Correspondence of Elizabeth Atwater and G. W. Clinton
Edited by P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica
Missouri Botanical Garden
August 6, 2003
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The Correspondence of

Elizabeth Atwater (1812‑1878) and

George William Clinton (1807‑1885)


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





In Charles Mohr's letters, dating from 1867 to 1879, there is reference to a woman, Elizabeth Emerson Atwater, the wife of Samuel T. Atwater. Mrs. Atwater was also a correspondent of George W. Clinton and so it is  appropriate to post a series of her letters as well as Mohr's.


These postings are the draft transcriptions of the Editor of the letters of George Clinton, first president of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, currently housed in the Research Library of the Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, New York. Since it is doubtful that sufficient time and liesure will be available in the immediate future to produce a finished analysis of the letters, it was thought pragmatic to produce the actual letters to speak for themselves to the reading public. This decision would at least provide a new source of information to interested students on the history and manners of botanists in the United States during the two decades of the 1860's and 1870's in the venue of the Internet.


Elizabeth E. Atwater was the wife of Samuel T. Atwater, an official of the United States Government during the administration of Abraham Lincoln at least, and probably in the diplomatic corps. Emerson may have been her maiden name. She was on speaking terms with Mary Todd Lincoln after President Lincoln's assassination and received "a gorgeous, photographic Album presented me on last New Years day by Mrs. Lincoln, wife of our martyrd President" (March 36, 1867). Her husband's business apparently allowed her to travel to various parts of the United States where she enjoyed collecting objects of natural history. Such collections afforded her a distinguished correspondence, of which George W. Clinton of Buffalo, New York, was a member. It is her letters to George Clinton that are transcribed in this posting. The letters date from March, 1866 to February, 1874.


The Research Library of the Buffalo Museum of Science also has an album of cartes‑de‑visite photographs of botanists from the 1860's and ‑70's, but, although there is one picture of a young woman, unidentified, all the others are accounted for ‑ and there is no Elizabeth Atwater. It is not for want of asking that there is no image. On March 36, 1867 she wrote about the request of a representative of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences:


"I owe Mr. Marshall an apology for having so long delayed a response to his note ‑ asking for my picture (?). While hesitating as to the expediency of sitting for this object, time has passed on ‑ leaving me in the character of a delinquent.


Should I sit for my carte and the result be satisfactory ‑ that is ‑ look as much like me as any one else ‑ I shall take pleasure in forwarding it to Mr. Marshall."


Reminded again for her photograph, she wrote Clinton on April 26, 1867:


"Relative to the carte, I beg you, Sir, give me the credit for an earnest endeavor to respond to your application. I did sit ‑ no less than four times. The result ‑ ask you? Anything but satisfactory. Had it looked no worse than the original it should have been forwarded forthwith. If there be any variation from the truth ‑ I claim that it be in my favor! My friends rebel at my photographs, invariably, for the reason, that what little expression my face affords is drawn out in conversation; in repose it is, if possible, more stupid. Have you ever known such persons? If so you can appreciate my position. If not, I ask you to believe that I speak truthfully. Should not the artist be disgusted with me, and I with him, a truthful picture may, at last ensue. Am I exonerated from the charge of "perverseness?" On March 30, 1870: "Relative to my photograph for the Society, I am too ill to sit for one and were I not, it would be a most unsatisfactory effort ‑ I have such an inexplicable face that artists cannot portray it. However, should I recover, I will yield to the solicitations of friends, and make one more attempt."


Mrs. Atwater “was born in Vermont, lived most of her adult life in Chicago, and spent her later years in Buffalo, New York” (Thiers and Emory 1992).


Mrs. Atwater was said by Mary Clark, of Michigan, another Clinton correspondent, to be from Greenport, Long Island, ("I enclose two plants which you will please accept ‑ probably both are familiar to you ‑ the delicate one was sent me with the mate to it by Ms. Atwater from Green Port L. Island & which she says "grew down by the sea." She calls the flower orange color ‑ but it is certainly red now, as it was when it reached me. I named it Spergula rubra variety marina" Say if it is not too much trouble if my diagnosis is correct." Mary Clark, Aug. 25, 1866). Elizabeth and her husband spent their summers in this town, a respite from sweltering, humid Chicago, where they resided in hotels during the period of the letters, notably the Clifton House, but later the Gardner House. New York, however, seems to be her native state (April 12, 1870). One might read some of the novels of Edith Wharton to get an idea of hotel life in this period.


In her letter of March 36, 1867, Elizabeth mentions her education, in Troy, New York, at Madame Emma Willard's Seminary (see illustration at end of this Introduction). She received a finished education for women of high social status or high expectations and enjoyed the acquaintance of women in similar circumstances, such as Elizabeth P. Stevens (letter December 4, 1868), who resided for a while in Ciudad Bolivar on the Orinoco river in Venezuela, and her sister. Mrs. Atwater actually resided in Buffalo, New York, and perhaps for some time: on March 36, 1867, she stated: "I fain would be, or would have been a scientific Botanist, and, no doubt, should have made some proficiency had not so many years of my residence in Buffalo been those of a confirmed invalid."


Also Mary H. Clark (1813‑1875) of Ann Arbor, Michigan, originally of New York State. Mary was founder and principal, or headmistress, of The Misses Clark's School, or the Misses Clark's Young Ladies' Seminary, an earlier name. In a footnote, Voss (1978) indicated the Michigan school was founded on Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary, which Mary was supposed to have attended. Voss discussed the omission of her name in a list of students published in 1898, and the possibility of her not attending that institution. Her mutual acquaintance with Elizabeth Atwater, who had, lends some support to Clark's being an alumna after all. It is Miss Clark, apparently, who provided the connection between Judge Clinton and Mrs Atwater (April 6, 1868: " Mrs. Atwater lives in Chicago & her address is ‑ "Mrs. Elizabeth Atwater Clifton House Chicago.") Miss Clark says, on February 4, 1869, " Mrs. Morris, the niece of Mrs. Atwater who accompanied her this summer, has given me some nice specimens of Aspidium fragrans which she says they picked at Berlin Falls, Vt. ‑ I do not find such a place on the map but believe I give you the state correctly. Is it a new locality?". Elizabeth Atwater and Mary Clark were on very good terms, for she resided with her in Chicago, a letter of August 17, 1870 from that great city states: "Looking over Mrs. Atwater's ferns since I have been staying with her I noticed "A. montanum" one of the ferns which I lack to make a complete collection of all mentioned in Gey's new book. Could you give it me & the others I particularly want ‑ Asplenium ebenoides, Aspidium Clintonianum & A. Felix mas & Woodsia Oregana? You once spoke of giving me some ferns from greenhouses. They would be very acceptable." The letter ends "Mrs. Atwater desires me to present her compliments."


Elizabeth also wrote to Charles Peck, the curator of botany at the State Cabinet, protege of George Clinton, specialist in bryology and eventually an expert in mycology in Albany, New York. She wrote Clinton on December 4, 1868: "I regret to say to you that I plucked, I am almost certain, the only plants of the Heather which could be found on Nantucket Island, and I fear that, in my excitement, I so successfully dislodged the roots, no more will ever be found. I forwarded a specimen to your friend Mr. Peck, of Albany, and trust it reached him safely."


This letter came after one Clinton wrote to Charles Peck on November 2, 1868, and perhaps he asked her to find more: "Did I write you that Mrs. E. E. Atwater found, last summer, Calluna  on Nantucket Island? If yes, I retract. It was a true Erica. I think E. cinerea but have not confidence in my determination of the species."


And on February 9, 1869, she wrote Clinton: "As you desire it, I will look up spms of the Dianthus Armeria L. and forward to Mr. Peck, ‑ although not having acknowledged the plant and accompanying note which I forwarded to his address last Autumn, I feel a delicacy in intruding myself again upon his attention." Her displeasure with Peck was communicated to him, as Clinton wrote at the bottom of this letter "wrote to Mr. Peck." Peck wrote Clinton on February 15, 1869, referring to some matter, perhaps regarding this letter: "I will make all right with Mrs. Atwater."; and on May 1, 1869, "Mrs. Atwater sends Spiranthes graminea from Greenport, also the white flowered Sabattia stellaris.".


Her specimens were communicated to Asa Gray by Clinton, November 5, 1873, but such requests tried Gray's gallantry:


"Your express parcel goes back to‑day. I gave 2 hours to it yesterday ‑ enough to set you generally on the track.


To have named all species, with my failing memory would have required at least 2 days hard work. Mr. Watson & I are at work against time on Flora of California which will enable Mrs. Atwater & all others to name her plants, if she will study them. But when is it to be got out, if we stop to name miscellaneous collections picked up on way to California & back.


Now, you potter on with the clues I have given you ‑ or be content with genus ‑ till the Fl. Calif. comes out."


Mrs. Atwater was “’interested in several departments of science, but Botany was her favorite study. During a sojourn in California she preserved more than 2000 specimens of plants, several of which were new to Science’ quote from A. D. Hager in Phelps (1878).” (Thiers and Emory 1992).


A species of moss was named after her by Carl Müller:


Bryum atwateriae C. Müll., Flora 58: 76. 1873. = B. miniatum Lesq. (fide Lawton 1971) (citation by Thiers and Emory, 1992) = Imbribryum miniatum (Lesq.) R. Spence.


A species with “Capsules common, maturing spring--summer. Common on damp to wet siliceous rock or soil over rock, often associated with waterfalls or springs” (Spence in NYFA Vol. 28, in prep.).


Müller wrote “Patria. America septentrionalis. California montosa, Yosemit valley, ad rupes irriguas cataractarum Yosemit-valley-falls noncupatarum: Domina Atwater 1873 legit. Hb. C. Mohr”  Place of origin: North America. The mountains of California, Yosemite valley, on the wet rocks of the cataracts called Yosemite Valley Falls. Mrs. Atwater collected it in 1873.”


Müller, Carl 1873. Manipulus muscorum novorum ex America septentionali. Flora (Separat-Abdruck aus “Flora” 1875 Nr. 5 und 6) pp 1-9. The type was in the Herbarium of Charles Mohr, Alabama.


Note will be made of a rather elusive figure in the Clinton correspondence, that of Miss Mary Wilson. She was closely associated with the early herbarium of the young Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, assisting Clinton in the organization of its first herbarium and going on to make a study of lichens. She was recognized by the foremost lichenologist in the United States, Edward Tuckerman of Amherst College, in his publications.


Unlike the women of Elizabeth Atwater's station, Miss Wilson does not appear to have possessed the advantages of social status. She did, however, have the patronage of a powerful political personage both in the State of New York, and locally, in the City of Buffalo, and arguably, nationally in George W. Clinton, son of DeWitt Clinton, and an emblem of the Democratic Party. However, such patronage could be a double‑edged sword.


Women involving themselves in scientific study at this particular period faced many dilemmas, as I am sure many studies of women scholars in this era of post Civil War have discussed. Looked at solely from the vantage of the letters in the Clinton correspondence, one can see some of the practical effects or consequences to various women in their approaches to the study of natural history.


At this point in history, the few decades from the end of the Civil War, there were still many regions of the world, indeed in the United States, with floras that were unknown to science. Charles Mohr, as a young man, courted death many times to make botanical collections, most of which were lost to disasters en route. He would declare in his letters that he did not wish to burden science with names he erected, describing species of plants unknown to science, only to have them synonymized later after more careful study. He is very modest about his own ability to describe new plants. However, his modesty seems to disappear with the advent of other scholars describing new species based on plants he has collected, with the expectation that the new species would bear his names as epithet, or as author, were he to publish a species identified as new by a recognized scholar ‑ or even to have the type specimen chosen from one of his collections.


Many times in the Clinton correspondence is reference made to a near mania for describing new species or having new species named after someone, the former usually by a scholar, the latter by a collector. Since many had neither the time, inclination or resources to be a scholar, they settled for being collectors.


The opening up of hinterlands by the advent of the new railway systems that mushroomed during and after the Civil War, meant that women of refinement, with their distinguished contacts, could spend their leisure hours on railroad cars or other conveyances, enjoying the relative luxury of hotels and resorts, for instance in Europe, protected by their husbands and their government or business associates and associations, and collect biological specimens. Some specimens were likely to be new to science. Gallantry, such as that exhibited by George Clinton, induced these women to send their specimens to famous scholars, such as Asa Gray. It is probable that Bryum Atwateriae C. M. Bull. Torr. Club 5:35. 1874, now Bryum miniatum Lesq. was named after our Elizabeth, and there are doubtless other epithets that actually do bear her name.


A refined education at a women's seminary where botany was taught with French lessons and handwriting prepared a woman for a smattering of science, enough to manage in the bewildering array of botanical wealth. They could stock a conservatory, fill a charming herbarium book, plant a garden, communicate beautiful letters and travel with their husbands.


At this period where the natural sciences and other endeavors were becoming professionalized and the status of amateur arising as a necessary corollary, a woman attempting to be a scholar, as Miss Mary Wilson did with her organization of Clinton's botanical collections and endeavor to study lichenology, endured a different kind of experience. Such women were entering a world dominated by scholars who were male. What were the factors involved in succeeding in such a world? What could make a woman fail? For Miss Wilson failed and perhaps one can get a glimpse of why this happened in the few lines in Elizabeth's letters in which Mary is mentioned.


One can detect a coolness in Mrs. Atwater's compliance with Clinton's encouragement for her to interact with Miss Wilson, to send her specimens for study. On September 18, 1873 she wrote: "Thanks for your kind note enclosed in Miss Wilsons, which followed me to California. I regret to say that of Miss Wilsons' particular pets I found scarcely any. I enclosed in the box one bright sp'm from the Sequoia giganteus at the Calaveras group of Big Trees for her." The coolness of her sympathy when she writes on February 26, 1874 that: "I was surprised to learn that Miss Wilson was losing her interest in the Academy [i.e. at Buffalo]. I sincerely trust that ill health was not the cause. It seemed that her enthusiasm would be adequate to overcoming all obstacles." It would not be long before Miss Wilson disappears from Buffalo and the Society to which she had devoted so much of her attention.


There is no doubt that within her social environment, Mrs. Atwater is one of the most charming and loveliest. She had integrity and honesty, and one might presume she recognized these qualities in others, as well as when they were lacking. To ascribe any "mania" to Mrs. Atwater is not borne out by the personality of her letters. It is much more likely that it is Clinton's excessive gallantry that is the source of a sense of aggression. On March 36, 1867, Elizabeth wrote: "And now let me disabuse you of an impression which you have, I fear, imbibed, and which I may have encouraged ‑ yet not intentionally, relative to my knowledge of Botany. I fain would be, or would have been a scientific Botanist, and, no doubt, should have made some proficiency had not so many years of my residence in Buffalo been those of a confirmed invalid. On this point I am extremely sensitive ‑ that of receiving credit for merits, or acquirements to which I have no claim."


Mrs. Atwater's collecting specimens of all kinds to enrich the young natural history institutions of America proved a delightful basis for friendship and utility. Indeed, her motives for doing so, among many, are likely to have included the same ones possessed by her correspondent: a desire to contribute to the cultural distinction of a twice‑new nation ‑ one at its founding, the second at the affirmation of its union.


The Chicago Academy of Sciences, as well as the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, to name only two institutions, benefited from her efforts. The Index Herbariorum Part II "Collectors" A‑D, Regnum Vegetabile vol. 2 compiled by J. Lanjouw and F. A. Stafleu, 1954, makes no mention of E. E. Atwater, Mary Clark, or Mary Wilson, although the Stevens woman (women?) do receive mention. Atwater's specimens reside both at BUF, the herbarium of the Buffalo Museum of Science, and at the Chicago Academy of Sciences (CACS).


Her mineralogical collections are among the 20,000 specimens of the Chicago Academy. On the Website for the Academy, it is stated "Among the highlights [of the botanical collections] are some of the earliest known specimens from the Chicago area, collected by Elizabeth Atwater, dating back to the 1850's." Perhaps the most interesting collections, for the purpose of knowing more about Mrs. Atwater, would be among the archival materials of the Academy for "Among the more esoteric collections is a scrapbook of Elizabeth Atwater, which contains, among other things, specimens of George and Martha Washington's hair." Elizabeth enjoyed collecting autographs: on March 36, 1867, she wrote to Clinton: "Speaking of Madame Emma Willard brings to mind the fact that knowing me to be a collector of autographs, she not long since enclosed for my acceptance an autograph note of your father's, adding, that to no other person would she part with it." Although she herself did not sit for a photograph, at least according to her statements to Clinton, as noted above, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln did present her with a great, empty photograph album which she, no doubt, endeavored to fill.


The Chicago Academy's Website can be reached at:


Upon Mrs. Atwater’s death, the following note appeared in the Botanical Gazette (Vol.3, pp. 79-80) [date sometime close after or during 1878]:


“Bryum Atwateri.e. [sic]. -- The discoverer of this plant was, as ELizabeth Emmerson of Vermont, a pupil at the Way Seminary in 1828, when the writer (then Mrs. Lincoln) was preparing for publication her lectures on Botany.  Some forty years after this, the former pupil visited the writer at her home in Baltimore, introducing her husband S. T. Atwater, Esq., of Chicago. She had cultivated the love of science imbibed from her school teachings.  In affluent circumstances, without children, and with an indulgent husband who was happy to gratify her literary and scientific taste, she had traveled much and made extensive researches in Natural Science.

    After the renewal of our acquaintance she was a faithful and attentive correspondent. At my suggestion she presented to the “Maryland Academy of Sciences” a valuable collection of four hundred botanical specimens. She was elected an honorary member of this society, which after her death at Buffalo, N.Y., in April 1878, paid a fitting tribute to her memory, as an earnest laborer in the cause of science.

  We take from a Michigan paper an extract from an address of Prof. Albert D. Hager, before the Chicago Historical Society:

  “Mrs. Atwater was interested in several departments of science, but Botany was her favorite study. During a sojourn in California, she preserved more than 2,000 specimens of plants, several of which were new to science.” After recounting her valuable historical records, her philanthropic efforts and her active and generous benevolence, the Professor closes by this remark, “It may, in truth, be said that the world is made the better as well as the wiser for her having lived in it.”

  The following extract from a letter of Feb. 12th, 1878, to the writer, gives the history of the discovery and naming of the Bryum Atwateriae [sic]:

  “I forward for your acceptance this little specimen. I believe you will feel an especial interest in it, from its having been found by your former pupil. I gathered it with other plants, at the foot of the Yosemite Falls, in the Yosemite Valley, Cal., on June 24th, 1873. It being an infertile specimen, I hesitated relative to pressing it, but was attracted by its peculiarity and preserved several tufts of it - being not in fruit - yet greatly interested in its appearance, I did not send it with other plants, to friends for whom in my travels I am in the habit of collecting, but chanced to include one in a small parcel to my friend, Dr. Chas. Mohr, a German gentleman, resident in Mobile, Ala., and a fine botanist. He noticed it as new to himself and immediately forwarded the tuft to Dr. Karl Muller,  the distinguished Bryologist in Germany. I quote from Dr. Mohr’s letter in reference to it: “Dr. Muller describes that fine brown moss, of which you had sent me an infertile specimen, as a new species, naming it in honor of its enthusiastic discoverer, Bryum Atwateriae. It is nearly allied to the B. alpinum of Europe. “It was reported in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, New York, August, 1874.”

  To this account of the discovery and naming of the plant under consideration, we will add that though the name of the genus Bryum is ascribed to Linnaeus, it seems to have been merged in with other genera of Mosses, and is not found in the works of many of our distinguished American Botanists. Lindley refers to Hooker for a description of the family Bryaceae, of which Bryum may be considered a type. He enumerates more than a hundred genera of Bryaceae, and says: “The little plants, the Urn Mosses, form one of the most interesting departments of Cryptogamous Botany: they are distinctly separated from all the previous tribes by the peculiar structure of their reproductive organs.” The position of the Bryaceae, according to Lindley, is between Jungermanniaceae and Andraeaceae. We have not seen what the distinguished Bryologist, Karl Muller, says of this peculiar family of plants. That he has honored our countrywoman in naming her as a discoverer, entitles him to our gratitude.

  I will add to this article but one short sentence, worth more than al to her who is now in the better world - she as a Christian.   Almira Lincoln Phelps. Baltimore, Maryland.


Albert David Hager (born 1817 - died July 29, 1888) was Secretary and Librarian to the Chicago Historical Society 1877-1886 (Mason, Edward G., ed. Chicago Historical Society’s Collection, Vol. IV. Early Chicago and Illinois. Chicago. 1890).   In this same volume, Samuel T. Atwater is listed as a Corresponding Member, elected in 1874, with residence in Buffalo, N.Y. who still held this membership in 1890 as well as, perhaps, the same residence, after his wife’s death in 1878.


Albert D. Hager was the “assistant state geologist for the Vermont state geological survey [in 1862]. He also served as the publisher for many of the [Vermont] survey reports.” He served “as Vermont State Geologist from 1864-1870, and Missouri State Geologist from 1870-71.” (website Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Historical Images for “Albert D. Hager, Geologist.”).


For information on Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884), see:

Rudolph, E. D. 1984. "Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793–1884) and the Spread of Botany in Nineteenth Century America". American Journal of Botany 71 (8): 1161–1167.

Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori. Pedagogy: Disturbing History, 1820–1930. p. 95.

Pnina Abir-Am and Dorinda Outram (1987). Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives: Women in Science(1789–1970). (Citations from Wikipedia website for “Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps” July 15, 2013).


Simeon Lincoln was Almira Phelp’s first husband, whom she married in 1817, but who died in 1823. She later married John Phelps in 1831, “a lawyer and politician from Vermont.” In 1823, she became a teacher and vice-principal and later principal at the Troy Female Seminary, Troy, New York between 1823 and 1831. Her botanical career began “under the influence of Amos Eaton” and she went on to write several books on education, including “Botany for Beginners,”  published in 1833 (Wikipedia July 15, 2013). Perhaps the “Way Seminary” refers in some way to the Troy Female Seminary.


Mrs. Phelps was the youngest child of seventeen children, and the sixteenth was the eminent Emma Willard (the father of both being Samuel Hart, their mother Lydia Hinsdale Hart). It was her older sister that founded the Troy Seminary, the first women’s school for higher education in the United States. Almira Phelps died in Baltimore in 1884 (Wikipedia July 15, 2013).




I thank Marshall Crosby and Bob Magill for research support and use of the Web facilities of the Missouri Botanical Garden. I thank John Grehan and David Hemmingway for permitting access to the Clinton Herbarium and the Research Library at the Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, New York. Richard Zander, architect of the Res Botanica Website, was instrumental in the posting of these letters and images.






Thiers, Barbara M. & K. Stacy Giles Emory. 1992. The History of Bryology in California. The Bryologist (95(1): pp. 68-78.


Voss, Edward G. 1978. Botanical Beachcombers and Explorers: Pioneers of the 19th century in the upper Great Lakes. Contributions from the University of Michigan Herbarium Volume 13, Ann Arbor, Michigan.




Editor's comments are in square brackets. At the beginning of every letter there is a volume number and another number (e.g. Vol. 5 No. 116). This is George Clinton's own system for organizing his letters in sequence, the volumes roughly corresponding to a given year and a number given each letter as he received it. Actually only the letter number occurs on each individual letter); Clinton later had his letters bound together into volumes. The letter and number in square brackets is part of the numbering and cataloguing or inventory system developed during the 1990's at the Research Library of the Buffalo Museum of Science. On each letter, the black ink is Clinton's handwriting, the pencil marks are the library's. At the bottom of each letter Clinton wrote the date when he received it and whether he took action.



P. M. Eckel

St. Louis



Illustration below:


Elizabeth mentions her education, in Troy, New York, at Madame Emma Willard's Seminary. She received a finished education and enjoyed the acquaintance of women in similar circumstances.


Image from French,  J. H. 1860. Gazetteer of the State of New York. Syracuse. Reprinted 1986 by Heart of the Lakes Publishing, Interlaken, New York.