By Jack Nisbet
Thomas Nuttall grew up in Yorkshire, England under modest circumstances; he apprenticed as a printer and emigrated to Philadelphia in that capacity in 1808. From an early age he had been drawn to all forms of natural history, and within a year he began the field collections that would define his role as one of American’s most accomplished naturalists.
Nuttall’s exploits over the next quarter-century ranged from trekking up the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers to publishing comprehensive surveys of North American flora and birds. In 1822 he took a job as professor of natural history and curator of the botanic garden at Harvard College, where he remained until 1834, when he joined his friend Nathaniel Wyeth on a journey to the opposite side of the continent. A young ornithologist, John Kirk Townsend, was also among the expansive party of traders, missionaries, and laborers. Nuttall was in his late 40s when they set off for the Columbia country, and his cohorts viewed him as an eccentric old-timer.
After a difficult overland journey, the expedition arrived at Fort Vancouver on October 29, 1834. Dr. McLoughlin provided Nuttall with a room and a servant and introduced him to Meredith Gairdner, an amateur naturalist serving as post physician.
Although he only remained at the post for a few weeks before sailing for Hawaii for the winter, Nuttall began gathering plants with such vigor that local Chinooks dubbed him tipsuman, “Grass Man,” just as they had David Douglas. Among his first collections was the Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttalli), which he identified as a new species. He forwarded viable seeds to England, where they sprouted and became a featured attraction at Kew Gardens. He also found time to collect 23 new species of freshwater mollusks from the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, including the winged floater, Anodonta nutalliana. As his vessel paused in the tidewaters before embarking on its Pacific voyage, the tireless collector snagged a salt-water clam named Clinocardium nuttallii, Nuttall’s cockle.
When Nuttall returned to Fort Vancouver the following spring, he and John Kirk Townsend identified several new plants plus a host of Northwest birds. The professor’s single-minded focus was a subject of amusement among the voyageurs, who regarded his work as "idle and foolish, and a subject of merriment."
Nuttall took his final leave from the Pacific Northwest in September 1835, but descriptions of the flora, fauna, and rocks he collected there appeared in numerous publications, and many of those species still bear his name. His tree notes were incorporated in the three-volume North America Sylva (1842-49), which remains a practical sourcebook.
Graustein, Jeanette E. Thomas Nuttall Naturalist: Explorations in America 1808-1841. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Lee, Daniel and J. H. Frost. Ten Years in Oregon. New York: J. Collord, Printer, 1844.
Reveal, James. “Thomas Nuttall” http://www.lewis-clark.org/article/497