Lewis and Clark’s Taxonomic Legacy

Clark’s Nutcracker
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer

Lewis’s Woodpecker
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer

Thomas Jefferson will forever be remembered as our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson oversaw the acquisition of the vast Louisiana Purchase and soon thereafter initiated planning for an expedition that would be named the “Corps of Discovery”. That bold adventure was led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. These two frontiersmen are immortalized by the plants and animals that taxonomists named in their honor.

The arduous 3-year expedition route passed far north of what would become Utah, ascending the tributaries of the Missouri River and later following down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson, being an avid naturalist, instructed the explorers to observe and make record of the geography, plants and animals that they encountered and to return with those specimens which they could carry. Hopes for discovery of a navigable inland passage to the Pacific were not realized, but in all other ways, the expedition was a singular success.

Lewis and Clark made collections of pressed plants along the way. These eventually went to Frederick Pursh, a German botanist in Philadelphia. One new genus of plant he named Lewisia. These are the bitteroots, one of which is the spectacular state flower of Montana. Another genus new to science he named Clarkia . Many species names of plants immortalize the men too, such as the blue-flowered flax, Linum lewisii, commonly used today for seeding following wildfire.

Bird names honoring the discoveries of Lewis and Clark include Clark’s nutcracker and Lewis’ woodpecker. Clark’s nutcracker is a big black and gray relative of crows. [https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections] This noisy resident of Utah’s mountains is notable for its habit of caching seeds of pine trees to be remembered and found months later.

The age of the pioneer naturalist in North America closed more than a century ago, but the names of men like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark live on with the plants and animals that bear their names.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy US FWS images.fws.gov
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

The Lewis and Clark Herbarium, Images of the Plants Collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, 1804-1806, Presented by the University of Maryland and The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in cooperation with Cornell University, http://www.plantsystematics.org/reveal/pbio/LnC/LnCpublic.html

Evans, Howard Ensign. 1993. Pioneer naturalists: the discovery and naming of North American plants and animals. Henry Holt & Company, New York. Illustrated by Michael G. Kippenhan. ISBN: 0-8050-2337-2, http://www.amazon.com/Pioneer-Naturalists-Discovery-American-Animals/dp/0805023372

And for a thorough treatment of Clark’s nutcracker:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark%27s_Nutcracker

All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/lewiss_woodpecker/id

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Clarks_Nutcracker/id

Last Blank Spots on the Map

Audio:  mp3 Listen to WildAboutUtah

Today the river corridor still retains
its wild and pristine qualities.
Copyright 2009 Dan Miller from the book
The River Knows Everything

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

The Green River is one of Utah’s signature waterways. It begins high in Wyoming’s Wind River Range and winds southward 730 miles to join the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park. 60% of river’s extent lies in Utah– attracting river runners, archaeologists, fishermen, hunters and hikers. And of course, geologists.

Desolation boasts steep dramatic walls.
From the top of the Tavaputs Plateau to the river
is deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Click to view larger image,
Photo Copyright 2009 Dan Miller

It’s hard to believe that less than 150 years ago, most of the Green and the Colorado canyonlands were unlined areas marked “UNEXPLORED” on maps. One such place was the area between Uinta Valley and Gunnison’s Crossing — now called Green River, UT. Another blank spot lay south of the crossing all the way to Paria which is now called Lee’s Ferry in Arizona.

To some folks, a blank spot on a map is an irresistible call to come and see what’s there. So it was with John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran working as a curator in a small natural history museum in Illinois. He became intrigued with exploring the canyons of the Colorado and the Green after spending some time out west collecting rock samples.

Lighthouse Rock 1871
Courtesy Arizona Historical Society

Impatient for adventure and discovery, Powell quickly assembled a crew of nine men –mostly rough and tumble mountain men used to living off the land. They set off from Green River WY and were making good time until disaster struck in the Canyon of Lodore. One of the boats hit a boulder, and a third of the food and half of the cooking gear sunk to the bottom of the river. A week later, a fire destroyed more food and gear. But eventually, five of the original nine made it all the way to the mouth of the Virgin River in Arizona.

A second expedition benefited from more funding, planning and hindsight. This time round, Powell chose a more scientifically-minded crew including a geologist, cartographer and photographer to research and document the trip. Once again they launched from Green River, WY. Powell perched in an armchair strapped to the middle bulkhead of a boat named after his wife, the Emma Dean . He read poetry to the crew as they floated along calm stretches of the river. The crew ran the Green and then started down the Colorado without any major incidents. After overwintering on the north rim, they ran the rapids of the Grand Canyon in late summer of the following year.

John Wesley Powell with Tau-gu
a Paiute, 1871-1872
Courtesy Arizona Historical Society

Upon return, surveyor Alven Thompson completed a topographic map of the region, and Powell’s monumental account was published in 1875 by the Smithsonian Institution.

The last “UNEXPLORED”s on the United States map were now replaced by specific landscape features with measured altitudes. Nowadays we still use the many evocative names that Powell and his men bestowed during their travels. Names like Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon, Dirty Devil River, Escalante River, Cataract Canyon, and Desolation Canyon tell us something of the experiences of these brave men as they were exploring Utah’s last mysterious places.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

Additional thanks to Rey Lloyd Hatt and the friendly staff of the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River UT.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.
Credits:

Images: Copyright Dan Miller from the book
The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green

Powell images: Courtesy Arizona Historical Society

Text:     Holly Strand, Stokes Nature Center

Sources & Additional Reading

Aton, James M. and Dan Miller (photographer) 2009. The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green. Logan: Utah State University Press.

http://www.usu.edu/usupress/books/index.cfm?isbn=6523

Stegner, Wallace. “ Green River: The Gateway” in Blackstock, Alan. 2005. A Green River reader. Salt Lake City: University Utah Press.
http://www.amazon.com/Green-River-Reader-Alan-Blackstock/dp/0874808375

John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River UT http://johnwesleypowell.com/

USGS. 1976. Geological Survey Information 74-24. John Wesley Powell: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist.
http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/geology/publications/inf/74-24/index.htm [Accessed October 30 2009]