Custer and the Herbarium
Maura C. Flannery, College of Professional Studies, Division of Computer Science, Mathematics and Science
This is a case study in the history of a herbarium specimen chosen for it historical significance in and beyond botany. Also, it has three plants from two different locations and from two different collectors, an additional point of interest.
In 1874, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills of South Dakota ostensibly to find a suitable location for a military post, but in fact to evaluate the region’s riches. Among those accompanying Custer was Aris Berkeley Donaldson, a professor of rhetoric and English at the University of Minnesota. He had resigned his position in order to join the expedition as botanist and newspaper correspondent. Afterwards, Donaldson sent his plant collection for species identification to the botanist John Merle Coulter. Then at Hanover College, Coulter moved to Wabash College in 1879, taking his herbarium with him, despite Hanover’s attempt to purchase it. In 1987, Wabash no longer wanted to support its herbarium, and it was donated to the New York Botanical Garden, which has a reputation for taking on “orphan herbaria.”
The sheet presented here contains three specimens of the species that was then identified as Aplopappus spinulosus but is now called Xanthisma spinulosum. The two specimens on the right were collected by Donaldson in 1874 and the one on the left by John and Sarah Lemmon in Oakland, California six years later. The Lemmons were botanist friends of Coulter’s. He probably received the plant with the label but unmounted and added it to the sheet with Donaldson’s plants.
This sheet represents a small part of Coulter’s extensive collection, but its provenance makes it significant not only as a botanical document but as a piece of American history as well. It’s existence in a herbarium housed successively at three different institutions also says something about ownership of this type of intellectual property and the vagaries that herbaria have been subjected to as taxonomy became less central to biology.