Into the West

        In this painting Humphry Marshall stands on the edge of a precipice, looking out at the rugged beauty of the landscape as he devises a plan to explore the vast, untapped potential of the American wilderness.  In the mid-1700s, America was dependent on many imported plants. Believing that the natural resources of the American continent could replace and even improve upon these imports, Humphry began to plan the details of an ambitious expedition that could benefit his fledging country.

        Practical Quaker businessman that he was, Marshall contacted friends and acquaintances who had the influence and money to make his dream a reality. To populate his botanical garden, Humphry Marshall or his agents had made many collecting trips throughout the colonies.  Moses, who had begun to work for his uncle full time, had been on an arduous months-long journey to Pittsburgh, begun in the summer of 1784, and had recently returned. Humphry approached Moses and his cousin William Bartram (who was a botanist and a highly skilled illustrator of plants and animals) with the idea of travelling even further west. Moses felt that ventures to even less inhabited areas would require greater planning and a sponsor. Humphry tried to drum up interest by contacting the American Philosophical Society through the help of his friend, Thomas Parke. In a letter dated March 14, 1785, Thomas Parke wrote to Humphry:

Respected Friend –

I should have answered thy two letters much sooner, had I not waited to gain some intelligence from the Philosophical Society, on the subject of thy nephew’s intended tour to Kentuck, – which I mentioned to one of the secretaries; but am sorry to inform thee I can obtain no encouragement for the undertaking. Few among us seem devoted to investigate the beauties of Natural History; and the expense will fall heavy on individuals, unless the community contribute sufficient to encourage the journey.

 Humphry saw another opportunity in 1785 when his friend Benjamin Franklin was elected the President of Pennsylvania (equivalent to the Royal Governor). In a letter dated December 5, 1785, Humphry congratulated Franklin and wrote:

I had it in contemplation to mention to thee for thy approbation, or sentiments thereon, a proposal I had made to my cousin Wm. Bartram, and nephew Docr. Moses Marshall, of taking a tour, mostly through the western parts of our united states, in order to make observations, etc. upon the natural production of those regions…Perhaps Congress, or some of the members, might promote their going out with the surveyors when they lay out several new states.  

 Franklin and Congress were apparently not receptive. Humphry then wrote to his friend Dr. John Coakley Lettsom, an English physician and philanthropist, who was interested in the potential of this trip.  Lettsom was also a friend of Benjamin Franklin and in a letter to Franklin dated August 14, 1786 wrote:

there are in your provinces many ingenious persons, who, with very moderate encouragement, would visit your mountains and woods, in pursuit of discovery: You possess many valuable dyes and articles of medicine yet unknown….

I have lately had a correspondence with one Humphry Marshall of Bradford, in West chester who is an excellent Botanist, and has a pretty general knowledge of Natural history, and for a little encouragement, would, I am informed, undertake a voyage of Discovery into your woods and mountains: he mentioned to me that such a Journey might be undertaken and continued for at least a year with the expence of £300; if a subscription for this purpose were effected, I would willingly subscribe my mite of 20 Guineas towards it; for the sake of a share of the Seeds plants and ores that may be collected.

Humphry also wrote to Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society of London, saying the trip would succeed if “met with proper encouragement.” In spite of these determined efforts, nothing materialized.

        In May of 1792, Humphry Marshall received a letter from Dr. Caspar Wistar, a Quaker physician from Philadelphia, who asked if his nephew was still interested in travelling west of the Mississippi. Wistar must have received a positive reply from Humphry, for in June Dr. Wistar wrote to Moses Marshall:

Respected Friend:-

By a conversation with thy uncle, I find that thee is already acquainted with the wishes of some gentlemen here, to have our continent explored in a western direction.  My reason for writing, at present, is to inform thee of the present state of the business.

Mr. Jefferson and several other gentlemen are much interested, and think they can procure a subscription sufficient to insure one thousand guineas, as a compensation to any one who undertakes the journey, and can bring satisfactory proofs of having passed to the South Sea. 

They wish the journey to be prosecuted up the Missouri, as the easiest, and perhaps most interesting track.  A Spanish gentleman who is now here, and lives near the mouth of the Missouri, says that a caravan of traders go off every year up the Missouri, and penetrate fifteen hundred miles up it, to the Mahaw Indians, who are very friendly indeed.  These traders go off from the Mississippi about the first of August, so that any one who thinks of it this year, ought to lose no time.

If thee has any inclination, I think it would be very proper to come to town immediately, and converse with Mr. Jefferson, who seems principally interested.

I am confident that no small matter will stop them, if thee is disposed to engage in the business. At any rate, I shall be very glad to hear from thee as soon as possible,

And am, with respect for thy uncle and self,

                                   Thy assured friend,

                                   Caspar Wistar, Jr. 

        Again the opportunity was missed, since Moses did not make the trip to Philadelphia. Why he chose not to go is unknown, although it seems likely that the short lead time and his uncle’s failing eyesight may have influenced his decision. Less than a year later, Dr. Wistar performed cataract surgery on Humphry, which was only partially successful in restoring his sight.

        We do know that Thomas Jefferson remained interested in funding a large expedition to the west. Twelve years later, as President of the United States, he commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the newly acquired territory of the Louisiana Purchase and to map a route across the western half of the continent. Lewis was the naturalist and he was tasked with studying, collecting and documenting the flora and fauna along the way. Sadly, Humphry Marshall did not live long enough to see his dream realized.