Andre Michaux

(This column first appeared in the November 3, 1997 Buffalo News.)

    Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, co-leaders of our first continent-crossing expedition from 1803-1806, are being honored twice this year: by a Ken Burns television documentary and by Stephen Ambrose's biography of Lewis, Undaunted Courage.

    From this wonderful new book I was surprised to learn that an earlier expedition had been planned and even commenced in 1793. Lewis, then only 19, volunteered to lead that trip but his application was rejected by his Virginia neighbor, Thomas Jefferson, in favor of the French botanist, Andre Michaux.

    If Michaux' expedition had been successful, there would never have been the Lewis and Clark Voyage of Discovery. Fortunately for Lewis -- and for our country as well -- that earlier trip was suddenly terminated with Michaux only reaching the Mississippi River.

    Intrigued by this unexpected sidelight, I have reviewed Michaux' life. I hope you will find his story as interesting as I have.

    In 1786, just three years after the American Revolution, Andre Michaux founded a botanical garden in New Jersey. He was 40 years old, already an established French botanist having collected plants in England, Spain and Persia.

    As was so often true of those early botanists, Michaux thrived on adventure. In Persia he was seized by marauding Bedouins who left him dismounted and naked in the desert. He later cured the Persian Shah of an illness that had confounded his court physicians. Among the hundreds of plants he brought back to France was a genus of white bellflowers, promptly named Michauxia as a tribute to him.

    Although Michaux was eager to return to the East, the French government had other plans. In 1785 he was dispatched to North America, where he was to procure "for the royal nurseries, all the young trees, shrubs and seeds he could possibly send."

    Joined by his son Francois, Michaux immediately set out on collecting expeditions through the states of our Atlantic seaboard. A later excursion took him, this time alone, north through New York all the way to Hudson's Bay.

    Apparently only their journeyman gardener, Paul Saulnier, remained at the home nursery where he was responsible for introduction of the chinquapin chestnut and the Lombardy poplar. The Michaux meanwhile established another nursery near Charleston, South Carolina, but the son, partially blinded by a stray gunshot, returned to France.

    In late 1792 Michaux proposed to Thomas Jefferson, then vice president of the American Philosophical Society, a voyage across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. The society eagerly accepted the overture and collected $128.25 in initial pledges -- Jefferson anteing $12.50, the more affluent George Washington $25.

    Michaux started west in July 1793, but by then he had taken on a second, clandestine role: agent against the Spanish for the new French republican government. It was the discovery of this espionage that led to the termination of his expedition by President Washington in the spring of 1794.

    When Michaux left America to return to France in 1796 his luck continued downhill. Shipwrecked on the Holland coast, he was able to save only part of his extensive plant collection. And finally on a voyage to the South Pacific he died of fever in 1802. Before that, however, he published the first "Flora of North America," describing over 1500 plant species.

    The Michaux story remains a footnote but the extensive instructions Jefferson wrote out for his enterprise formed the basis for those later issued to Lewis and Clark. The idea of the great voyage had been established in Jefferson's mind and the rest -- as they say -- is history.