Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Bernard McMahon to Thomas Jefferson, 24 December 1809

From Bernard McMahon

Philadelphia Decr 24th 1809

Dear Sir,

With many thanks I acknowledge the receipt of the fine collection of seeds you were pleased to send me some time ago, and would have done this much sooner, were I not in daily expectation of receiving from London a variety of esculent vegetable seeds, that I wished to send you some of, at the same time. Having received them by the Ship Coramandel which arrived here a few days ago, I do myself the pleasure of sending you by the same mail that conveys this letter, some early cabbage & cauliflower seeds &c and shall send you by subsequent mails several other seeds for your1 spring sowing.

I am extremely sorry for the death of that worthy and valuable man Govr Lewis, and the more so, for the manner of it. I have, I believe, all his collection of dried specimens of plants, procured during his journey to the pacific ocean, and several kinds of new living plants, which I raised from the seeds of his collecting which you and himself were pleased to give me. In consequence2 of a hint, to that effect, given me by Govr Lewis on his leaving this City, I never yet parted with [on]e of the plants raised from his seeds, nor with a single seed the produce of either of them, for fear they should make their way into the hands of any Botanist, either in America, or Europe, who might rob Mr Lewis of the right he had to first describe and name his own discoveries, in his intended publication; and indeed I had strong reasons to believe that this opportunity was coveted by _______ which made me still more careful of the plants.

On Governor Lewis’s departure from here, for the seat of his Government, he requested me to employ Mr Frederick Pursh, on his return from a collecting excurtion he was then about to undertake for Doctor Barton, to describe and make drawings of such of his collection as would appear to be new plants, and that himself would return to Philadelphia in the month of May following. About the first of the ensuing Novr Mr Pursh returned, took up his abode with me, began the work, progressed as far as he could without further explanation, in some cases, from Mr Lewis, and was detained by me, in expectation of Mr Lewis’s arriv[al] at my expence, without the least expectation of any future remuneration, from that time till April last; when n[ot] having received any reply to several letters I had wri[tten] from time to time,3 to Govr Lewis on the subject, nor being able to obtain any in[dication?] when he probably might be expected here; I thought it a folly to keep Pursh longer idle, and recommended him as Gardener to Doctor Hosack of New York, with whom he has since lived.

The original specimens are all in my hands, but Mr Pursh, had taken his drawings and descriptions with him, and will, no doubt, on the delivery of them expect a reasonable compensation for his trouble.

As it appears to me probable that you will interrest yourself4 in having the discoveries of Mr Lewis published, I think it a duty incumbent on me, to give you th[e] preceding information, and to ask your advice as to the propriety of still keeping the living plants I have, from geting into other hands who would gladly describe and publish them, without doing due honor to the memory and merit of the worthy discoverer.

I am Sir,
With the most sincere esteem, Your wellwisher. &c

Bernd McMahon.

RC (DLC); torn at lower corner and seal; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr late President U. States Milton”; franked and postmarked; endorsed by TJ as received 3 Jan. 1810 and so recorded in SJL.

Bernard McMahon (d. 1816), a native of Ireland who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1796, soon won recognition as a horticulturalist and the owner of one of the nation’s largest seed businesses. TJ relied heavily on his most important contribution, The American Gardener’s Calendar; adapted to the Climates and Seasons of the United States (Philadelphia, 1806, Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 810; repr. 1997 with intro. by Peter J. Hatch), a work that became the standard reference source for American botany and went through eleven editions by 1857. As president, TJ entrusted McMahon with some of the botanical specimens collected by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their expedition to the Pacific Ocean. During his retirement TJ corresponded regularly with McMahon, from whom he often purchased seeds, bulbs, trees, and shrubs for Monticello (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; John W. Harshberger, The Botanists of Philadelphia and their Work [1899], 117–9; Greene, American Science description begins John C. Greene, American Science in the Age of Jefferson, 1984 description ends , 51, 202–3; MB description begins James A. Bear Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 2:1244; Philadelphia Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 20 Sept. 1816).

On 28 Dec. 1808 TJ sent McMahon the fine collection of seeds that he had received from André Thoüin (DLC). frederick pursh, a protégé of Benjamin Smith barton whom McMahon had first brought to Lewis’s attention in April 1807, spent about a year drawing and describing the Lewis and Clark specimens. In April 1809 Pursh left Philadelphia to work in the New York City gardens of David hosack. Clark paid Pursh early in 1810 for the work he had done at Lewis’s behest and probably also procured the completed drawings and descriptions from him at that time. Pursh later moved to England and there published Flora Americæ Septentrionalis; or, A Systematic Arrangement and Description of the Plants of North America, 2 vols. (London, 1814), which included many plants collected by Lewis and Clark (Jackson, Letters of Lewis and Clark description begins Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783–1854, 2d ed., 1978, 2 vols. description ends , 2:398–9, 462–3, 490; McMahon to TJ, 17 Jan. 1809 [DLC]).

1Manuscript: “you.”

2Manuscript: “cossequence.”

3Preceding four words interlined.

4Manuscript: “youself.”

Index Entries

  • Barton, Benjamin Smith; as F. Pursh’s mentor search
  • botany; and Lewis and Clark Expedition search
  • botany; scholars of search
  • cabbage; seed search
  • cauliflower search
  • Coramandel (ship) search
  • Flora Americæ Septentrionalis (F. Pursh) search
  • food; cabbage search
  • food; cauliflower search
  • Hosack, David search
  • Lewis, Meriwether; plants discovered by search
  • Lewis and Clark Expedition; plants from search
  • McMahon, Bernard; and seeds of Lewis and Clark Expedition search
  • McMahon, Bernard; identified search
  • McMahon, Bernard; letters from search
  • McMahon, Bernard; sends seeds to TJ search
  • plants; specimens from Lewis and Clark Expedition search
  • Pursh, Frederick; and plant drawings search
  • Pursh, Frederick; Flora Americæ Septentrionalis search
  • seeds; cabbage search
  • seeds; cauliflower search
  • Thoüin, André; sends seeds to TJ search