Edward palmer's travels in arizona
1865-1868

[The early life of Edward Palmer (1831–1911), from his first collecting expedition in Paraguay to his time with the Union Army, was described in the July Desert Breeze.]

Following the end of the Civil War, Edward Palmer traveled west to Arizona as a civilian interested solely in collecting botanical and zoological specimens. In July of 1865, the 34-year-old Palmer arrived at Fort Whipple, the seat of government for the Arizona Territory. During his brief time there, he, along with the Fort’s surgeon and naturalist, Dr. Elliot Coues, collected some 600 plant specimens.

Although the war had ended, the Army maintained a presence throughout the West to protect new settlements, mines, and commercial ventures from raids by the various native tribes. In October, Palmer re-entered the Army as assistant surgeon at Camp Lincoln, an outpost staffed by volunteers from Fort Whipple for protecting settlers in the Verde River area. Life at the Camp was difficult and dangerous, but Palmer nonetheless managed to amass a large collection of plants and other specimens. In venturing out from the post, Palmer encountered what was likely Montezuma’s Castle. He was the first to describe the site, its geology, and construction, and he found evidence of cultivated corn and grapevines, and textiles made from local plants.

During a routine supply trip in the spring of 1866, Palmer was thrown from a mule and sustained a severe head injury that kept him from his duties for several weeks. To complicate matters, he suffered another attack of malaria that he had contracted in South America. He was transferred to Fort Whipple—but without his collection of specimens. Camp Lincoln’s commanding officer promised to forward them to Palmer, but they were never sent. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of the maps and drawings that he had made of the cliff dwellings and the numerous artifacts that he had collected. In 1869, he returned to Camp Lincoln to locate his collection, only to find that they had been stolen or thrown away. Palmer wrote, “It is vexatious to lose things after they have been obtained at such great sacrifices and privations; and once lost may not be gotten again, especially the articles from the ruined buildings in rocky ledges.”

Upon release from Fort Whipple’s hospital, he was posted to Camp Grant, located at the confluence of the San Pedro River and Aravaipa Creek. On the way to the Camp, Palmer was pronounced “a very sick man” by a doctor in Tucson, but despite his continuing ill health, he managed during the spring and summer of 1867 to collect some 200 plant specimens and a large number of bird and mammal skins. In consideration of his ongoing illness, he requested release from his Army contract, which was granted in March. He remained in the Tucson area until the end of August during which time he continued his plant and ethnological collecting.

Palmer then traveled to California where he hoped to find a cure in Sonoma for his health problems. The result of that venture isn’t recorded, but he apparently recovered sufficiently to travel back to Washington by boat to seek a new venture, one that turned out to be a particularly troubled year in Indian Territory as a doctor for the Kiowa-Comanche Agency in the Eureka Valley. After that unfortunate year, Palmer became a full-time collector, no longer having to juggle medical duties with his collecting. His many travels from that time to the end of his life will be explored in the October Desert Breeze.

In 1869, employed by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Palmer traveled back to Arizona. Here he collected specimens of an agave that George Engelmann would name Agave palmeri (Transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis, 1875). Engelmann’s description was based on specimens collected by Arthur Schott (1855), Palmer (1869), and Dr. Joseph Rothrock (1874).

Margaret Pope’s unique and beautiful illustration of the flowers of Palmer’s agave shows the progression of the flowers as they develop. These flowers, which produce a significant amount of nectar at night, are primarily pollinated by bats. Plants bloom first at the southernmost parts of its range, and migrating bats from Mexico follow the northward-moving blooming of the agaves along their migration route. — Cindy Hartwell



This appeared in the August 2017 issue of The Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.