?

Joel Poinsett was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico and he brought the soon-to-be-famous plant to the United States in 1825 (Relf 1997).  Poinsett grew the plant in his greenhouse and sent it to friends and botanical gardens (Relf 1997; Garden Helper 1997; Texas Poinsettia Producers 1997).  Later, as Secretary of War, Poinsett made certain that the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) had a staff of naturalists on board, including William Brackenridge, who first collected the California Pitcher Plant.  Shortly before the expedition, James Smithson had willed his estate to the United States to establish the Smithsonian Institution.  As a U.S. Senator in 1840, Joel Poinsett worked with others to try to ensure that this money went to establish The National Institute for the Promotion of Science (Henson 1996; The Capitol Project 1997).  While Poinsett's work did ensure that Smithson's initial collection and the extensive collections of the U.S. Exploring Expedition were originally housed together in the Patent Office, the National Institute did not flourish due to lack of funding and lack of public interest due to the inaccessibility of the collection.  However, William Darlington, an American botanist, sent a copy of A Plea for A National Museum and Botanic Garden To be Founded on The Smithsonian Institution at the City of Washington to Professor Baird in 1841.   Baird was the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and he determined to make research and the collection of artifacts a major component of the Smithsonian Institution (Henson 1996).  Meanwhile, John Torrey, who along with Poinsett had helped Brackenridge secure his position on the U.S. Exploring Expedition, described the California Pitcher Plant in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge in 1853, naming it Darlingtonia californica after William Darlington.  Joel Poinsett had the goal of preserving and sharing the scientific discoveries made by Americans.  He spread the beauty of the Poinsettia by growing it in his greenhouse and sharing it with others and he helped develop a repository for the first specimen of Darlingtonia californica, gathered during the overland portion of the U.S. Exploring Expedition.

This introduction is meant to illustrate the many interconnections that existed in laying the foundation of science in the young American republic.  Who were the American scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries?  What did they study?  Where did they gather their information?  Where were their collections housed?  The answers to these questions are objects of numerous books, articles, web sites, and college courses.

One of the earliest scientific explorations was conducted by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1804-1809.  Their collections ended up scattered in a variety of museums.  Many were originally deposited in Charles Willson Peale's museum by Thomas Jefferson, although some of the collection was kept by Jefferson at his home and plantation. Some of the artifacts housed at the Peale Museum were later sold to Barnum and Kimball.  Portions of these objects were lost to fires or resold to other museums, notably the Peabody Museum.  The Peale Museum was, in effect, the repository for national treasures until the Smithsonian Institution came into being (Watson and McLaughlin 1999).

Another early scientific venture of the United States was the 1838-1842 U.S. Exploring Expedition, a global scientific undertaking.  It became apparent to many, such as Joel Poinsett, that a national repository for scientific artifacts must be built to house the collections of this expedition, as well as artifacts from future expeditions.  Following is the story of the Smithsonian Institution, an American institution founded by the bequest of an Englishman denied certain rights due to his illegitimate birth.

James Smithson

James Smithson was born in 1765 as James Lewis Macie in France.  His father, Hugh Smithson, married the daughter of the Earl of Northumberland and acquired great wealth and position from this marriage.  However, he had an affair with Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie (among others), a widow with royal ancestors.  Their union produced an illegitimate son, James Lewis Macie.  James never inherited property or position from his father, and probably never met him, but upon the death of his mother he took his father's name.  His mother's assets allowed him to study science and hobnob with prominent scientists of the day (Smithsonian Institution).

portrait of Smithson in 1786 from the Smithsonian InstitutionIn 1786 Smithson received a Master's degree from Oxford.  He was described as "a diligent young student, dedicated to scientific research" by French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint Fond and as the "best chemist and mineralogist of his year" by Sir Davies Gilbert, the president of the Royal Society.

Prevented from entering the army, the church, the civil service, or politics, Smithson was intent on research, travel, and exploration.  He took a miniature laboratory with him on his travels.  The mineral Smithsonite was named after him due to his studies of calamine.  He published 27 scientific papers, wrote hundreds of unpublished papers, and was working on an encyclopedia at the time of his death.  One of his quotes, "Every man is a valuable member of society, who, by his observations, researches, and experiments, procures knowledge for men," has been adopted by the Smithsonian Institution (Smithsonian).

When Smithson died in 1829 he bequethed his property to his nephew.  His will stated that if his nephew died without having children (illegitimate children included), then the remaining money was to go to the United States to form the Smithsonian Institution.  The question for America was whether or not to accept the money, then what to do with it once they had accepted it (Smithsonian).

Smithson's Bequest

Several senators, such as John C. Calhoun and William Campbell Preston, opposed accepting the donation, but Congress authorized President Andrew Jackson to accept Smithson's bequest in 1836.  The diplomat Richard Rush was sent to England to obtain the money and artifacts in Smithson's collection.  It took Rush two years to accomplish this task as the mother of Smithson's nephew asserted that the money should go to her and the British courts were notably slow in resolving court cases (Smithsonian).

Congressman (and former President) John Quincy Adams was appointed as the chair to determine what to do with the money.  Adams promoted using the money for scientific research, namely by building a national observatory.  Many others felt the money should be used to establish a national university or some other type of school.  Senator Poinsett, previously mentioned, advocated a national museum.  Still others felt that the Smithsonian should be a place where scientific studies could be conducted and the results published.  Some proposed the money should be spent on a national library.  Finally, after a decade of debate, it was agreed that they money should be spent as Smithson wanted, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge" (Smithsonian).

The Smithsonian Institution

The Act which established the Smithsonian Institution declared that the building must include a lecture hall, library, chemical laboratory, natural history laboratory, and science museum.  James Renwick, Jr. was hired to design the new building.  It should be noted here than James was the brother of Jane, the wife of Lt. Wilkes who led the U.S. Exploring Expedition.  Renwick designed the Smithsonian in a "medieval revival style intended to evoke the cloistered, scholarly atmosphere associated with venerable English colleges."  The Castle, as it came to be known, was completed in 1855.  The Smithsonian Institution was built of Seneca Creek Sandstone.  The decision of which stone to be used was made based upon a list of possible quarries recommended by geologist David Dale Owen, brother of Congressman Robert Dale Owen, chair of the Smithsonian Building Committee and author of Hints on Public Architecture.  Special attributes of the selected stone are that it is soft when first quarried but hardens with time and it changes from a purplish-gray to a lighter, pinker color after quarrying (Kuff and Brooks 1985; Kimberling 1999; Withington 1999).  In his report, David Owen states,
"The singular property which the best quality of these freestones possesses, of hardening by exposure, is one of its most valuable characteristics; permitting it to be wrought at less expense than marble, and imparting to it a durability which increases with age. It has been a question, whether this property is due to iron in its composition, passing from a lower to a higher degree of oxidation, or to the presence of a sub-carbonate of lime, becoming gradually by exposure a carbonate of lime, and acting as a cement to the particles of silex. A minute chemical analysis would, no doubt, throw light on this matter. It might prove that this phenomenon depends on some other property not yet suggested."
Red Seneca Sandstone, known as Manassas Sandstone to geologists, was a popular building material in Washington D.C. in the latter half of the 19th century at the time the Smithsonian was built.  This Triassic sandstone, over 200 million years old, was quarried in Maryland along the Potomac River between Seneca and Point of Rocks.  It is composed of fine-grained, angular quartz sandstone with some feldspar and mica (USGS 1999).  The rock is a result of deposition on the east side of the Culpeper rift zone, formed when the Atlantic Ocean began to open (Burton 1998).

Joseph Henry, a scientist whose work contributed greatly to the development of inventions such as the telegraph, electric motor, and transformer, was the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.  His goal was to develop the young nation's first scientific research institute.  Henry established a volunteer weather station at the Smithsonian which eventually led to the establishment of the U.S. Weather Bureau.  He also instituted public lectures and the publication Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, which printed the first scientific description of Darlingtonia californica, collected during the U.S. Exploring Expedition.  Henry also initiated an exchange of scientific publications with other countries to provide American scientists with scientific resources.  These publications were originally part of the Smithsonian library but were later moved to the Library of Congress (Smithsonian).

The second Secretary was Spencer Fullerton Baird, a naturalist and collector whose goal was to establish a national museum.  Beginning as Henry's assistant in 1850, Baird set out to work on the U.S. Exploring Expedition specimens which were beginning to deteriorate in the Patent Office Building due to neglect (even though the act which established the Smithsonian stipulated that the artifacts from the Expedition were to be housed in the Smithsonian).  By 1858 the Smithsonian was the showcase for specimens from the Expedition. For the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, Baird encouraged and aided exhibitors who brought 60 boxcars full of artifacts.  Baird convinced most of the exhibitors to give their exhibits to the Smithsonian.  Only 18 boxcars left at the end of the Exposition.  When Baird became Secretary in 1878, he continued work on the Exploring Expedition materials, continued the program Henry set up, taught scientists how to prepare specimens for the musuem, and amassed about two million specimens during his tenure as Assistant Secretary to Henry and as Secretary himself.  In 1881, after exceeding the capacity of the Smithsonian, a National Museum was founded, fulfilling Baird's lifelong dream (Smithsonian).

The Smithsonian Institution is now composed of nine museums on the National Mall in Washington D.C., seven other museums and galleries, a National Zoo, and various research facilities located around the world.  When the Smithsonian was first built, it did not house the collection of the Exploring Expedition which was, rather, stored at the Patent Office Building (Smithsonian; Viola et al. 1985).  This collection consisted of "two thousand birds; one hundred fifty mammals; one thousand corals, crustaceans, and mollusks; fifty thousand plants; plus hundreds of fossils, minerals, and rocks, and more than five thousand objects of human manufacture that document the cultures of the native peoples with whom the Expedition came in contact" (McAdams in Viola et al. 1985).  What became of this material will be briefly examined after a short history of the U.S. Exploring Expedition is presented.

The United States Exploring Expedition

President John Quincy Adams initiated the creation of an American exploring expedition in 1825.  Europeans had made over 50 voyages since Cook's first adventure in 1768 and American scientists wanted to participate in the collection of scientific data.  President Adams recognized the commercial value of such an expedition, but he also knew that a global expedition would add prestige to American scientists as well as contribute "to the improvement of human knowledge."  It took until 1836 for Congress to approve the expedition (Wolfe 1991).

The leader of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) was Lt. Charles Wilkes, a controverisal figure disliked by many of his crew.  At the outset, he tended to hire younger rather than experienced crew and he decreased the number of civilian "scientifics" from the designated twenty-five to only nine, which was eventually reduced to seven.  These distinguished scholars included James Dwight Dana, geologist; Horatio Hale, ethnographer; Charles Pickering, naturalist; William Brackenridge, botanist; Titian Ramsay Peale, artist-naturalist; Alfred T. Agate, artist; and Joseph Drayton, artist.  Wilkes was in charge of six ships, the flagship Vincennes, the man-of-war Peacock, the supply ship Relief, the brig Porpoise, and the schooners Flying Fish and Seagull (Wolfe 1991; Miess 1993).

The U.S. Exploring Expedition went to Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, Rio de Janeiro, along the coast of southern South America, Tierra del Fuego, many Pacific Islands, Australia, Antarctica, New Zealand, the western coast of North America where an Overland Expedition was successfully led by Samuel Emmons, the Philippines, Singapore, and around the Cape of Good Hope.  The scientifics were prevented from examining their specimens below deck and they had to turn all specimens over to Wilkes.

Although the voyage was a huge success, Wilkes insisted that he manage the publication of the results of the voyage, which resulted in a lengthy delay and loss or damage of specimens over time.  Wilkes even considered the journals of the scientifics and the crew as belonging to him.  Nevertheless, Wilkes and members of the expedition prepared nineteen volumes of published work. Excerpts of diaries and letters were later made available to the public, and outside scientists and many others wrote about the expedition in the years following their return (Haskell 1940).  Haskell discusses these works at great length.

Some of the authors of material related to the U.S. Exploring Expedition include John Quincy Adams, Hubert Howe Bancroft, and Joel Poinsett.  Scientists who utilized the specimens for study, and later published the results of their studies, include Asa Gray, Louis Agassiz, James Dwight Dana, and Benjamin Sulliman, Jr.

Much more can be said about the U.S. Exploring Expedition, but we will now look at what happened to the collection. Although the original Act of Congress in 1846 stipulated that the collection was to become part of the Smithsonian Institution, the first Secretary refused to accept the responsibility of caring for the collection so they remained housed in the Patent Office Building.  When, in 1850, Henry realized he needed an Assistant Secretary to care for the objects of natural history, he selected Spencer Fullerton Baird who eventually became the second Secretary.  It is of interest here that Henry also was considering Titian Peale, the artist-naturalist of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, but Henry did not want to be tied to the Wilkes collection.  However, Baird had previously worked extensively with James Dwight Dana on the crustaceans from the Expedition, and Baird had every intention of incorporating the collection into the Smithsonian (Viola et al. 1985).

The plant collection, numbering fifty thousand, was the largest collection resulting from the expedition (Viola et al. 1985).  However, botanists of the time who worked on the collection, including William Rich, William Brackenridge, Asa Gray, Charles Pickering, and John Torrey, could not properly work on the collection without comparing the specimens to existing collections.  When Wilkes turned to Asa Gray, who was originally supposed to be part of the expedition but resigned due to Wilkes handling of the expedition, to write up the botanical report due to the ineptitude of the botanist he had hired, Gray insisted that he be allowed to take the collection to Europe to work on as there was not yet an herbarium in the United States.  Wilkes would not hear of it at first and it was only after he could see that the results would not be published that he allowed Gray this concession.  Asa Gray's work on the plant collection from the U.S. Exploring Expedition and later collections resulted in him becoming one of America's greatest supporters of Charles Darwin when he told him of his theory of natural selection in 1857 (Stanton 1975; Viola et al. 1985; Gray Herbarium 1997; Alroy 1998).  Gray apparently agreed to conduct the work for Wilkes on the condition that he was to retain some of the collection's plant materials.  Gray's private herbarium later became part of the Gray Herbarium at Harvard upon the condition that they build an herbarium to house the collection (Gray Herbarium 1997).  Henry turned over the bulk of the plant collection from the Wilkes Expedition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  When Baird became Secretary he created the National Museum and combined its plant collection with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's collection, forming the U.S. National Herbarium (Morton and Stern 1966).

Many of the artifacts manufactured by humans and collected by the U.S. Exploring Expedition were transferred to museums and collections around the world through Henry's exchange program.  Interestingly enough, most of these items were collected as curios, except for those artifacts collected by Titian Peale for his father's museum.  Joseph Drayton, Alfred T. Agate, and Titian Peale, artists on the Expedition, added to our knowledge of human activities by recording anthropological observations in their drawings.  Several of the artifacts were personal belongings that were later dispersed without their history intact.  Of the original five thousand objects of human artifact, only half remain at the Smithsonian Institution.  Like the earlier collection of the Lewis and Clark expedition, many of the specimens Titian gave to the Peale Museum were later sold to Barnum and Kimball.  Some were lost in fires; much of the surviving material ended up in the Peabody Museum (Viola et al. 1985).

The third largest collection from the voyage was that of birds, numbering two thousand (Viola et al. 1985).  The Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, originated with the donation of the Smithsonian's second Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird's collection and the specimens from the U.S. Exploring Expedition (Ludwig 1999).  Most of the bird specimens from the U.S. Exploring Expedition were gathered by Titian Peale, artist-naturalist of the expedition.  However, he lamented over the lack of care given to the specimens once they arrived in the United States.  He also claimed that "one hundred and eighty specimens of birds which I collected are missing" (Viola et al. 1985).  Some of the specimens and artwork were also given to the Peale Musuem, whose owner was Titian's father.  Some of the specimens from the Peale Museum are now located at the Peabody Museum.  Other specimens were sent to Harvard, the Chicago Academy of the Sciences, Indiana University, and the University of Florida as part of Joseph Henry's exchange program (Viola et al. 1985).  Peale's private collection was lost when the Peacock was wrecked off the coast of Oregon (Viola et al. 1985).  Several of John James Audubon's works were based upon specimens collected by Peale.

The invertebrate collection was mainly the work of Joseph Couthouy, Titian Peale, Joseph Drayton, and James Dwight Dana.  Several incidents greatly reduced the collection, the first being the sinking of the Peacock.  Also, several specimens were separated from their labels before the expedition returned home.  Ten thousand specimens, many of which were from the Exploring Expedition, were lost during the Chicago Fire of 1871 while they were on loan to the Chicago Academy of Sciences.  Several of Dana's original drawings were lost by fire as well.  However, Dana's work on the corals was a great contribution to the sciences (Viola et al. 1985).

Even though the artifacts from the U.S. Exploring Expedition did not become part of the Smithsonian Institution until 1858, the Smithsonian finally became America's national museum under the guidance of Spencer Fullerton Baird.  Artifacts from future government explorations, such as the Great Western Surveys of King, Hayden, and Powell, finally had a place of their own (Smithsonian).

For the 75th Anniversary of the opening of the Natural History Building, the Smithsonian Institution created a commemorative exhibit to honor "the accomplishments of Wilkes and his fellow explorers, though obscure today, were so important to the development of American science and so important to the history of the Smithsonian Institution."  This exhibit included 1,750 objects from over forty museums and covered an area of 13,000 square feet.  The exhibition later became a traveling exhibition which contained 400 artifacts utilizing a floor space of 5,500 square feet (Viola et al. 1985; Molinaroli 1996).


Special Note:  Most of the material in the above presentation was obtained from a variety of sites in the Smithsonian Institution's web presentation.  However, authors' names and dates of publication are usually omitted, resulting in difficulty citing the source.  As such, when one or more Smithsonian websites were consulted in constructing a paragraph, it is noted by the word Smithsonian in parentheses at the end of the paragraph.

Alroy, John.  Asa Gray (1810-1888).  Lefalophodon:  A History of Evolutionary Biology Web Site at, 1998.

Burton, William C. Ancient Land.  Washington Post at, April 8, 1998.

Callahan, Karen.  Nevada County Native Plants:  Darlingtonia californica.  California Native Plant Society Redbud Chapter at, April 1999.

The Capitol Project.  National Institute at, May 1997.

Freeman, Linda.  Distribution of Darlingtonia californica on Mt. Eddy, California.  CSU Chico, Fall 1994.

The Garden Helper.  Where did poinsettias come from? at, December 17, 1997.

Gray Herbarium.  Wilkes Expedition (U.S. Exploring Expedition) 1838-42 at, 1997.

Haskell, Daniel.  The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and its Pulblications 1844-1874:  A Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1968 (reprint of 1940).

Henson, Pamela.  Spencer Baird had a different vision for research at the Smithsonian.  Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives, Report No. 83; Winter 1996 at

Kimberling, Clark.  Special Sandstone of the Smithsonian "Castle" at, January 1999.

Kuff, Karen R. and James R. Brooks.  Building Stones of Maryland.  Maryland Geological Survey at, 1985.

Ludwig, Craig A.  Division of Birds, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution at, 1999.

Miesse, William C.  Mount Shasta:  An Annotated Bibliography.  College of the Siskiyous, 1993.

Molinaroli, Miles Fridberg.  Magnificent Voyagers: U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 at, 1996.

Morton, C.V. and W.L. Stern. The United States National Herbarium.
Plant Sci. Bull. 12: 1-4 at, 1966.

Potts, Robert. Photograph of Darlingtonia californica from CalPhotos at, © 2001 California Academy of Sciences.

Relf, Diane.  The History of the Poinsettia.  Virginia Cooperative Extension at, November 1997.

Simpson, Deborah. Public domain image of poinsettia at

Smithsonian Institution.  Overview of Smithsonian Institution Museums at

Smithsonian Institution.  "A Gift" in The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder:  Bright Lamps, Bold Adventure: 1846-1878 at

Smithsonian Institution.  The Life of James Smithson in James Smithson's Gift at

Smithsonian Institution.  The Smithsonian Institution at

Smithsonian Institution.  Smithsonian Institution Guide at

Smithsonian Institution.  Smithsonian Museums on the Mall at

Smithsonian Institution.  From Smithson to Smithsonian:  The Birth of an Institution at

Stanton, William.  The Great United States Exploring Expedition.  University of California Press, 1975.

Texas Poinsettias Producers.  History of the Poinsettia at, May 14, 1997.

Viola, Herman J. et al.  Magnificant Voyagers:  The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1942.  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

Watson, Rubie S. and Castle McLaughlin.  The Ethnography of Lewis and Clark.  The Peabody Museum at, August 1999.

Withington, Charles F. Building Stones of Our Nation's Capital. USGS at, January 13, 1999.

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