Sarah Dutton is the Lead Digitizer for the Southern Rockies Digitization Project at The New York Botanical Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium.
The New York Botanical Garden is currently digitizing all of its herbarium specimens from the Southern Rocky Mountains, a major subregion of the Rockies that runs from southern Wyoming through Colorado to northern New Mexico and eastern Utah.
It is 1879, and for months you have been living aboard a creaking wooden steamship trapped in miles of shifting Arctic sea ice. When you venture above deck, the air is icy as you gaze across the polar landscape. Among your companions are several officers, 21 crewmen, six other European scientists of various disciplines, and a few hundred indigenous Chukchi people who live nearby.
Such was the experience of Dr. Frans Reinhold Kjellman, a botanist aboard the SS Vega during the Swedish Vega Expedition. The New York Botanical Garden’s project to digitize the algae collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium has uncovered two algal specimens that Dr. Kjellman collected during this expedition, providing glimpses into a little-known but fascinating story of 19th century science and exploration.
The tale begins with Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, a Finnish-Swedish scientist and explorer, who had led many successful Arctic expeditions by the time he proposed the Vega Expedition. This time, he planned to circumnavigate the Eurasian continent via the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Strait, or “North East Passage,” to prove that this was a viable route between Europe and the Pacific. The scientists on board the Vega were prepared to gather data about the geography, hydrography, meteorology, and natural history of the Arctic, much of which was still unexplored by Europeans at the time. Kjellman, who had accompanied Nordenskiöld on three previous voyages, was an authority on Arctic algae.
The SS Vega departed Sweden on June 22, 1878. On September 3, the ship began to encounter sea ice. The explorers continued, hugging the coast and searching for a clear way through the increasing ice. However, by the end of September, the ice thickening in front them could no longer be broken by the ship’s hull. They had reached Kolyutschin Bay, the last bay before the Bering Strait, but a belt of ice less than 7 miles wide barred their passage. In his book, The Voyage of the Vega round Asia and Europe, Nordenskiöld expresses regret over time that could have been saved along the journey. He believed that had the ship arrived at Kolyutschin Bay just a few hours earlier, they would have been able to continue. To rub salt in the wound, Nordenskiöld later learned that an American whaler had been anchored only a couple of miles away in open water on the same day the Vega was frozen in.
I recently happened across the oldest specimen that I have ever seen in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. It was collected in August 1807 in Bantry Bay, Ireland, by a woman named “Miss Hutchins.” While digitizing lichen, bryophyte, and algal specimens over the last two years, I have become familiar with Miss Hutchins’ name. Her specimens appear to be some of the oldest in these collections, all dating from the very early 1800s. I finally decided to investigate: who was this Miss Hutchins?
While making high-resolution digital images of lichen-covered rocks that are part of the collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, I came across a specimen not long ago with an unusual and rather alarming label. Plainly written as part of the collection data on this otherwise inconspicuous box was the statement that the specimen was “on bone of Eskimo child.” I opened the box to find, indeed, a bone of some kind with bright orange and yellow lichen growing on it.
I happen to have studied anthropology in college. One of the most important things you learn in a modern anthropology class is that many of the interactions between researchers and indigenous peoples during the long history of the discipline were downright exploitative and unethical by today’s standards. For example, archaeologists and anthropologists have had an unfortunate history of taking artifacts and even human remains from groups of people without consent from the members of that community—and sometimes even when they were explicitly asked not to. Today, many indigenous peoples are working to repatriate these artifacts and human remains back to their original communities. This possible human bone in the Steere Herbarium immediately concerned me, and I wondered whether the NYBG should attempt to return it to the people it came from. Dr. Barbara Thiers, the Garden’s Vice President for Science Adminstration, agreed that we should look into it, and we began to investigate the history of the specimen.
Sarah Dutton works in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, where, among other things, she is working on a project to digitize the Steere Herbarium’s collection of bryophytes, the plant group that Elizabeth Knight Britton studied.
Alma Whitaker, the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things, is a 19th century woman who’s ahead of her time. Her wanderings in the forests around her father’s Philadelphia estate lead to a fascination with the mosses she discovers there, and by becoming one of the world’s leading moss experts, she breaks free of the restrictive roles that confined most women of the period.
It’s not as fanciful as it may sound. Gilbert, the author of the bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, has said in interviews that one of her inspirations for Alma was Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (1857-1934), who was a teacher, curator, and leading American expert on bryophytes, the important plant group that includes mosses.
She was also instrumental in the founding of The New York Botanical Garden. After she and her husband, Nathaniel Lord Britton, visited England’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1888, the couple proposed that a similar institution be created in New York. She continued to be heavily involved, raising funds for the Botanical Garden and planning gardens and buildings with her husband, who was the Garden’s first Director in Chief.