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Region: US/Mexico

Principal Collectors:

William Emory

William Emory
1811- 1887

Botanist, Surveyor, Astronomer, and Commissioner on the U.S. - Mexican Boundary Survey (1848-1855)

Emory worked in several different capacities while traveling on the U.S.- Mexican Boundary Survey. He began his employment with the Survey as a specialist in mapping, skills he had acquired through his membership with the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, and produced an incredibly accurate and detailed map of the boundary of Texas to the Rio Grande. Emory was also one of many men to serve as a botanist throughout the seven year journey, and was acted as the official astronomer. Over twenty plants have the specific epithet emoryi, named in honor of Emory for his contributions to botany in the southwestern United States.

In 1855, Emory served as the expedition's commissioner, replacing John Bartlett. Emory believed that the survey was impeded by several difficulties, including changing national policies, inadequate funding, appeals from workers wanting to participate in the Gold Rush, and the extremely harsh climate. Despite Emory's doubts about the effectiveness of the survey, he worked hard and produced such accurate maps that when Congress began to look for railroad passages through the southwest, they did not bother to send another team of surveyors to the areas he had already charted.

Other Accomplishments:

-Graduated from West Point (1831)
-Married the great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, Matilda Wilkins Bache
-Became a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers
-Surveyed the U.S.- Canadian Border (1844-1846)
-Mapped the Gadsden Purchase (1854-1857)
-Fought for the Union Army during the Civil War and assisted in Reconstruction

[Photo courtesy of Library of Congress]

William Emory
Charles Parry

Charles Parry

Botanist and Surgeon on the U.S. - Mexican Boundary Survey (1849-1851)

Parry joined the U.S. - Mexican Boundary Survey in 1849 and traveled with the expedition for three years. He served as one of several botanists on the survey, but was also considered a skilled mountaineer and a talented surgeon. Parry studied medicine at Columbia University while also researching botany, studying under John Torrey, Asa Gray, and George Engelmann. Torrey and Parry became life-long friends who worked well with each other in the field. After graduating from Columbia, Parry discovered that he enjoyed botany more than practicing medicine. He spent the majority of his life collecting in the field. While on the Mexican Boundary Survey, Parry discovered many new species that he named in recognition of his mentors, including the Torrey pine and Engelmann spruce.

Other Accomplishments:

-Received a bachelor's degree from Union College (1842)
-Earned a M.D. from Columbia University (where he had John Torrey as his botany professor) (1846)
-Botanist and Surgeon for the Geological Survey of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota (1848)
-Later collected plants in California, Utah, and Colorado
-Performed the first barometric measurements of the heights of many of the Colorado Mountains
-First person to hold the position of Botanist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture
-Worked in the Smithsonian (1869-1871)

[Photo courtesy of Academy of National Sciences]

Charles Parry
Charles Wright

Charles Wright

Botanist on the U.S. - Mexican Boundary Survey (1848-1855)

Wright joined the U.S. - Mexican Boundary Survey in the spring of 1851 as a botanist. In the years prior, he had followed an Army expedition through Texas gathering plants. The plants that Wright gathered from these two expeditions were sent to his close friend Asa Gray at Harvard University, and are now part of Gray's collection, Plantae Wrightiana.

[Photo courtesy of Harvard University]

Charles Wright

The Mexican Boundary Survey


The Mexican Boundary Survey was the most comprehensive vegetative investigation ever conducted on the 1,969 mile border between Mexico and the United States. The U.S. government commissioned the survey in order to map and mark the new boundary that resulted from the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The government also commissioned several naturalists to gather plant and animal specimens in order to understand the natural resources of the area.  
Many botanists took part in different legs of the Survey, including William H. Emory, Charles Christopher Parry, Charles Wright, George Thurber, Arthur Schott, and John Bigelow. After the expedition, the botanists then sent their specimens to John Torrey, George Engelmann, and Asa Gray, botanists who catalogued the collection and named the new species. Torrey described the rareness of the plants of the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley, writing that, “Upon the tablelands which spread out beyond the mountain barrier, the eye falls upon a great variety of plants, none of which are seen in a more fertile valley.” 
The “Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey” is comprised of descriptions of plants and plates of illustrations. Pilostyles thurberi, or Thurber’s stemsucker, was described in the report and is one of southern California’s rarest wildflowers. Thurber found the parasitic plant growing on a new species of dalea (Psorothamnus emoryi) in a small area near the Salton Sea [6]. P. thurberi, with its tiny purple-brown flowers that are less than a sixteenth of an inch wide, was a shocking discovery for the botanists of the day.  It is the only North American relative of the parasite Rafflesia, a putrid smelling plant that produces the single largest flower in the world and grows in Southeast Asia.  
Torrey states that, in the El Paso and Rio Grande Valley, “the Cacti flourish in a congenial soil.” Engelmann wrote an entire book about the cacti family entitled “Cactaceae of the Boundary,” in which he describes Engelmann’s thistle Cirsium engelmanni and the prickly pear Opuntia erinacea. Engelmann explains that the genus Opuntia, “is distinguished from the other Cactaceae by its barbed spines which [I] [do] not find in any other plant of this family.” He also notes that the barbed spines separate from their stem and easily attach to clothes and skin of anyone walking by, calling them “the most annoying burs.”  

The expedition discovered numerous plants that were new to the boundary area and even some that were new to science completely. Many of the new species discovered on the Mexican Boundary Survey were named after its main participants. Torrey and Engelmann named the lotebush Ziziphus parryi and the cane cholla Opuntia parryi after Parry. Torrey leant his name to the famous Torrey Pine Pinus torreyana, Bergerocactus emoryi was named after Emory, and Echinocereus engelmannii was named after Engelmann. Thurber, a botanist who participated in some of the later years of the survey, leant his name to the genus Thurberia, which includes the species Thurberia thespioides. The Mexican Boundary Survey provided a more extensive listing of plant species along the United States-Mexican border than had ever been created before, and was an important contribution to botanical knowledge. 
Chester, Tom. "Plants of Southern California: Pilostyles." Table of Contents for all of Tom Chester's webpages. analysis/pilostyles/index.html.

Beidleman, Richard G. California’s Frontier Naturalists. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Shaw, Elizabeth A. Charles Wright on the Boundary 1849-1852. Westport, CT: Meckler Publishing Corporation, 1987.

Engelmann, George. Cactaceae of the Boundary.

Torrey, John. United States and Mexican Boundary Survey.

Utley, Robert Marshall. Changing Course: The International Boundary, United States and Mexico, 1848-1963. Tucson: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1986.

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