In 1804, Lewis and Clark set off to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River in search of a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Four years later, a young Englishman arrived in America who would follow in their footsteps, one of many New World naturalists who would help to reveal the natural history of the American Midwest.
Thomas Nuttall was an avid collector and an intrepid explorer who became a well-regarded botanist, despite a reputation for unorthodox field methods. He often wandered off into the woods, seemingly unmindful of the perils that awaited in the unknown wilderness, and had to be rescued by travelers and even the Native Americans he encountered. According to one account, when a group of traders with whom he was traveling found the barrel of his rifle filled with dirt, they became convinced he was insane. Nuttall, the story goes, had used the weapon to dig up plants.
“The thing that endeared Nuttall to me was that he was oblivious to the danger he was in,” says University of Maine historian Richard Judd. “This was still a wilderness, but it appears that he relied on everyone to help him out — the settlers, the Indians, the trappers. They all helped him. And I think that’s the kind of quality you need to do the kind of work he did.”
According to Judd, UMaine’s Col. James C. McBride Professor and chair of the History Department, the work that Nuttall and a large group of naturalist explorers like him did in the 18th and 19th centuries laid a foundation for future naturalists, conservationists and environmentalists.
Captivated by the expanse of untrammeled American wilderness that was opening to exploration and settlement between 1740 and 1850, they rambled across the Midwest observing, collecting specimens of the flora and fauna, and writing about what they found. Collectively, they built a comprehensive natural history of the region from the rocks up, and they fostered a way of looking at nature that went beyond the strictly utilitarian view prevalent in Colonial America.
According to Judd, it was a new view of nature that influenced later naturalist and conservationist thinkers, such as Emerson, Thoreau, Pinchot and Muir, and it is a view that still echoes in conservation thinking today.
Some of these explorer/naturalists became icons of American exploration and natural history, such as Lewis and Clark and John James Audubon. Others, however, are lesser known outside scientific circles and, in the post-Darwinian age that followed their travels, have been largely ignored, not only for their scientific accomplishments, but also for the role they played in the development of conservation ideas.
Those ideas informed the thinking that led to American landmarks in conservation. The roots of conservation thinking in America go beyond the handful of writers, artists and naturalists usually credited with developing conservation ideals, and can be traced to these early explorers.
“By the start of the 20th century, America was a leader in conservation,” Judd says. “We had all these firsts — the first national park, the first national forest. We pioneered every aspect of conservation and all of this is credited to the ideas of just four or five figures. (But) there’s got to be more to it than that. What led up to that?”