DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
Macomb's San Juan Exploring Expedition
Macomb's San Juan Exploring Expedition
Botanist and Geologist John S. Newberry traversed landscapes ranging from alpine mountains and desert badlands to grassy plateaus and deep canyons as a member of Macomb’s San Juan Exploring Expedition. The expedition, led by Captain John N. Macomb, had military and political origins. Its primary purposes were to locate a route for the movement of military supplies from Santa Fé, New Mexico to Utah, and to map unknown portions of the geography in the western United States. Despite these missions, as the explorers traveled the Old Spanish Trail, Newberry had ample time to study the environment.
Newberry began collecting as soon as the group headed out, and gathered the spotted evening primrose Oenothera canescens in Santa Fé for the U.S. National Herbarium. Marching on, Newberry found the bell flower Campanula planiflora on Abiquiu Peak in New Mexico. He noted that the summit of the peak was covered with piñon trees, and that the slopes held a growth of yellow pine and spruce. Captain Macomb enjoyed the plant collections Newberry was assembling, and even wrote a letter to his wife saying, “We see many beautiful flowers on the way… a few of which I enclose for the dear children.”
While continuing travels along the San Juan River, the expedition members reveled in the rainy weather, but the rain was not such a blessing for Newberry. In a letter to Spencer Baird, assistant-secretary of the Smithsonian, Newberry explains that it had rained 50 of the 75 days of the expedition, and that, “You may judge we had rather a moist time. I had the greatest possible difficulty in preserving zoological and botanical specimens, and indeed for a time nothing could be done in either department and specimens [previously collected] were ruined."
Nevertheless, the party continued on and explored the mountains and tributaries of the San Juan River. As the party reached the Rio Navajo tributary, Newberry wrote that the vegetation became, "fresher and more luxuriant, the forest more continuous and the trees of larger size.” The forests of the area were composed of yellow pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and scrub oak, and Newberry claimed that, “It would be difficult to find anywhere more splendid timber than that through which we were passing during most of our march of today.”
As the party arrived in Utah, Newberry collected the singleleaf ash Fraxinus anomala. But the most historic collection Newberry made in the state was when he excavated petrified dinosaur bones from Canyon Pintado along the Old Spanish Trail. After the expedition, Newberry sent the Smithsonian three boxes of the Jurassic bones.
Next, Newberry took a side trip to find the junction of the Grand and Green Rivers. The excursion contributed little to botanical knowledge as, “not a particle of vegetation was anywhere discernible; nothing but bare and barren rocks of rich and varied colors shimmering in the sunlight.” But collecting resumed as Newberry returned the San Juan River, traveled through the breathtaking rock formations of Monument Valley, and reached Canyon Largo, where he was the first to collect the shrub Chrysothamnus newberryi.
When the expedition was complete, Newberry wrote Baird that, “We had a very pleasant and interesting expedition, and in geology particularly the results exceeded my expectations.” Macomb sent mammal skins and eleven boxes of geological and natural history specimens to the Smithsonian. Though many of the plants in the collection were destroyed in the rain, the plants that Newberry was able to preserve were sent to Botanist John Torrey, who volunteered to write a brief report without compensation. Torrey only requested that $50 be given to have 5 or 6 plates of certain specimens drawn. However, for unknown reasons, the report was never made.
When the Civil War began shortly after the expedition members returned home, the entire expedition report was also under threat of going unpublished. Newberry feared that "most valuable information in regard to the far west has been lost to the country and to the world." Thankfully, the report of the historic expedition was published in 1876.
Goetzmann, W.H. Army Exploration in the American West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.
Madsen, Steven K. Exploring desert stone: John N. Macomb’s 1859 expedition to the canyonlands of the Colorado. Logan Utah: Utah State University Press, 2010.
Newberry, John S. Report of the exploring expedition from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the junction of the Grand and Green Rivers of the great Colorado of the West, in 1859: under the command of Capt. J.N. Macomb, Corps of topographical engineers. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1876. Web link