One of the earliest botanical gardens in the area was that of the plant collector elder Michaux (author of the 1803 Flora of Northern America) who had a botanical garden at New Durham, New Jersey. Even earlier the Colden family, Cadwallader Colden and his daughter Jane, had a small garden in Newburgh, New York. Jane Colden left a long list of the native plants of the Hudson River at the time of her death in 1754.

One of the earliest plant collectors in New Jersey was that of Dr. P. D. Knieskern (1800-1871) He published a Catalogue of Plants of Oneida County, NY. He lived in New Jersey from 1841 to his death in 1871. One of the places he lived was Lakehurst, New Jersey. He was a friend of both John Torrey and Asa Gray. In 1856 he published his catalogue of the plants of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. He also published a New Jersey list of plants in the Annual Report of the New Jersey Geological Survey for 1856. He died at Shark River, NJ.

Another early plant collector of the area was Major John Le Conte. He published his list of plants he found on Manhattan island. One of John Torrey's earliest recollections was the sight of two young men coming into the city covered with dust and loaded with plant collections. He was told that one of the lads was "the Le Conte boy." (Burgess 1900:553)

The department of botany of Columbia College had an impact on New York City botany with its very first professor of botany: Samuel L. Mitchill. Mitchill collected plants around his home at Plandome, Long Island. In 1807 he produced a catalogue of his plants.

Mitchill's successor was Dr. David Hosack (1769-1835). In 1801 David Hosack established his Elgin Botanic Garden, the first public garden in the U.S., of twenty acres on ground now occupied by Rockefeller Center, including native and exotic species. Most of the amateur botanists of the period were practicing physicians. Hosack was a graduate of Princeton and studied medicine in Scotland and England (where he also developed a keen interest in botany).

In 1806 Hosack published the first edition of his catalog of the plants grown at his garden. In that same year, he attracted a law student named Amos Eaton (1776-1842) to his fold. In 1806 Hosack published the first edition of his Catalogue of the plants grown at the Elgin Botanic Garden. He purchased twenty acres of land on Manhattan Island at Elgin (between 50th and 46th Streets and Fifth and Madison Avenues) and started a botanical garden (with the help of Professor Mitchill and others). He became Columbia College's second professor of botany.

In 1814 the Hosack garden was ceded to Columbia College. The college was located on 50th Street and Madison. The herbarium was located at 49th Street. But by 1824 there was little left of the garden.

Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchell (1764-1831) (Barnhart 1909) was somewhat of a Renaissance man. He was at various time congressman, senator, college professor, and all-around naturalist. He was also the leader of the New York group of botanists. In 1792 Mitchill was appointed first professor of agriculture (and botany) at Columbia College. Doctors Hosack and Mitchill instructed a law student in botany, chemistry and natural philosophy, who was to turn to botany, and thus "popular instruction in Natural History in this country began with Amos Eaton." Although he did not publish, he had a big influence on a group of young men who gathered around him. One of these young men was John Torrey.

Writing in 1906, the botanist H. H. Rusby, a member of the Torrey Botanical Society, mentioned that the history of botany in New York City was largely the result of three sources: 1) the local botanical garden; 2) the botany department of Columbia College; and 3) the Torrey Botanical Club (now Society).

Columbia's third professor of botany was none other than John Torrey (1797-1873), founder of the Torrey Botanical Society, whose history we will go into in some depth.

Birth and Childhood of John Torrey

Torrey's father, William Torrey, was originally from New England. He was a Captain in the Continental Army and was among those who entered the city upon its evacuation by the British forces.

His father William became a merchant in New York City. The name of the business was William Torrey and Company and was located at 77 Pearl Street. John Torrey was born on Pearl Street in New York City, Aug. 15 1796. At two years of age, John moved with his family to 315 Broadway, but at four years of age, he accompanied his family back to Pearl Street. The business transferred to 31 Beekman Street. (Rodgers 10-11)

John Torrey came from a large family. One of his brothers, William, was the founder of the town of Manchester, New Jersey.

John Torrey attended the public schools and was for a year at a school in Boston. In his early school day the territory above 14th Street on Manhattan island was countryside and John could explore this area much to his delight.

Eaton's business dealings ultimately resulted in a four-year jail sentence for forgery, during which time he taught botany to the son of the prison's fiscal agent, a young John Torrey, then only ten years old (born 1796). Johns's father had been made Fiscal Agent to the State Prison then at suburban Greenwich Village. The last eighteen years of his life, Eaton was consumed with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York.

In 1810 John Eatton LeConte, Jr. published his Catalogue of the Plants of the Island of New York. John Torrey had helped him collect and prepare specimens. John's father had business with Dr. LeConte and the two LeConte boys, although 12 and 14 years older than John Torrey, began a lifetime friendship. (Rodgers, 12)

Student of Medicine and Botany

In 1816 John Torrey decided to become a doctor. He entered the office of Dr. Wright Post, the eminent physician and surgeon of his day. Later he decided to attend the College of Physicians and Surgeons, where both Dr. Post and David Hosack taught.

David Hosack continued to teach botany and in 1814 John Torrey paid $20 to take one of Hosack's courses. He often attended the botanical lectures of Dr. Hosack. At that time Torrey was an industrious collector and he often carried to Hosack the fruits of his herborizations. Hosack became so attached to Torrey that he and his wife would frequently have the young man over to their home.

Early Accomplishments

Eaton in turn taught the lad, John Torrey, the rudiments of flower structure.

Indeed, Mitchell was so popular that when the young men gathered to form the Lyceum of Natural History in 1817, the only candidate considered for president was their beloved professor.

Torrey assisted Dr. Benjamin Silliman in organizing the Lyceum of Natural History. Silliman, Benjamin (1779-1864) 39, 98 -- Amos Eaton took classes in chemistry at Yale from Silliman. (Another of the founders was Le Conte who Torrey had seen earlier.) He was also one of its most active members and contributed to its Annals many of its most important papers. The first volume published as the Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York was in 1823. (In 1877 the journal's name was changed to the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences). The New York Academy of Sciences is the third oldest scientific organization in America and one of New York City's oldest and most enduring cultural institutions. The Academy is an independent, nonprofit organization with nearly 50,000 members in more than 160 countries united by a commitment to promoting science and technology.

For many years Torrey was its President. Then at one annual meeting, when Torrey desired to decline a reelection, he was induced to accept a nomination, only to have an opposing faction elect its candidate over him. So hurt was he at what he regarded as an unfair trick that he never again went to the meetings of the Lyceum. (Thurber 1873 presidential address)


On May 5, 1817 he was appointed by the Lyceum of Natural History, of which he was one of the original members, to a committee to prepare a catalogue of plants growing in the neighborhood of the city. William Cooper was the frequent companion of Torrey's early botanical excursions and "until the last these two old men held for one another a boy-like friendship as charming as it is rare."

The work was presented to the Lyceum for publication on December 22, 1817. It was published in 1819. Torrey was especially interested in collecting members of the Cyperaceae family.

Torrey actually presented his plant catalogue a year before he got his medical degree. Copies of the catalogue of 1817 are now very rare and difficult to procure. As early as 1880 Thurber talked about Torrey's 1817 catalog as ancient history.

In 1818 he received his degree of Doctor of Medicine upon graduating at the age of twenty-one from the College of Physicians and Surgeons. When he obtained his medical degree he took an office in the city but he was so involved in botany and the other sciences that more scientists than patients came to see him. He also disliked witnessing human suffering and abandoned medicine at the first opportunity.

Torrey made a trip by wagon from Philadelphia to South Amboy during the latter part of June 1818 in company with his old friend William Cooper. He wrote about it in a letter to Zaccheus Collins, an eminent Philadelphia botanist.

In 1819 Torrey promulgated the Sexual System (instead of the Natural System) beginning with his Catalogue.

In 1820 Torrey published in Silliman's journal "A Notice of Plants Collected by Captain N. Douglas around the Great Lakes at the Head Waters of the Mississippi."

In 1822 Torrey published a catalog of the plants found by Professor David Bates Douglass of West Point who was a member of Governor Lewis Cass and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's 1820 expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Soon after his arrival in New York in August 1823, plant explorer David Douglas, on behalf of Hooker, called on John Torrey to deliver a package of seeds. Somehow Douglas provoked the ire of Torrey and later Torrey wrote to Hooker that Douglas could not provide satisfactory answers as regards the seed package, adding about Douglas that "He is such a liar I know not whether to believe him or not." (Morwood 1973:35)

Torrey had a chance to be an explorer himself. In 1819, Colonel Henry Atkinson, with Major Stephen H. Long of the U.S. Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers as his scientific aide, traveled the Missouri River aboard steamboats. Torrey was offered the position of botanist, but he did not accept. Along as botanists were William Baldwin and Dr. Edwin James. Baldwin became ill and returned east. Dr. Say, a physician, became the expedition's surgeon/naturalist. Most of the five hundred species Baldwin and James gathered were studied by Torrey who, in a series of three papers published from 1824 until 1828, accounted for most of the new plants. Also in 1824 Torrey became acting Professor of Geology, Mineralogy, and Chemistry at West Point with the rank of Assistant Surgeon in the Army.

In 1819, Dr. William Baldwin (1779-1819), who had studied with Barton, traveled up the Missouri River on the Yellowstone expedition, which included Stephen H. Long of the topographical engineers. Barton, William Paul Crillon (1786-1856). Published a flora of Philadelphia and 10 miles around in 1815 and 1818. Delays and the death of over a hundred men due to scurvy prompted Congress to halt the expedition's funding. Baldwin died at Franklin, Missouri, during his own attempt to reach St. Louis, with little to show for his efforts.

Edwin James (1797-1861) replaced Baldwin as surgeon-naturalist in 1820, joining a new Long expedition in St. Louis. With him was Thomas Say (1787-1834), a self-taught naturalist who became one of America's best-known zoologists and a distinguished entomologist. The route was westward to the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado; it was direct and rapid, and both men collected whenever they could. Once in the Rockies, James climbed Pikes Peak in June, where he found many alpine species. By September, the expedition was at Fort Smith in the Arkansas Territory on its return leg to St. Louis.

Baldwin and James's specimens were sent, eventually, to Torrey, who accounted for them in 1824 and 1827. Less delayed in their description were the plants collected by Captain David Douglass (1790-1849), then at West Point, who accompanied the Cass and Schoolcraft expedition on their search for the headwaters of the Mississippi River in 1820. Torrey published his summary of Douglass's plants in 1822.

In 1823 Torrey contributed to the Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History with his "Descriptions of some new or Rare Plants from the Rocky Mountains Collected by Dr. Edwin P. James."

In 1824 Torrey was elected to the Society of the Cincinnati.

Marriage and First Big Botanical Work

In 1824 Torrey married Eliza Robinson Shaw who could read Latin and Greek and had written sermons that had been preached. Such a workaholic was Torrey that the last pages of his A Flora of the northern and Middle States were written on the morning of his wedding day. The couple settled at West Point with Torrey being the new professor of Chemistry at the USMA.

He had 3 daughters Margaret, Eliza, and Jane. Jane was born in 1825. Eliza was born in 1827. Margaret was born in 1829. In 1838 his only son was born and named Herbert Gray Torrey, the middle name in honor of Asa Gray. Herbert suffered from a curvature of the spine.

In 1824 Torrey was praised by Amos Eaton, but Eaton still continued to refuse to accept the Natural System.

In 1826 Torrey came out with his Compendium of the Flora of the Northern and Middle States. In this same year, Torrey abandoned the Sexual System for the Natural System in his report on the plants collected by James in the Rocky Mountains.

In 1827 Torrey left West Point to assume a position at the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons (later Columbia University). While still keeping his Columbia position, Torrey began lecturing at Princeton. He was professor of chemistry at Princeton College from 1830 to 1854. He taught only in the summers, staying in New York City in the winters.

Enter Asa Gray

In the summer of 1830 Asa Gray (1810-1888) fortified with a letter of introduction from his mentor, Dr. Hadley, called to see Torrey. Torrey, however, was away from the city at the time. p. 17 Gray was teaching botany and mineralogy at the Bartlett School in Utica. Torrey tried, but failed, to get Gray a job at Princeton. Instead, Gray accepted the curator position at the Lyceum of Natural History in New York.

Gray left some specimens which he had gathered. Torrey was impressed by the quality of work the specimens represented and started writing to Gray. Torrey needed help. He first asked Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) 6, 7, 37, 38, 40, 47, but the botanist-explorer did not consent. Then he asked Gray.

Gray lived with the Torrey family for awhile. He became a beloved older brother to the three young girls. Torrey thought that Asa Gray would marry his daughter Eliza and was actually shocked when he learned that Asa Gray decided to marry the daughter of a Boston Brahmin.

In September 1830, Torrey received a letter from a young man, then living in upper New York state and studying medicine, but who was clearly more interested in botany. It was Asa Gray.

In 1831 Torrey abandoned the artificial arrangement of Linnaeus in 1831 when he published Lindley's 1830 book in the United States and promoted adoptions of Lindley's classification. To it he appended a "Catalogue of North American Genera of Plants Arranged According to the Orders of Lindley's Introduction to the Natural System of Botany." It was the first comprehensive view of the Natural System applied to their own plants. Torrey led American botanists in the abandonment of the Linnaean system for a more natural system of classification developed by Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu. Torrey was greatly influenced by Eaton who also promoted a "natural system" and adopted it (sort of) in print before Torrey.

Torrey's 1832 A Flora of the Northern and Middle Sections of the United States followed by his Compendium treated all of the vascular plants north of the Potomac River.

In 1833 Torrey journeyed to Glasgow, Scotland as an agent of New York University where he discussed with Hooker the plans for the reprinting of the Flora of North America. Until 1842 Asa Gray worked with Torrey on the Flora.

In a letter to his father (Nov 21, 1833) Asa Gray mentioned that the previous month he and Dr. Torrey went to Philadelphia where they stayed a week. They spent almost their entire time in the rooms of the American Philosophical Society and of the Academy of Science. They met with most of the scientific and other learned men of the city. (Letters 47-48)

In 1836 Torrey was appointed Botanist of the Geological Survey of New York. The material was not published until 1843 as "A Flora of the State of New York" in two large volumes. When the Geological Survey of New York was organized in 1836 he was made botanist, and held that post for several years.

Torrey's herbarium rapidly became the major repository of American collections. Eventually, his collection went to the New York Botanical Garden.

In 1837, Thomas Nuttall agreed to supply Torrey with descriptions of his new American species. Over the next fifteen months, Nuttall provided Torrey and Gray with descriptions and specimens of nearly 350 new plants. In 1840 Torrey and Gray published the remaining two parts of volume one of Flora of North America.

In 1838 the first parts of volumes 1 & 2 of the "Flora of North American" came out. George Vasey (1822-1893) and George Thurber (1821-1890) were contributors to Torrey and Gray in the field of grasses. George Vasey was born an Englishman but came to the United States as a child. He first became interested in botany while living in New York through Dr. P. D. Knieskern. He accompanied Major John Wesley Powell in 1868 on an exploring journey to Colorado. He was curator of the Natural History Museum of the State Normal School of Illinois. Starting in 1870 he was the associate editor of the American Entomologist and Botanist. In 1872 he was appointed as botanist of the Department of Agriculture and its herbarium. (Denny 1968:49)

Three well-known manuals that famous American author and amateur botanist David Thoreau consulted from time to time were Amos Eaton's A Manual of Botany for the Northern and Middle States (various editions), John Torrey's Flora of the Northern and Middle Sections of the United States (1836), and Torrey and Gray's Flora of North America (1838-43).) In that same year he met Asa Gray.

Gleason (1943:35) says that Torrey and Gray in the northeast had to share honors with Alphonso Wood, 1810-1881, principal of the Brooklyn Female Academy in New York, author, plant collector and member of the Torrey Botanical Club. The botanist Alphonso Wood of Chesterfield, New Hampshire ran a small school in Keene that opened in 1829.

He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1834 after which for fifteen years he served as an instructor in Latin and natural history at Kimbal Union Academy in Meriden, NH. While he was at Kimbal he first had the though of preparing a botany text. He spoke to Asa Gray about preparing such a text, but Gray was either not interested or too busy. In 1836 Gray published his own Elements of Botany (New York). So Wood decided to write the text himself. At first he want it just to be a small text, but it gradually became a full botany text. He first published it in 1845, using the natural system instead of the Linnean system.

Grey's major competitor was this book by Wood entitled Class-Book of Botany, Designed for Colleges, Academies and other Seminaries. In Two Parts. Part I. The Elements of Botanical Science. Part II. The Natural Orders. Illustrated by the Flora of the Northern, Middle and Western States. Particularly of the United States North of the Capital, Lat. 38 3/4*, which first appeared in 1845 (Boston and Claremont, N.H.). Wood, Alphonso (1810-1881) 8, 44, 116 -- Sold between .8 and 1 million copies of his Class Book of Botany (1845). Muir carried an edition of this book with him on his wanderings. Named for Wood is the Woods rose, Rosa woodsii, named by the English botanist John Lindley (1799-1865) in recognition of the American botanist, Alphonso Wood (1810-1881).

The following year he spent in the West preparing for another edition of the work which had soon sold out.

In 1852 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio to teach at the Cleveland Female Seminary. This began a long history of association with female educational institutions. In 1857 he explored the South adding new plants to his future text editions. Then in 1860 he moved to Brooklyn and the following year opened the Brooklyn Female Academy, for which he served as principal. In 1865 he had an extended excursion in California and in 1867 moved to West Farms (then a suburb, but now part of New York City). At the time of his death in 1881 he was the chair of botany at the New York College of Pharmacy.


Torrey and Gray realized the importance of collectors exploring remote regions of North America, and if they were to account for its plants, skilled botanists had to be in the field whenever possible. The increasing number of government expeditions provided them with a potential source of novelties, and Torrey lobbied hard to ensure that naturalists loyal to him and to Gray were attached to as many expeditions as possible. Even when Congress seized on the notion of a grand, worldwide expedition, such as the British had conducted a half century earlier, Torrey saw to it that William Brackenridge (1810-1893) was on Wilkes's round-the-world voyage.

To be sure, private collectors, friends, and even remote acquaintances provided Torrey and Gray with exciting specimens, especially from the southeastern part of the United States. Nuttall's friends, Hardy Croom (1797-1837) and Harris Loomis (d. 1837), indirectly contributed plants, as did Rafinesque's Rafinesque-Schmaltz, Constantine Samuel (1783-1840) replacement at Transylvania University, Charles Short (1794-1863), also one of Barton's students. Torrey and Gray's cadre of collectors in the 1830s was impressive, and specimens came to them from many who were to make substantial contributions in their own right: Lewis Beck (1798-1853), John Blodgett (1809-1853), Samuel Boykin (1786-1848), Samuel Buckley (1809-1884), Elias Leavenworth (1803-1887), John LeConte (1784-1860), Charles Pickering (1805-1878), Zina Pitcher (1797-1872), John Riddell (1807-1865), William Sullivant (1803-1873), and Edward Tuckerman (1817-1886).

John C. Fremont headed his first western expedition in 1842, mapping the Oregon Trail from Council Bluffs to South Pass in Wyoming. Torrey and Fremont published jointly the botanical results of the "Oregon and Northern California" portion of the 1843-1844 expedition. Fremont led many other expeditions and Asa Gray and John Torrey accounted for some 300 of these species.

Lewis David von Schweinitz (1780-1835), the noted mycologist and monographer of North American Carex, wrote a catalog of the small number of plants Say found along the Red River of the North in 1823 while on the Long and Keating expedition. Just before he died, von Schweinitz purchased Baldwin's herbarium from the latter's widow; this was eventually deposited at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and many of its new species were described by Torrey or by Nuttall.

In the still unexplored American West, other adventurers and naturalists were finding a wealth of novelties. Nathaniel Wyeth (1802-1856), a Boston fur trader, followed the Oregon Trail from St. Louis to Fort Vancouver in 1832. He returned the following year via the Clark River of northern Idaho to the Flathead Post in Montana, then south to Fort Bonneville in Wyoming. He submitted his large collection to Nuttall, then at Harvard, to name. This Nuttall did, but before the paper was published, Nuttall was headed west himself with Wyeth. Nuttall collected thousands of specimens during the next three years in the Northwest, California, and Hawaii. Several hundred species were described ultimately by Nuttall or by Torrey and Gray in Flora of North America.

The westward movement of Americans began in earnest in the 1840s, but the challenge of the great grassy plains (termed the "Great American Desert" by Pike) was one few wished to risk. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton knew that to open the West, the United States must have a safe route to the Pacific Coast. Who better to find it than his son-in-law, John Charles Frémont (1813-1890)?

Frémont's expeditions are now schoolboy legends, complete with the exploits of Kit Carson and "Broken-hand" Fitzpatrick, but fewer know that many of the plants on the peaks, near the rivers, or in the counties that bear his name were also found or named by Frémont. Yet he was but one of many explorers, naturalists, soldiers, and scientists for the U.S. Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers that Torrey and Gray urged to collect plants.

The war with Mexico saw Frémont in the West once again, conquering California and collecting plants. Even the military commander, Major William Emory (1811-1887), and his "Army of the West" collected plants as they crossed New Mexico and Arizona to reach the Pacific Coast and claim California in the name of the U.S. Army from Frémont, self-proclaimed military governor. After the war, the Mexican boundary survey, led by Emory, collected more western specimens with the assistance of Charles Parry (1823-1890), George Thurber (1821-1890), and Charles Wright (1811-1885).

The fulfillment of Benton's westward vision brought to the United States more territory than just that resulting from the war with Mexico. With the acquisition of the Oregon Country in 1846, the United States stretched across a continent. The activity associated with this expansion brought more new plants to the attention of the small American botanical community around Torrey and Gray.

In 1842 Asa Gray went to Harvard. At Harvard, Gray's influence grew as that of Torrey's waned, and the center of North American botany moved from New York to Cambridge.

In 1843, Torrey published his Flora of the State of New York. Also in this year the third volume of the "Flora of North America" came out.

Following 1843 he was especially involved in classifying the plants collected in the expeditions of :

Joseph Nicolas Nicollet

John Fremont

William H. Emory

Howard Stansbury

Captain Randolph Barnes Marcy (tour of Red River in 1849)

Lieutenant Lorenzo Sitgreaves (down the Zuni and Colorado rivers, 1851)

Capt. Gunnison (Sante Fe trail, to Colorado rivers, to Utah, 1853)

Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple (Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, 1853)

Lt. E. G. Beckwith (east of the Great Salt Lake to For Reading, 1854)

Captain John Pope (along the 32nd parallel from Red River to Rio Grande, 1854)

Williamson of the Williamson and Abott Survey

John Gruff Parke

Joseph C. Ives

And the surveys of the United States and Mexican boundary. Included were collections from Parry, Wright, Bigelow (author of a flora of Boston), and Schott.