Correspondence of Peter MacOwan and G. W. Clinton, Part 1
Edited by P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica
Missouri Botanical Garden
October 8, 2009
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The Correspondence of

Peter MacOwan (1830 - 1909) and

George William Clinton (1807 ‑ 1885): Part 1


Edited by P. M. Eckel, P.O. Box 299, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri, 63166‑0299; email:



Bebb : Clinton : MacOwan


PART ONE: The Bebb Introduction


On September 10, 1873, George Clinton of Buffalo, New York, received a letter from Michael Shuck Bebb (1833 - 1895). September of that year provided nothing to write in Clinton’s collecting journal, perhaps a few desultory notes on a weed or two, and Bebb’s letter is received with no note. Years earlier, on April 3, 1868, he had “expressed packages” of specimens to Bebb at the Winnebago Depot, Winnebago Co., Illinois, and presumably received some in return for the Herbarium at the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences.


Clinton saved his first letter of 1865 from Bebb, when Bebb lived in Washington D.C. and had just lost his beloved first wife. However, evidence within the letters indicates a relationship previous to the year (1865) when Clinton’s entire letter collection began, yet perhaps only from 1864, when he wrote, to a variety of American botanists, about “deficiencies in the Cabinet” in Albany, New York.


Bebb had moved to Fountaindale, his father’s estate in Winnebago Co., Illinois, from Washington D. C. in 1867. There was a gap between March 17th, 1870 and September 1873 when Bebb did not write to Clinton - perhaps brought low by personal troubles associated with money (Bebb had nine children by this time) and sickness, or simply that Clinton, when his protégé in Albany, New York, Charles Horton Peck, had begun to focus on cryptogams, Clinton shifted his botanical focus as well. When the correspondence is resumed in 1873, it deals with a bundle of vascular plants sent by MacOwan to Bebb earlier, in around 1871, in return for cryptogams: mosses, fungi and lichens. By then MacOwan had become a “valued friend” to Bebb. It was in 1873 that “... Mr. Bebb gave himself up to the special study of willows” (Deane 1896) during the future course of which he would distinguish himself as an expert in “salicology” in North America and Europe. By 1873, Bebb possessed a significant herbarium of 30,000 specimens representing 15,000 species (Deane 1896). Besides species from the floristic region of Gray’s Manual of Botany, “he had valuable additions from Europe and Southern Africa ....” (Deane 1896).


On September 1, 1873, Bebb wrote the following letter to Clinton. He had, apparently, been visiting Asa Gray of Cambridge, and had been looking at Gray’s album of photographic cartes-de-visit, or calling cards, that botanists were avidly having taken at commercial photography parlors and distributing to anyone who considered him or herself a botanist. Such photography came to the forefront of the public mind with its use during the recently (1865) ended American Civil War by soldiers and their loved ones back home, as well as newspaper correspondents documenting the conflict. At the time of the letters, these “cartes” were especially taken by people who considered themselves, or were considered, to be of historic importance for their times. MacOwan had his taken (see frontispiece above) and sought Clinton’s (see below).



Vol. 10 no. 8 [A 334]


Fountaindale, Ills

Sept. 1st [18]73


Hon. G. W. Clinton,


My dear Sir


I was looking over Dr. Grays album not long since when I came to

the photo-presentment of a botanist fully armed and equipped for field

work. Who is this quoth I -- “Don’t you know?” Indeed I do not, looking

closer - “My, that’s our friend Judge Clinton!” What led me to inquire

after you - and so I found out that you were still active but in a field

wherein I confess myself a perfect ignoramus, but I want to help my valued friend MacOwan of Cape Good Hope - Will you exchange North American mosses, Lichens or Fungi for South African Phaenogams plants. I have a few hundred of specimens which I have undertaken thus to exchange. I can answer you that the specimens are beautiful and critically determined and indeed very many excellent. Please let me hear from you, and if you do not care to make such an exchange yourself, perhaps you could put me on the track of some good fungus man or Lichen Maniac - I am only a kind of “agent” in the matter. Don’t know a thing about Fungi - but I do know a good specimen of a Phaenogam and these of MacOwans are admirable.


At any rate - if only for the sake of Auld Lang Syne I shall be glad to

hear from you


very respectfully & truly yours


M. S. Bebb




P.O. Fountaindale

Winnebago Co.



Rec’d Sept. 10. ans’d yes! Sept. 13.

[last letter March 17th, 1870]


George W. Clinton


This photograph, “of a botanist fully armed and equipped for field work” must be an image of Clinton in the present photograph collection of the Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is a studio portrait of the interior of a house and of a man dressed elegantly for the field, with a vasculum for the collection of fresh plant material, a hat with a brim and walking stick. It  is rather unlike the typical cartes-de-visit Clinton had been sending around and which even he did not approve of.

The interior is curiously shabby compared to many other such portraits taken commercially. It is probable that this image is among those in the collection of Asa Gray.

(Photo-image courtesy Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.).


Clinton, by this time, had devoted himself to his liaison with Charles Peck, botanist for New York State and curator of the New York State herbarium in Albany, New York. Peck had earlier distinguished himself in bryology, but by now had removed himself from academic competition in bryology with the eminent Leo Lesquereux, a colleague of William S. Sullivant of Columbus, Ohio. Peck was at this time devoted to mycology. Interest in lichens devolved upon Clinton’s other protégé, Mary Wilson, who was (an unofficial?) curator of the herbarium of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, in Buffalo, New York. She was in correspondence with Edward Tuckerman, the leading lichenologist in the United States at the time.


MacOwan, in 1871, had apparently sent to Bebb a package of 650 vascular species from the Cape Province of South Africa, from the small town of Somerset East, due north of Port Elizabeth. His specimens appear to have derived, at this time, primarily from the area around the town, in the Boschberg Mountains, a wooded eminence with deep ravines (the kloof), and not from the fascinating renosterveld grasslands of the Cape Peninsula on the western, or Atlantic coast. Fungi may be had in the kloofs (the “clefts”) or ravines and other sheltered areas where perhaps bits of the Southern Afrotemperate Forest, the rare areas of indigenous forest persisting in remnant patches, may have been found.


Bebb is rather enthusiastic about the opportunity of acquiring several hundreds of exotic specimens from South Africa to add to his collections, which appear to be mostly exchange material of northeastern North American species. MacOwan is rather distant about Bebb’s receipt of these, indicating to Clinton that the parcels were not intended for him, Bebb, but perhaps were for Asa Gray instead. They had been “annexed” by Bebb and MacOwan would have to “settle that with Dr. Gray, ” although MacOwan then relents, being gratified that the specimens are useful to Bebb’s herbarium, the species not being represented there.


MacOwan’s packet appears to have been part of a named and numbered set of loose specimens (exsiccatae), the Austro-Africanae, but which was not a bound publication (Sayre 1975), although MacOwan was exchanging with numerous individuals in South Africa.


For example, in the Kriebel Herbarium of Purdue University (PUL) there is a specimen of Adiantum ethiopicum Thunb.  from South Africa made by the Rev. Leopold Richard Baur (1825-1889) from a donation to the University of specimens by George Clinton.  Baur was a Moravian missionary stationed in 1873 at Baziya, “between the upper reaches of the Bashee and Umtata Rivers, in the Transkei” (Gunn & Codd 1981), when Baur began sending specimens to MacOwan, then teaching at Gill College in Somerset East. “... thus began a long association with MacOwan and over the years many novelties and interesting records from this little-known area were sent to Kew.” (Gunn & Codd 1981). (digital image of PUL specimen courtesy Nick Harby, of Purdue University).



Only a day or so after receiving Bebb’s first letter, on September 13 Clinton enthusiastically answered (“yes!”). Bebb ten days later wrote:



Vol. 10 no. 23 [A 316]


Fountaindale, Ills [Illinois]

Sep’r 23’d 1873


Hon. G. W. Clinton

Dear Sir


I am so glad to get your letter - the sight of your familiar handwriting so wonderfully unchanged reminds me pleasantly of times gone by - Well first as to this exchange - I have now a parcel from Mr. P. MacOwan (President of Gill College, Somerset East, South Africa) containing about 650 species, Capensae [sic] Of these perhaps 200 are wanting to my own Herb. - not 200 of the best specimens by any means, but simply my desiderata. These I wish to take out but will not have time to do so till early in Nov’r. I will then send you the 400+ Austro Africanae, leaving you to make a return. Your parcel can be sent to me, and I will include it in my next envoi which will scarcely be ready before Dec 1st. I will have to ask you to cover the expense of transmission to this place - after that I will send to Boston to be shipped by sailing vessel.


I am sure my friend will appreciate your mosses & fungi, and I hope you will find his specimens an acceptable addition to your Herb. - If I only had my own desiderata out I would send at once - but it was two years ago that I arranged my first receipt of these Cape plants and I shall have to refer often to my Herb. now to see what I have and what I have not.


I have just found two or three splendid hybrid Oaks between Quercus alba & macrocarpa and I am not altogether sure that I have hit upon the explanation of the “miniature fruit” (?) [sic] of olivaeformis Michx.


How I wish I lived within reach of a large library and a large



Have you given up the proposed catalogue of Buffalo Plants? I hope not!


Very respectfully & truly yours


M. S. Bebb.

Rec’d Sept. 30, ans’d Oct. 7.


In Asa Gray’s 6th edition of his Manual, Gray wrote that Quercus macrocarpa var. olivaeformis, Gray “is only a narrower-leaved form with unusually small oblong acorns.” (p. 475). In his fifth edition (1867), Gray wrote “var. olivaeformis (Q. olivaeformis Michx.) is apparently a mere state of [Q. macrocarpa Michx.] (figured by Michaux with unripe or imperfect fruit), with narrower and more deeply lobed leaves, and oblong acorns and cups.” (p. 451).


The “proposed catalogue” was to be a list of the species found within a circle with a radius of 50 miles around the City of Buffalo, New York. Clinton had published a preliminary checklist in 1864 and had been working on its revision assiduously since then. The final work was compiled and issued by Clinton’s successor, David F. Day, in 1882.


The death of Bebb’s father in 1873 was not noted by his biographer (Deane 1896) and it was for this cause that Bebb delayed a month in responding to Clinton’s letter of October 7. Many things happened in Bebb’s life in 1873: he nearly sold the ancestral estate at Fountaindale due to a “large influx into the west of a foreign population and consequent overproduction of farm staples” which must have depressed prices. But this was also the year he decided to begin his systematic study of willows (Salix) - early in the year he began to plant his “salicetum,” a plantation of willows to complement those growing naturally in a creek bottom on his estate. By 1873 he possessed 15,000 species on 30,000 specimens in his personal herbarium (Deane 1986).


In November, Bebb responded to Clinton’s note:


Vol. 10 no. 58 [A 277]


Fountaindale, Ills

Nov. 8th, 1873


My dear Sir


The recent death of my father, the weeks of care & anxiety, which preceded his passing away, and having my time much occupied since by matters demanding immediate attention will explain this tardy acknowledgement of your heartily welcomed letter dated Oct. 7th.


All plant work has been put back, indeed I have only this evening fairly fastened upon arrears of correspondence. Next week I intend to resume botanical work. I think as far as MacOwan’s parcel is concerned that I can go over it and take out at least 300 or more species, recognizable at once as already in my own Herb. These I can send you, reserving the others for slower picking over. I gratefully appreciate the compliments you propose to pay my friend. That he is an excellent gentleman, botanywise & otherwise I have no doubt. I was much amused by the closing paragraph of a recent letter, as illustrating the man’s character - “Excuse this vile scrawl written at intervals in a very prosy Senatus-Meeting: the members, good simple ones! think I am taking elaborate notes of everybody’s speechifications only that is an elaborate mistake.” And this reminds me of a time when you received a parcel of mine, looked it part way through [?], and wrote a hasty note in the morning - then again, later in the day, when on the bench - about something you thought of at the time and had omitted before, and finally “10 thly [= tenthly], lastly, finally, and conclusively” a letter the same evening when you had reached the bottom!


I like letters that appear to be written to toss across a table, friendly scraps, with out set phrase either to begin or end with -parts of a continuous correspondence.


Yours very truly

M. S. Bebb


Rec’d Nov. 13, wrote him Nov. 27.


Clinton at this time in his career, at least, was very impatient with sitting on the judicial bench and longed to be out botanizing. He would even botanize in the patch of earth around the Court House at lunch or some other break in the judicial routine - collecting weeds. His agitation appears to be matched by MacOwan who wrote a letter at various moments during a “faculty meeting” and which reminded Bebb of a letter from Clinton written during the course of a day’s responsibilities.


After Clinton wrote Bebb on November 27, we are informed Bebb received Clinton’s letter in the astonishing time of two days. In 1850, when Bebb’s father bought the five-thousand acre estate he called Fountaindale, “The regular route was by canal packet on the Miami canal to Sandusky, and thence by steamer to Chicago” (Deane 1896). It is probably subsequent railroad connections that made such a rapid mail delivery possible in 1873 - particularly a route from Buffalo through southern Ontario, Canada to Chicago, or along the north shore of Lake Erie.



Vol. 10 no. 71 [A 263]


Fountaindale, Ills

Nov. 29th [18]73


Hon. G. W. Clinton


My dear Sir


I have just this P.M. received your note of Nov. 27th and I hasten

to reply - indeed I ought to have written before. My quandary is just this! - When I came to overhaul MacOwan’s parcel and compare with my Herbarium I was surprised to find that so many of the species included in the present sending were different from those I had before received. There were indeed only 150 + species duplicated. I had a letter not long ago from Prof. MacOwan asking me if, I would receive from him a parcel of 4-500 species Austro Africanae Phaenogams and undertake to exchange them for Cryptogams - so I have not the slightest hesitancy in in [sic] believing that any deficiency in his return to you over and above the 150 species would be in time made good - Or if you think best I will sent the 150 now, and you send him a small parcel as a kind of initiation exchange, and hereafter do more.


I have already written him about you. I am chagrined that I should leave you so far astray in my reckoning of the plants in hand. At all events don’t send me anything till you get a parcel from me which will be I hope soon. I intend to put in some things of my own collecting to patch up shortcomings as far as possible - Salix adenophylla Hook. & two willows new to the Flora of the Northern States, several forms of Quercus hybrids - between alba and macrocarpa, Pentstemon grandiflora, Bonamia Pickeringii from a western locality, Carex Bebbii Olney n. sp. &c., &c.


Believe me to be,

My dear sir

Very truly yours

M. S. Bebb


Rec’d Dec. 3, Dec. 12 expressed package & wrote to him.


The genus Bonamia is in the Morning-glory Family (Convolvulaceae).


After decision to become a professional systematist in 1873, Bebb soon became enough of an authority, for in 1874 “he was asked by Dr. Asa Gray to contribute the Salices to Brewer and Watson’s Botany of California.” His first paper on willows: “A new species of willows (S. laevigata) from California, and notes on some other North American species” in the American Naturalist was published in 1874 (Deane 1896).


On December 12, Clinton “expressed” his package to Bebb, which one presumes was then on its way to Boston and on to South Africa.




Vol. 10 no. 80 [A 254]


Fountaindale Ills

Dec 23d [18]73


Hon. G. W. CLinton


Dear Sir


Your favor of Dec’r 3’d was duly received and while I was considering what I ought to say or do in view of your reckless disregard of quid pro quo I have my perplexity ended by the simultaneous receipt of your note of the 12th inst. and the “largish” bundle. Well there is nothing for me to do but to forward your generous sending. That it is a valuable collection I have not the least doubt - (a conviction I must confess that is quite as strong from just looking at the outside wrapper as it would be were I to go over the contents). Nor have I any doubt but thus in time you will receive from Prof. MacOwan a satisfactory return.


Pater familias can scarcely be expected to command his own time “about these days” but so soon as the hurrah of the Holidays is past I must go to work in earnest to discharge my obligations to botanical friends. Where first in order will be a bundle for you. I hope you have already written to MacOwan (Prof. P. MacOwan, Gill College, Somerset East, Cape of Good Hope)


I know you will like each other.


With all Christmas good wishes

Believe me

Yours sincerely


M. S. Bebb


Rec’d Dec. 30, wrote Jan. 19.



Clinton was committed to obtaining South African plants. Bebb’s “hurrah of the Holidays,” may be imagined when considering his wife and their nine or so children in the household.


With this last note, Bebb has started Clinton off on his brief correspondence with Peter MacOwan:



Vol. 10 no. 102 [A 231]


Fountaindale, Ills

Jan [11? 18?] [18]74


Hon. G. W. Clinton


My dear sir


I enclose a name for the label-less S. [?] Africander [?]. Must have dropped out in some way for I did not carry any of the specimens into my Herb. - having received it before - Mea culpa.    I fell on the ice and cut my thumb so that I can not write easily -


Yours very truly


M. S. Bebb


Rec’d Feb. 4.



As to the ultimate location of Bebb’s herbarium, which should have included his South African specimens, it is perhaps sad to say that the most general compendium of herbaria and their “significant collections” or “collectors,” the Index Herbariorum (Thiers, 2009), there is no indication of the possessor of Bebb’s herbarium. After a search on various websites, it is apparently in Chicago, Illinois (USA) at the Field Museum: Annual report of the director, 1897 - 1898, Publication 29, Report Series Vol. 1(4) - for 1898: “The bulk of the purchased books and pamphlets was derived from the library of the late Mr. Bebb, and came with the collection of plants bought by the Museum.” Other than Bebb’s specialty in Willows and his European and South African plants, his remaining specimens were apparently all duplicates or general specimens of American species from the floristic region of Gray’s Manual (with an early focus on the states of the northeastern United States), hence, probably beneath the notice of a major herbarium seeking material with a unique provenance. It is probable that the specimens mentioned in Bebb’s correspondence now reside at the Field Museum (F). They were probably sold (three) years after his death in an effort to support Bebb’s wife and nine surviving children.