Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Fraser, 13 April 1789

From John Fraser

Chelsea Apl. 13th. 1789


I beg leave to inform you that I have Inclosed in a Box Directed to the Duc D’Orleans a parcel containing 2 Qts. of Seed 1 Qt. for the Marquis de la Fayette, and 1 for yourself. Beg you will send to Mr. Blackie a Bagatelle, for them. I have the Pleasure to inform you that it has been minutely examined by the Heads of the Royal Society, who are of Opinion that it is of more real utility, than any other Plant that has been Discover’d for a Century; the Pleasure I naturally feel in Consequence of such a Declaration makes me far from regretting the Dangerous Expedition I have undergone. I hope the United States will not be backward in Encouraging the Discoverers, as well as profiting by the Discovery. I cannot help expressing the Gratitude I feel on Account of the particular notice you was pleased to take of me when in Paris. I found on conversing with different Gentlemen that they looked upon the Flavour of the Melon to be by no means a Quality to recommend it, but in Consequence of your good opinion of it, have taken the Liberty to call it by the name of Jefferson’s Pine Apple Apricot, and have sent them to Mr. Walter under that name, but have since had the severe Mortification to hear that, that Valuable Man, is now no more. This Circumstance will particularly oblige me to go to Carolina this Summer. I beg your Acceptance of a few Seeds of the real Pinus Palustris, the Description of which is as follows, (Strobilis arcuatis, Foliis trinis semipedalibus.) I mean as soon as it can be done with Correctness, to send to each Subscriber a Copper-Plate Impression of this new Grass. I have the Honor to be with the Greatest Respect Yr. most Obedt. Humble. Servt.,

John Fraser

RC (MHi); endorsed. Recorded in SJL as received 19 Apr. 1789.

John Fraser (1750–1811), botanist, embarked in 1780 on the first of seven journeys to America in search of new species of plants. The dangerous expedition must have been the second: he had landed at Charleston in Sep. 1786 on a botanical tour through Georgia and Carolina, from which he returned in Mch. 1788, bringing with him the manuscript treatise by Mr. Walter (Thomas Walter, ca. 1740–1788) that described upwards of a thousand flowering plants located within a radius of fifty miles of Walter’s plantation on the Santee river—the first descriptive treatise of the flowering plants of any definite region in eastern North America according to the binomial system of nomenclature (W. R. Maxon, “Thomas Walter, Botanist,” Smithsonian Misc. Colls., xc [1936], No. 8, p. 1–6). The manuscript was published by Fraser at his own expense as Walter’s Flora Caroliniana (London, 1788), a copy of which Fraser must have presented to TJ when he was in Paris, for on 12 Jan. 1789 TJ wrote Madison that he had just received a copy of that “very learned and good work” (Fraser carried back to London the letters for England and America that TJ wrote between 5 and 14 Jan. 1789). Walter died five days after TJ wrote these words (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, N.Y., 1928–1936 description ends ; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–1955, 4 vols. description ends No. 1077). In addition to Walter’s manuscript, Fraser had carried back to London some 30,000 specimens of plants in addition to Walter’s own herbarium.—The discoverers, or perhaps more correctly, the promoters of the new grass (a native plant of Carolina, agrostis perennans) were Fraser and Walter. Fraser anticipated extraordinary results from its cultivation in England, as the present letter indicates and as he elaborated in his A Short History of the Agrostis Cornucopiae: or, the New American Grass (London, 1789), of which TJ may have been one of the subscribers, though there seems to be no evidence that he possessed a copy of this rare work. The effort to promote the new grass ended in failure. The looseness of Fraser’s nomenclature is evident in the fact that the fruit he proposed to call Jefferson’s pine apple apricot had been known in France for some years; TJ probably called it to Fraser’s attention (see TJ to Cary, 13 Aug. 1787). TJ evidently met Fraser on 4 Jan. 1789, when he delivered letters from David Ramsay and others, but he seems not to have responded either to the present letter or to that of 21 July 1789.

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