Illustrators of the great survey expeditions portray the
magnificent Cereus giganteus - part ii

Many of the names of the naturalists, botanists, and Army officers who were part of the U.S.–Mexican Boundary Survey expedition are familiar to us because they have been commemorated in the specific epithets of botanical names:   Ferocactus emoryi after Maj. Wm. Emory, Boundary Commissioner, naturalist, and author of the final report; Opuntia engelmannii after Dr. George Engelmann, author of ‘Cactaceae of the Boundary’; Yucca torreyi after Dr. John Torrey, author of ‘Botany of the Boundary’; Cylindropuntia whipplei after Lt. Amiel Whipple, topographic engineer; Agave schottii after Arthur Schott, naturalist, surveyor, and topographic artist; Agave parryi after Dr. Charles Parry, surgeon and botanist; Datura wrightii after Charles Wright, botanist; Stenocereus thurberi after George Thurber, botanist; and Cylindropuntia bigelovii after John Bigelow, surgeon and botanist. Conspicuously missing among these many names is John Russell Bartlett.

Bartlett (1805–1886) was the U.S. Boundary Commissioner from 1850 to 1853, the years when most of the surveying and specimen collection was completed. In 1853 the entire project was abruptly suspended and Bartlett removed from his position amid accusations of incompetence and mismanagement of funds. Given his background as a banker, bookseller, artist, and author, it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely candidate to lead a large surveying party in unexplored and hostile territory, but such can be the nature of political appointments.

Bartlett’s great intellectual curiosity and sense of adventure were assets in the job, but his tenure was plagued with troubles. An ongoing dispute over the location of the border of New Mexico resulted in persistent bickering and animosity among the expedition’s members. To make matters worse, Bartlett made frequent personal explorations unrelated to the official survey, and he was away from the survey teams for long periods of time. So after three years of delays and lack of resolution of the border dispute, Bartlett was removed from his post and replaced by the very experienced and capable Maj. William Emory.

During his wide-ranging travels, Bartlett made hundreds of valuable sketches of landscapes, plants, and peoples, none of which were published in the final government survey report. His companion on these explorations was Henry Cheever Pratt (1803–1880), an artist of considerable ability who had trained with the painter and inventor Samuel Morse. After being relieved of his position as Boundary Commissioner, Bartlett published a two-volume account of his adventures with his numerous pencil sketches fleshed out in ink. Pratt later refined and elaborated on some of Bartlett’s sketches, such as this striking oil painting of saguaros with fruit. This work is very important in the history of the art of the Sonoran Desert as it was the first detailed rendering of the saguaro to show the plant with its flower and fruit in vivid color. (For added realism, there is an arrow buried in one of the arms.)

Bartlett’s account of his journeys is highly entertaining and rich with details of his observations. In the text accompanying his sketch of the “Petahaya” (saguaro), he provides a thorough listing of all previous writers and explorers who had seen and described the giant cactus and then proceeds to give a “popular” (and perhaps better) description of the cactus than was done by either Emory or Engelmann. This memoir of Bartlett’s travels along with its many illustrations can be downloaded in PDF form from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. — Cindy Hartwell

This appeared in the July 2014 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.