Nuttall, Thomas

At a glance:

Botanist, explorer

Nationality:

British

Bird names: 1

Regions studied:

Great Lakes, western North America, Hawai’i

Thomas Nuttall, 1825. [link]

The Bird:

Nuttall’s Woodpecker (Dryobates nuttalli)

Nuttall’s Woodpecker [link]

The Name:

Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859) was English by birth, but the bulk of his career was spent in North America, collecting and describing plants from the Great Lakes to Arkansas to Oregon. Although he eventually returned to Lancashire, his heart was always back in America, daydreaming about the wilderness he remembered, and he remains a key figure in the natural history of North America.

When Nuttall first arrived in the US in 1808, he was stepping foot into a country undergoing rapid change. Only five years had passed since the Louisiana purchase had, at least in the eyes of Europeans and settlers, almost doubled the size of the young country. In truth, what the US had purchased was not the land itself, but a free reign to steal land and subjugate Indigenous people without any European powers objecting with their own claims. France only really had had a significant presence in a small portion of the area, with most of the area only nominally “owned” by them. As a consequence, most Americans had very little idea of exactly what the places that had been “added” to their nation were.

The expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was only the first and most famous of the explorations sent by both the US government and private investors into this area. Nuttall himself became part of several more: an 1810 trip to the Great Lakes area, the 1811 Astor Expedition that partially retraced the route of Lewis and Clark, the 1834 journey to Oregon with fellow naturalists Nathaniel Wyeth and John Kirk Townsend, and a expedition of his own into the “Arkansas Territory” (which also included parts of modern Oklahoma) in 1818-1820. While many of these were undertaken in part out of genuine scientific aims and sincere curiosity about the places and peoples, they all also either implicitly or explicitly had another aim: to open up these areas for trade and settlement by white settlers.

The narratives that these travelers produced– the 19th century was the heyday of travelogues with titles like The narrative of the travels of so-and-so to the region of somewhere, 18whenever, with additional voyages to someplace, with 17 illustrated plates and observations of people who we are going to say racist things about— and the collections they made of plants, animals, rocks, and artifacts (more on that in a moment) were part of a larger project of colonial narrative-building. Nuttall’s depictions of the Indigenous peoples he encountered are typically less explicitly racist than many of his contemporaries (though that’s not really anything to brag about), but even then he is looking through a lens specifically aimed towards their displacement and assimilation:

“The Cherokees, with their present civilized habits, industry, and augmenting population, would prove a dangerous enemy to the frontiers of the Arkansas Territory…[a]lthough the power of the natives is now despised, who can at this time tell, what may grow out of this nation of aborigines, who, by wisely embracing the habits and industry of the Anglo-Americans, may in time increase, and become a powerful and independent nation, subject by habit to a monarchial form of government.

– Nuttall 1821, p. 125

There don’t seem to be any records of Nuttall engaging in the sort of grave robbing and theft of artifacts common at the time. However, that didn’t stop his associates from doing so. On the expedition to Oregon, Townsend stole multiple skulls, sending them back to the phrenologist Samuel Morton. This was the ugliest part of the enterprise of narrative-building that Nuttall’s writings were a more palatable portion of: seeking justification for the genocide of Indigenous people and theft of their lands.

Today, most people have likely not heard of Nuttall. But his writings and travels were a part of the myth-making that fueled the ravenous land grabbing of the Manifest Destiny period. His, and others of his period, depictions of the frontier are the raw materials from which the romanticized view of the pioneer West was drawn– one which persists to today and elides the far more brutal realities.

J.F. McLaughlin

Sources:

Beidleman, Richard G. 1956. The 1818-20 Arkansas journey of Thomas Nuttall. Arkansas Historical Quarterly 15(3). pp. 249-259. [link]

Biographical notice of the late Thomas Nuttall. 1860. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 7(63). pp. 297-315. [link]

Fischer, Dan Lewis. 2001. Early southwest ornithologists, 1528-1900. University of Arizona Press. pp. 19-27. [link]

Jepson, Willis Linn. 1934. The overland journey of Thomas Nuttall. Madroño 2(17). pp. 143-147. [link]

Milson, Andrew. 2017. Mapping travelers’ cultural and environmental perceptions: Thomas Nuttall and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in Arkansas, 1818-1819. Historical Geography 45. pp. 172-187. [link]

Nuttall, Thomas. 1821. A journal of travels into the Arkansas territory: during the year 1819. With occasional observations on the manners of the aborigines. Illustrated by a map and other engravings. TH Palmer. [link]

Pollard, Herbert A., IV. 2020. Americans collecting natural history. Thesis, City University of New York. [link]

Smithers, Gregory D. 2009. The “pursuits of the civilized man”: race and the meaning of civilization in the United States and Australia, 1790s-1850s. Journal of World History 20(2). pp. 245-272. [link]

Stuckey, Richard L. 1968. Biography of Thomas Nuttall: a review with bibliography. Rhodora 70(783). pp. 429-438. [link]