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: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
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:
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.
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."
again for her photograph, she wrote Clinton
on April 26, 1867:
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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:
express parcel goes back to‑day. I gave 2 hours to it yesterday ‑
enough to set you generally on the track.
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.
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, in prep.).
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
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
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,
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
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.
Academy's Website can
be reached at:
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.
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
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.
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.
Reprinted 1986 by Heart of the Lakes Publishing, Interlaken,