Finding Aids to Official Records of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 220
United States National Museum. Division of Plants
The foundations of the present Department of Botany of the National Museum of Natural History are the extensive collections of plants gathered by the government exploring expeditions of the 1800s and those assembled by the United States Department of Agriculture in connection with its investigations. The Smithsonian had original control of the specimens collected by the expeditions, and these were forwarded to John Torrey at Columbia College in New York, who had offered to house and prepare the collection without remuneration. When Torrey returned the specimens in 1868, lack of facilities and manpower led Joseph Henry to arrange for the Department of Agriculture to act as repository for the collection. There it was merged with the existing collection of the Department. Charles Christopher Parry was named botanist of the Department of Agriculture in 1868 to care for the collection and served until 1871. George Vasey was appointed botanist and curator of the National Herbarium in 1872.
Lester Frank Ward, who had been appointed honorary curator of fossil plants in the United States National Museum in 1881, put together another collection of plants for comparison with his fossil specimens. This collection grew to the point where Ward was also named honorary curator of the Department of Recent Plants in 1885. In 1889, Vasey was given charge of the collection and appointed honorary curator of the Department of Botany. He retained this title until his death in 1893.
In 1894, arrangements were made by Frederick Vernon Coville, Vasey's successor, to have the collections housed at the Department of Agriculture moved to the museum. There they were merged with Ward's collection, although transfer of appropriations and personnel did not occur until 1896. Since that time, administration of the United States National Herbarium has come from the United States National Museum's Division of Plants and its successors.
Most of these records are the official files of George Vasey as botanist of the United States Department of Agriculture and curator of the United States National Herbarium from 1872 to 1893. They include incoming and occasional outgoing correspondence, mostly to Vasey, but sometimes to Jeremiah M. Rusk, secretary of Agriculture; Edwin Willits, assistant secretary of Agriculture; Frederick Watts and George B. Loring, commissioners of the Department of Agriculture; and C. A. Cammon, assistant commissioner of the Department. All correspondence was referred to Vasey for response; and he either answered it himself or referred it to one of the assistant botanists, Joseph Nelson Rose, Frederick Vernon Coville, or Lyster Hoxie Dewey. Correspondents include leading United States and foreign botanists; colleagues; directors and curators of United States and foreign herbaria; custodians of botanical nurseries; naturalists; plant collectors; dealers in patent medicines; feed companies; seed growers; ranchers; farmers; geological surveys of the United States and Canada; Department of Agriculture staff members and administrative officers; Smithsonian Institution administrators; newspaper publishers and editors; scientific societies; the United States Experimental Grass and Forage Station at Garden City, Kansas; and in particular, botanists from the agricultural and mining colleges and their agricultural experiment stations.
Records concern requests for botanical specimens and seeds; determination, identification, and description of plants, grasses, and seeds; requests for plants to protect embankments; purchase of specimens; transfer of specimens to the National Herbarium; exchange of plant collections; lists of specimens in herbaria; information on plant collection methods; collecting in the field; botanical experiments; publishing taxonomies and other articles on botanical collections; requests for Department of Agriculture publications on American grasses; requests for Smithsonian publications; requests by Vasey for botanical publications; Smithsonian requests for material regarding the National Herbarium for its annual report; requests for jobs with the Department of Agriculture; staff salary increases and transfers of staff members; activities of colleagues and their collections; personal matters; and drafts of manuscripts.
Also included are outgoing letterpress correspondence from Vasey, administrative officers of the Department of Agriculture, and assistant botanists regarding the above subjects.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Vasey, George
- Rusk, Jeremiah McLain, 1830-1893
- Willits, Mr. (Edwin), 1830-1896
- Watts, Frederick
- Loring, George Bailey, 1817-1891
- Cammon, C. A.
- Rose, J. N. (Joseph Nelson), 1862-1928
- Coville, Frederick V. (Frederick Vernon), 1867-1937
- Dewey, Lyster H. (Lyster Hoxie), 1865-1944
- Torrey, John, 1796-1873
- Henry, Joseph, 1797-1878
- Parry, Charles Christopher, 1823-1890
- Ward, Lester Frank, 1841-1913
- Columbia College (New York, N.Y.)
- United States. Department of Agriculture
- United States National Herbarium
- United States Experimental Grass and Forage Station (Garden City, Kansas)
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 220, United States National Museum. Division of Plants, Correspondence