Following Early Naturalists of the American West

Yellowstone National Park is famous worldwide for its vast forests, abundance of wildlife – including a wide variety of North American megafauna, and its natural landmarks like Old Faithful Geyser. The Park, which spans over 3,400 square miles, was established by Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, making it the first national park ever established. In addition to over 350 species of animals, over 1,000 plant species call the park home. [1]

The first actual flora of the park was published in 1886 by a man named Frank Tweedy. [2] Tweedy was a topographical engineer born in New York City in 1854. Between 1884-85, Tweedy was in Yellowstone mapping the topography of the park for a project with the U.S. Geological Survey. During his time in Yellowstone, Tweedy also collected plant specimens, ultimately spending two full summers botanizing. This work resulted in 600 species being added to his personal herbarium, which is now housed at Yale, and the production of his self-published Flora of the Yellowstone National Park in 1886.

The Flora was a “remarkably accurate” [2, pg. 31] work and is one of freelance field botanist Hollis Marriott’s favorite publications in BHL.

Hollis has worked as a field botanist for forty years, specializing in conservation and public lands projects, mainly in Wyoming and South Dakota. Having the benefit of being “mostly retired,” she now devotes much of her time to nature writing and photography. Topics include natural history, especially botany and geology, and the history of natural history — specifically exploration of the American West. She blogs at In the Company of Plants and Rocks and writes articles for regional publications.

As a valuable source of early literature on plants and botanists, BHL has become a very important asset for Hollis’ research. While she was initially introduced to BHL through our blog, searches for early literature on plants and botanists of the American West led her to our online portal of over 48 million pages. It has now become her go-to resource for information about early naturalists and their work.

“I was really happy to find BHL!” emphasizes Hollis. “Now when I’m looking for information by and about early naturalists, it’s the first place I go. The best thing about BHL is quick, easy access to so much useful information. Documents that were difficult to access or unavailable just a few years ago are now just a search and a click away. What makes BHL stand out for me is all the early literature, especially first-person accounts of early botanical work. There’s something special about reading descriptions, conclusions, opinions and stories written by the pioneering botanists themselves.”

Much of Hollis’ recent work has benefited from the wealth of information available through BHL. She’s used BHL to access “publications and correspondence by the great naturalist Thomas Nuttall; early studies of narrowleaf, Plains and lanceleaf cottonwoods; and a description of the rare Laramie columbine (Aquilegia laramiensis) by Wyoming’s pioneering botanist, Aven Nelson.”  Related to Nelson, Hollis adds, “I just finished a paper for Yellowstone Science about Aven Nelson’s botanical expedition to Yellowstone National Park in 1899. Almost all information about the substantial botanical work in the Park prior to Nelson’s project came from BHL.”

Currently, Hollis is using sources in BHL to inform research for several blog posts and an article about early botanist Edwin James. Her most recent historical botany post, James and Jamesia—a man and his shrub, is about James and his eponymous genus Jamesia (cliffbush), which he discovered during the Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1820. The list of Sources at the end of the post shows just how valuable BHL is for this kind of research. Hollis is also using BHL to support research on another history of botany project about Frank Tweedy, the author of the notable Yellowstone Flora described earlier.

Hollis’ use of BHL is erratic, depending on the needs of her current project. When accessing content on BHL, she will usually read the titles online, copying selected text using the OCR option. For larger excerpts, she downloads custom PDFs with the OCR option.

Hollis is quick to add that her use of BHL isn’t just limited to work-related needs:

“I also use BHL ‘for fun’ — for example browsing in response to a BHL blog post (I’m a regular reader), or just looking for things of interest or ideas for blog posts.”

As early field notes are so important to Hollis’ work, she’s eager to see more digitized for the BHL collection. It’s a wish that will soon be fulfilled, thanks to our recently-funded “Biodiversity Heritage Library Field Notes Project,” which will support work to digitize archival field notes in participating institution collections.

Historic literature is a vital source of information about the natural world and the efforts of early naturalists to explore, catalog, and describe the great diversity of life on our planet. We’re proud that BHL, by providing free and open access to library and archival collections around the world, can help researchers like Hollis share the incredible stories that these materials hold.

BHL’s existence depends on the support of its patrons. Help us keep this free resource alive with a tax-deductible donation.

[1] “Park Facts“. National Park Service. December 22, 2015. Retrieved 2016-3-3.
[2] “Park Botanist Jennifer Whipple and Yellowstone’s Herbarium.” Yellowstone Science. 12.4 (2004): 25-34. Accessed Online.

Avatar for Grace Costantino
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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.