charles wright, the plant collector who walked across texas

“No name is more largely commemorated in the botany of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona than that of Charles Wright. ... Surely no botanist ever better earned such scientific remembrance by entire devotion, acute observation, severe exertion, and perseverance under hardship and privation.”

This tribute, written in 1886, is from Asa Gray’s obituary for Charles Wright (1811–1885) in The American Journal of Science. Gray, professor of botany at Harvard, had known Wright for forty years, as both colleague and friend. Their relationship began in 1844 with a letter from Wright who had been teaching and botanizing in eastern Texas for several years. Previously, plants had been collected in central and southwestern Texas by Ferdinand Lindheimer, Jean Louis Berlandier, Ferdinand Roemer, and Thomas Drummond , but eastern Texas was still undiscovered ground for plant collectors. Thus, Gray welcomed Wright’s letter, which was accompanied by a selection of plants that he had collected in that part of Texas.

In 1848, Wright was invited to Cambridge by Gray to organize the large number of plant specimens that he had sent from Texas. While there, Gray arranged for Wright to travel as botanist across the Rio Grande valley with a U.S. Army expedition preparing for a planned boundary survey between the U.S. and Mexico. While Wright was granted permission to accompany the expedition, the War Department provided neither rations nor transportation for the botanist, agreeing only to transport his luggage and his plant collections. In spite of many hardships1, Wright walked the entire distance of 673 miles from Galveston to El Paso and collected some 1,400 specimens for Gray and a number of cactus specimens for George Engelmann.

Two years later, Wright was hired by the U.S. Boundary Survey Commission as surveyor and botanist with the survey team of Col. J. D. Graham. After a year, he amassed a large collection of plants from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and in the fall of 1852, he delivered his cacti collection to George Engelmann in St. Louis and the remainder to Gray in Cambridge. Beginning in 1853, Gray published much of Wright’s collection in the multi-volume Plantae Wrightianae Texano-neo-mexicanae, with Wright’s remaining collection published in the 1859 Boundary Survey Report2.

After returning from the southwest, Wright joined the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition as its official botanist. For three years, the expedition explored the China Seas, the Bering Strait, and the North Pacific Ocean. Much of Wright’s time was spent studying and collecting algae and seaweed. At the voyage’s end, in 1856, Wright returned briefly to the East and then began eleven years of botanical exploration in Cuba. Wright’s last exploratory voyage was to Santo Domingo, in 1871. The remainder of his life was spent at his family home in Connecticut, gardening, farming, caring for his brother and two sisters, and occasionally botanizing. In 1885, Wright passed away suddenly from a heart condition that he had developed while collecting in Cuba.

The two illustrations shown here are of plants named in honor of Charles Wright. Both illustrations accompanied the first botanical descriptions published for these two plants. The first illustration is of Mammillaria wrightii, named for Wright by George Engelmann, author of Cactaceae of the Boundary: “This species I with pleasure dedicate to my friend, Mr. Charles Wright, to whose indefatigable exertions botany owes so many new discoveries along the Mexican boundary line, and lately in more distant parts of the globe.” The illustration is by Paulus Roetter, the exceptional artist of the Cactaceae of the Boundary.

The second illustration is of Penstemon wrightii, which was first described in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, in 1851, by William Jackson Hooker with an illustration painted by Walter Hood Fitch, the Botanical Magazine’s esteemed illustrator. The specimen had been grown at the Royal Gardens Kew from seed collected by Wright in Texas and given to Hooker by Engelmann. — Cindy Hartwell

1   Wright's journey was not only physically challenging but often demoralizing. One letter to Asa Gray in June of 1849 shows how little regard Wright's fellow travelers had for his efforts and how little control he had over safeguarding his collection.

"The officers care nothing about my affairs and the waggoners have a little curiosity to gratify by looking on while I change my plants and care no more about it or rather would be pleased if they were sunk in the river and their load would be lightened. ... I have been now three or four days in such a state of uncertainty about the possibility of going on that I have no enjoyment and today I have not saved a specimen—have merely collected some seeds as I walked along the way. As for studying the plants I have not attempted it so long that I have almost forgotten. I have been vexed enough to cry or swear when thinking that I have the pleasing prospect of being dependent for six months on a parcel of men who call me a fool and wish me at the bottom of the sea."

2   Four botanists were hired for the Boundary Survey: George Thurber, Charles Parry, John Bigelow, and Wright. Once their collecting was finished, it was expected that publication of their plants would be limited to the botanical section of the final Survey Report. Wright’s collection, however, created considerable discord among the other botanists.

In 1852, Gray began to publish Wright’s plants in the appendix to his Plantae Wrightianae Texano-neo-mexicanae, several years before the Boundary Survey Report was completed. The other botanists were abiding by the understanding that all of their work would appear together in the final report. Bigelow, in particular, took exception to Gray and Wright publishing first. The Boundary Commissioner, Major William Emory, was forced to intervene to resolve the conflict, which he did by requiring Gray to give the remainder of Wright’s plants to the botanist John Torrey, who was writing the botanical section of the Survey Report, for inclusion with the work of the other botanists.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in the November 2019 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.