Sprague, Isaac

At a Glance:

Botanist, science illustrator

Nationality:

American

Bird names: 1

Region studied:

Western North America

Isaac Sprague [link]

Content note: this profile contains mentions of grave desecration.

The Bird:

Sprague’s Pipit (Anthus spragueii)

Sprague’s Pipit [link]

The Name:

Sprague’s Pipit is a small inconspicuous bird of the prairies. This makes it a fitting bird to be named for illustrator Isaac Sprague (1811-1895). Although Sprague was one of the best known botanical illustrators of the time, he left little in the way of writings, and seems to have on the whole spent most of his life in his Massachusetts home, painting plants from across North America in painstaking detail.

Wild Columbine illustration by Sprague. [link]

Part of his relative obscurity on the historic record is due to his association with one of North America’s most famous ornithologists: John James Audubon. He met Audubon in 1840, and Audubon, seeing Sprague’s talent, eventually recruited him to join him on his 1843 expedition up the Missouri River. While Sprague no doubt thought this was going to be his big break, Audubon unfortunately had less than charitable intentions in his invitation. When Sprague’s illustrations from the expedition were published, he was largely uncredited; Audubon used his work by creating composite plates, and took advantage of Sprague’s skill at illustrating flora to create the scenes his animal subjects were situated in without crediting the younger artist.

Sprague’s diary of the trip has survived, along with those of Audubon and John Graham Bell, another expedition member. The picture we get of Sprague is quite different than of other expedition members. Unlike Bell, whose journal mostly is a catalog of animals shot and skinned every day, Sprague stops frequently to write of his impressions of the land they traveled through:

“In the afternoon I went on to the hills back of camp, and on attaining the summit level, had the finest view of the prairie country I have seen– on every side as far as the eye could reach, was spread out a boundless plain apparently perfectly level, but in reality consisting of an endless succession of wooded hills or swells like the billows of the ocean.”

Diary of Isaac Sprague, 5 September 1843. [link]

Sprague from the beginning comes across as far more introspective and less accustomed to the casual brutality the rest of the party enjoyed. He rarely participated in hunting bison or other mammals, sticking mostly to birds. It seems likely that this was the seed of the rift that formed between him and the rest of the party, particularly with Audubon. While Sprague records little of his interactions with or opinions of the other party members– likely because they seemed to read each other’s journals fairly regularly– Audubon remarks several times in the latter portion of the journey that their artist was apparently upset with him.

A particular point of argument came when Sprague spotted a grizzly bear and mentioned it to the others. Audubon and the rest of the group immediately went and shot it, which Sprague objected to. Audubon scolded Sprague, telling him that part of his job was spotting animals for the hunters. Audubon recorded the artist’s reply in his journal:

“Sprague said that he never promised us anything. Said if he saw another Bear he would not Mention it to us &c &c and was quite abusive in other words.”

Audubon’s journal, 22 August 1843. [link]

After this incident, Sprague apparently gave the rest of the party the silent treatment. Three days after the bear incident, Audubon recorded that “Sprague has not open his lips to me, and I hope he will remain with the Mandans!”. Unsurprisingly, Sprague seems to have had enough of the rest of the party, and seriously considered staying in the Mandan village they had passed through on their way upriver when they were due to be there again in the next few days. Homesickness, which Sprague mentions in his journal with increasing frequency, won out, and he stayed with the group.However, after the expedition, Sprague understandably never spoke to Audubon again.

Sprague would make his name a few years later when he partnered far more productively with the botanist Asa Gray. He stayed close to home, though, and wrote little of his own work. One wonders if traveling with Audubon spoiled the appeal of field expeditions for him. Given how he was treated, it’s fairly understandable. Even though he wrote of the grandeur of the prairie and with much more respect for the Indigenous people he encountered than his compatriots, he never set out on anything remotely similar for the rest of his life.

Sprague is remarkable in this series for not being directly tied to the type of terrible acts that so many of the scientists of his day were. He does not seem to have been involved in Audubon’s desecration of Indigenous burials; in fact, it’s not long after these are recorded in Audubon’s journal that the conflict between him and Sprague becomes apparent. It’s impossible to know at this point if this was a point of disagreement between the two, but it might have been a part of it. If that is the case, it would make Sprague one of the sadly few naturalists of the time to have such objections.

J.F. McLaughlin

Sources:

Patterson, Daniel (editor). 2016. The Missouri River journals of John James Audubon. University of Nebraska Press. [link]

Rudolph, Emanuel D. 1990. Isaac Sprague: “delineator and naturalist”. Journal of the History of Biology 23(1). pp. 96-126. [link]

Stevens, O.A. 1946. Botanical visits to Forts Clark, Mandan, and Union in North Dakota. Rhodora 48. pp. 98-103. [link]