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40th Parallel Expedition, map

Principal Collectors:

William Bailey

William Bailey

Botanist on the 40th Parallel Expedition (1867)

Although William Bailey had almost no experience in botany, he wrote to Asa Gray inquiring to be botanist of Clarence King's expedition of the 40th parallel in 1867. Gray replied, "Mr. King desires a young man who shall at the same time be an accomplished botanist. As the two things are incompatible I think you'll do as well as another." With this decision, Bailey dedicated himself to botanical study. Unfortunately, he could only make it as far as Nevada before he encountered health problems. Bailey said, "I was with the party... about nine months when my health failed and I resigned." He was replaced by Sereno Watson.

Other Accomplishments:

-Attended Brown University
-Taught at Harvard University
-Assisted John Torrey at the herbarium of Columbia College
-Instructed the first botany class ever offered at Brown University for 30 years, and specialized in vegetable morphology and systematic botany
- Wrote articles for prominent natural history periodicals, and published many botanical books including, Botanical Collectors' Hand-book, Botanical Note-book, Botanizing, Among Rhode Island Wild Flowers, and New England Wild Flowers.

[Photo from : Elizabeth B. Keeney (1992). The Botanizers : Amateur scientifists in 19th century America, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill) : xii + 206 p.]

William Bailey
Clarence King

Clarence King

Commander of the 40th Parallel Expedition (1867-1871)

Clarence King organized and led the 40th Parallel Expedition at the young age of 25. He was the first civilian to lead an expedition with a scientific, rather than military, purpose. He believed that exploration was needed in order to document the mineral resources surrounding the Union Pacific Railroad, and convinced Congress to fund the mission. In addition to documenting the geology, King also wanted the expedition to "make collections in botany and zoology with the view to a memoir on these subjects, illustrating the occurrence and distribution of plants and animals."A citizen himself, King only appointed civilian scientists, rather than members of the military, to carry out these tasks.

King had many adventures on the expedition. He climbed peaks and cliffs, led the group when nearly every member was sick with malaria, and faced some of the most torrential storms ever recorded in the western United States. King even told stories of how he tracked down a deserter who had stolen equipment from the expedition, dodging a bullet in the process. One of the most historic results of the expedition was King's discovery of the first active glacier in the United States. King published a seven-volume expedition report and the monumental work "Systematic Geology" after the journey was complete.

Other Accomplishments:

-Graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale (1862)
-Volunteer assistant on the California Geological Survey
-First director of the U.S. Geological Survey

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey]

Clarence King
Sereno Watson

Sereno Watson

Botanist on the 40th Parallel Expedition (1867-1871)

King's 40th Parallel expedition was the beginning of Sereno Watson's botanical career. Watson had joined the expedition as an unpaid volunteer helping with the topographic studies. When William Bailey resigned, Watson replaced him as botanist. Watson had no formal botanical training, yet his knowledge rivaled Bailey's. He wrote volume five of the expedition report on the botany of the expedition, and his report is known to be one of the greatest survey reports due to his detailed observations of plant habitats.

Other Accomplishments:

-Graduated from Yale (1847)
-Attended the Sheffield Scientific School (1866-67)
-Assistant and Curator at the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University
-Wrote many botanical articles in the Proceedings of the Academy of Arts and Sciences

[Photo courtesy of Brewer, William H. Biographical Memoir of Sereno Watson, 1820-1892. (1903)]

Sereno Watson

U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel - Clarence King


The journey to the commencement point of an expedition can often be as adventurous as the expedition itself. While sailing from New York to San Francisco to begin the U.S. Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel, Botanist William Bailey stated, “I saw the most gorgeous vegetation which I have ever yet beheld. The trees were hung down with vines and creepers, and huge palms, bamboos, and an infinite number of other plants were matted together.”

Botanists William Bailey and Sereno Watson collected approximately 19,000 plant specimens at the conclusion of King’s expedition. Although the expedition traveled through California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado over five exploring seasons to map its topography and discover its resources, plants were only collected in Nevada and Utah from 1867 to 1869.

Asa Gray appointed Bailey as botanist of the expedition. Bailey identified species such as Bailey’s buckweet (Eriogonum baileyi) and the saltbush Obione truncate (now known as Atriplex truncate). He spent nine months collecting plants, but a persistent illness caused him to resign. Sereno Watson, who was previously an unpaid volunteer helping with the topographic studies, replaced Bailey.

Watson observed that the flora of the valleys of the Great Basin was quite distinct, and organized his collections into three groups based on habitat: alkaline species, aquatic and meadow species, and species growing in dry conditions. Watson was the first to describe the Brassicaceae species Arabis longirostris (renamed Streptanthella longirostris), which he found on Stansbury Island of the Great Salt Lake, and was one of 49 alkaline species collected. The goldenrod Solidago elongata is as an aquatic/meadow species. Watson found the plant growing on the stream banks of the canyons, and of the 170 aquatic/meadow species collected, it was one of ten that did not grow past the Rocky Mountains.

Watson also collected the milk-vetch Astragalus iodanthus, which grew—along with 304 other species—in dry locations, exposed to intense heat and drought. Watson noted that, “The source of supply of moisture by which life is sustained… through the droughts of summer has been a matter of doubt.” He conducted field experiments to measure moisture-loss, questioning whether the plants were “in some degree air-plants, drawing the requisite moisture from the atmosphere itself,” or if, “the pubescence or glutinous secretion that often covers [the leaves] prevent... the usual evaporation of the juices.” From the rudimentary experiments, Watson could only conclude that the plants were obtaining their moisture from the soil, even though it appeared to be dry.

Along with the valley flora, Watson listed a total of 393 species from the mountains. Stellaria kingii was found in the East Humboldt Mountains of Nevada and was named after King. Species, such as Caulanthus hastatus, were collected from the Wahsatch and Unita Mountains, and Watson claimed that there was “much more extensive flora here than in the mountains of the Basin, adding 224 species, 47 genera, and six orders to those previously collected.”

Watson also made a collection of mosses and lichens, and even compiled a list of introduced plants. He organized his and Bailey’s extensive botanical findings into volume five of the expedition report, and his detailed observations of plant habitats made it one of the greatest survey reports written.

Bartlett, Richard A. Great Surveys of the American West. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Goetzmann, W. H. Exploration and Empire. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1966.

Harvard University. “Sereno Watson Papers.” Library of the Gray Herbarium, libraries/archives/WATSON.html

Harvard University. “William Whitman Bailey Papers.” Harvard University Herbaria, Libraries/archives/BAILEYWW.html

Moore, J.G. King of the 40th Parallel. Stanford, Calif: Stanford General Books, 2006.

Watson, S. 1871. List of plants collected in Nevada and Utah, 1867-’69: Numbered as Distributed. Washington D.C.: United States Geological Exploration of the 40th parallel, 1871.

Watson, S. United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. Volume 5 Botany. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1871.

Watson, S. aided by Eaton, E.C.Botany. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1871.

Wilson, R. The Explorer King. New York: Scribner, 2006.

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