DEPARTMENT OF BOTANY
Williamson Pacific Railroad Survey
Expedition near the 32nd to 35th Parallels along the Pacific Coast led by Lt. Robert S. Williamson
Pine cones may seem to be plentiful, but finding a pine cone worthy to be a herbarium specimen—especially when hungry squirrels are also plentiful—can be a challenge. This was the case for John S. Newberry, the botanist traveling with the Williamson Pacific Railroad Survey along the Pacific Coast. The elusive cones were from the species Pinus albicaulis (which Newberry called Pinus cembroides) found at the “extreme limit of vegetation” on the alpine slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Newberry discovered that it was difficult to find intact cones of this species because the majority had been chewed to pieces by pine squirrels. He offered a dollar reward to the first member of the expedition to succeed in finding an intact cone, and after a two week search, Newberry himself finally collected the cone that sits in the herbarium today.
Searching for plants can be rewarding, but a much larger search was also underway during this expedition—the search for a route for the transcontinental railroad. Lt. Robert S. Williamson commanded one of six major expeditions in search for the route. The majority of the expeditions traveled westward, but Williamson traveled northward to explore potential passes through the mountain ranges of the Pacific. The first expedition left in 1853, and Williamson explored the region in coordination with Lt. Parke. Explorations continued in 1855, when Williamson, assisted by H.L. Abbott, traversed California and Oregon.
John S. Newberry joined the Williamson expedition in 1855 as an assistant surgeon, geologist, and botanist. Newberry professed that the assortment of plants along the coastal mountains from San Francisco to the Columbia River was so large and diverse that it was uncountable. His botanical report of the expedition emphasized the differences between western and eastern vegetation, noting a greater variety of annual plants, and numerous new species out west. He explored the Sacramento Valley, where the “most elegant and showy species” Penstemon gracilentus was collected at Fort Reading on the Sacramento River. He also collected Valeriana sitchensis and Asclepias fascicularis on the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains.
Newberry described many tree species along the route, and the expedition report contains a chapter dedicated solely to “Descriptions of the Forest Trees of Northern California and Oregon.” He describes the Manzanita tree, Arctostaphylos glauca, as being “highly characteristic of California flora” since it is widely distributed in the area. Newberry said that Manzanita means “small apple” in Spanish due to the shared appearance of the fruits, which the expedition members tasted.
Some trees, such as the fir tree Abies douglassii, were remarkably large. Newberry described this species as “one of the grandest of the group of giants which combine to form the forests of the far west,” and some had a height exceeding 300 feet. An average sized example of the oak tree Quercus hindsii, though only 75 feet in height, stretched its branches to a breadth of 125 feet. A new species named Abies williamsonii was discovered to grow over 100 feet tall and was named in honor of the expedition’s captain.
Cooper’s expedition report was published in 1857 and contained sections on geology and mammals, as well as 94 pages on botany. A memoir on Newberry, written in 1893, declared that Newberry’s report was “one of the most interesting as well as one of the most useful of all the botanical publications issued from our government offices” because it wasn’t solely a list of taxonomic names and plant descriptions.
Albright, George Leslie. Official Explorations for Pacific Railroads, 1853-1855. Berkley: University of California Press, 1921.
Goetzmann, W.H. Army Exploration in the American West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.
Newberry, John S. Botanical Report. Washington D.C.: War Department, 1857.
Stevenson, John J. “John Strong Newberry.” American Geologist 12 (July 1893): 1-25.
White, Charles A. Biographical Memoir of John Strong Newberry. Washington, D.C.: Judd and Detweiler, Inc, 1907.