Iowa Article: “Botany of the 1841 Fremont-Geyer Expedition to the Des Moines River"

Thomas G. Lammers. “Botany of the 1841 Fremont-Geyer Expedition to the Des Moines River.” Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 100, no. 4 (2015): 407-22. (Accessed via JStor) https://www.jstor.org/stable/43916833?seq=1


Lammers’s article focused on the botany of the John C. Fremont’s expedition up and down the lower-Des Moines River in 1841. Along for the ride, fortunately for botanists and historians alike, was Karl Geyer. The two had met working on topographical surveys with Nicollet, and had previously dipped into Iowa to study in the Spirit Lake area during the late-1830s. The expedition of 1841 represents the first scientific recordings of Iowa’s flora in the historical record.

Lammers does an excellent job of balancing contextual background information with the specific contributions of the expedition in the realm of botany. The thoroughly researched and well-articulated article follows Fremont through the Nicollet expeditions, establishes other expeditions and observations of early Iowa, and places geographic locations in modern context. The botanical information derived from the primary record provides meaningful insights into what was observed where at this early date in America’s assessment of Iowa.


Although flora serves as the primary focus of the article, fauna make a brief appearance in an anecdote shared from Fremont’s journal: “While at the Raccoon Fork, Geyer had a close brush with a venomous serpent, presumably Crotalus horridus Linnaeus (Viperidae). Fremont related that the botanist ‘stooped down and grasped the clustered head of a low flowering plant. Under the broad leaves lay coiled a rattlesnake, close to his had. Geyer escaped, but it gave him a spasm that made him dig his heels into the ground and jerk his arms nervously about as he threw off the shock. Always afterward he looked for snakes among his flowers...There were many snakes along the river, and botany became a hazardous pursuit.” (413)


Lammers composition represents a meaningful contribution, not just to botany, but also the historical record of Iowa. He also includes a call of sorts for further historical study of the expedition in order to fully integrate the information left behind by Fremont and Geyer (sounds like someone should start working on a comparative environmental history of Iowa ;).


“John Carles Fremont (1813-1890) looms large in American history: exploring and mapping the Rocky Mountains, the Oregon Country, the Great Basin, and the Sierra Nevada; helping wrest California from Mexico and shepherding it to statehood; convicted of charges of mutiny, disobedience of a superior officer, and military misconduct; standing as the Republican Party’s first candidate for President; emancipating Missouri’s slaves while serving as commanding general of the Army’s Department of the West.” (407)


“Among botanists, he is knowns as the eponym or author of numerous names bestowed on plants discovered during his explorations…” (407)


“However, the summer before this supposedly first expedition, he led an expedition to the lower Des Moines River in the territory of Iowa and state of Missouri. This earlier expedition generated but a single brief report buried among Congressional debate of the Iowa-Missouri border dispute, and Fremont’s biographers seem to mention it only because of the role it played in his courtship and marriage.” (407)


“Iowa’s historians likewise have accorded it scant attention compared to similar military reconnaissances of the state (Lea, 1836, 1890; Allen, 1846; van der Zee, 1913; Pelzer, 1917; Hurt, 1998).”


“In all his expeditions, Fremont paid special attention to the plant life of the areas surveyed, and this was just as true for the Des Moines River expedition. As a result, his published report was the first to describe the forla of Iowa in any sort of scientific fashion. However, like Rauch’s (1851) first checklist of the state flora, Fremont’s report has not been mentioned in the Iowa floristic literature.” (407)


“Fremont spent 1838 and 1839 field seasons assisting Nicollet in what is today Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the eastern Dakotas.” (408)


“Nicollet was so impressed by the young German that when he was assigned to map the upper Mississippi watershed, he offered to pay Geyer out of his own pocket to document the flora of the region. Geyer declined the offer in 1836-1837, but did take part in the 1838-1839 expeditions. That first autumn, during a visit to Spirit Lake in what is now Dickinson Co., Iowa, Geyer collected some of the earliest herbarium specimens known from the state.” (408)


Nicollet and Fremont returned to Washington in December 1839 to begin work on the map and the accompanying report at the Bureau of the Corps of Topographical Engineers.” (408)


“Among the many men of influence whom Fremont met in this way was Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Like Poinsett before him, the senator would become a major figure in the development of the young topographer’s career. And when Fremont later met the senator’s 15-year-old daughter, Jesie Ann Benton, it was love at first sight. Her parents, while holding the young lieutenant in high personal regard, were opposed to his suit, in part because of Jessie’s youth and in part because of the vagaries of a military career; they insisted upon a one-year moratorium of the courtship.” (408)


“On June 4 1841, Fremont received orders from his superior at the Bureau, Col. John James Albert to ‘repair without delay to the mouth of the Racoon [sic] fork of the Des Moines, in order to determine that position, and the Topography of the adjacent country,’ and to make a survey of the Des Moines from there to its mouth. To Fremont, this assignment represented advancement, as it was his first opportunity to direct a survey himself instead of merely assisting another topographer.” (408-409)


“Fremont himself believed this to be the case, writing, ‘Whether or not this detachment of myself from Washington originated with Mr. Nicollet I do not know, but I was loath to go...the survey was a health-giving excursion, but it did not cure the special complaint [i.e., his fondness for Miss Benton] for which I had been sent there.’” (409)


“However, nothing in Fremont’s orders or in his report dated 19 April 1842 speaks to the border dispute. His comments on rapids on the Des Moines River appear only in an addendum written on 10 December 1842, a year and half after the survey…” (409)


“Lea’s map and all accompanying notes and sketches were made available to Nicollet; Lea even met Nicollet in Washington in 1841 while serving as Chief Clerk of the War Department. Clearly Jackson and Spence erred when they stated that there ‘was no continuous and extensive survey of the entire river below the forks’ prior to Fremont’s 1841 survey.” (409)


“...the area of the Raccoon Forks already had been surveyed. In the summer of 1838, Capt. Nathan Boone and Capt. Augustus Canfield of the Topographical Engineers charted the area carefully while laying out the course of a military road between Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River and Fort Snelling at the mouth of the Minnesota River.” (410)


“Finally, another member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, Capt. Walter Burling Guion (1808-1845), had just visited the same stretch of the Des Moines. His orders were issued by Col. Albert on 1 December 1840, six months before Fremont’s orders, and the work was performed ‘so soon as favorable weather in the spring [of 1841] permitted.” (410)


“Fremont arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, no later than Monday, 21 June 1841…[details of lodging and supply, etc.].” (410)


“Fremont also sought out another familiar face from the Nicollet expeditions: Karl Geyer. Though Geyer’s name appears nowhere in Fremont’s (1842) report, he later stated that during the Des Moines River expedition, ‘Mr. Geyer did all that the season and time allowed for botany.’ Geyer was hired at the rate of $1.50 per diem, not as a botanist but as a boat hand (engage), a subterfuge I suspect was necessitated by the War Department’s lack of interest in botanical studies.” (410)


“To reach the Des Moines River from St. Louis, Fremont’s party took passage on the Monsoon, a first-class packet boat that operated for many years on the Western waters. For the 1841 season, she steamed upriver from St. Louis to Keokuk in Iowa Territory every Monday and Friday at 4:00 p.m., returning to St. Louis the following day at 8 p.m.” (410)


“Fremont, Geyer, and Lambert steamed away from St. Louis at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, 24 June. The young lieutenant took one of the gentleman’s cabins that surrounded the dining room at the center of the middle deck at a cost of $5, while his engages had to make do with deck passage at $2 each.” (411)


“In 1841, the confluence of the Des Moines River and the Mississippi lay just a few hundred yards above the settlement, although today the river’s mouth has meandered more than two miles farther north.” (411)


“Departing Churchville (Missouri, five miles south of Keokuk), the group followed a northwesterly course between the Des Moines and Fox rivers.” (411)


“At first, their route along this ridge ran through oaks. But after two miles, the trees gave way to prairie, through which they rode for all the next day (Monday, 28 June). At some point along this northwesterly trek, they left Missouri, and entered the territory of Iowa in Van Buren County.” (411)


“These first two days, the party covered more than 40 miles.” (411)


“On Tuesday, 29 June, the party departed this farmhouse and headed north. Crossing Chequest Creek, they continued on through broken wooded hills until they reached the Des Moines River at the village of Portland, known today as Leando. There they forded the river and continued upstream on the left bank. They passed through Iowaville, a then-important village of which no vestige remains, and crossed the line established by the treaty of 21 October 1837. Beyond this line, the territory of Iowa was closed to settlement; the only legal residents were government-licensed traders and the indigenous Sauk and Meskwaki.” (411)


“Fremont and company continued up the left bank of the river, through the extreme northeastern corner of what would become Davis CO., entering the future Wapello Co. at is southeastern corner. That evening, having covered another 28 miles, they reached their initial destination: the trading post owned by Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company.” (411)


“This establishment comprised eight buildings on the left bank of the Des Moines River, 87 miles above its mouth, at what is today the city of Ottumwa. On the opposite bank were the villages of the Sauk chief Keokuk, and the Meskwaki chiefs Wapello and Appanoose. Three miles to the east, the War Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs maintained an agency. At the time of Fremont’s survey, Lt. John Beach had recently succeeded his father-in-law, General Joseph Montfort Street, as agent in charge.” (411)


“In anticipation of the westward relocation of the Sauk and Meskwaki, Phelps moved the company’s post farther upriver the following year. With permission from John Sanford of Chouteau & Co., the abandoned buildings were occupied from 12 October 1842 to 17 May 1843 by Company I, First Regiment of Dragoons, under the command of Capt. James Allen. This temporary Army post was unofficially dubbed Fort Sanford, and its site is known to this day as Garrison Rock.” (412)


“When the survey party resumed their upriver journey on Thursday morning, 1 July, they were provided by Pehlps with a guide and other necessities. By that evening, the group had covered about 20 miles, reaching a second trading post at or near what is today the city of Eddyville.” (412)


“The first of these (trading) posts (in Wapello) was owned by brother William G. Ewing and George Washington Ewing of Indiana, and sat three miles downstream from Phelps’s post, at the mouth of Sugar Creek.” (421)


“The second post was situated approximately 20 miles upstream from Phelps, at the mouth of Muchankinock Creek adjacent to the village of Sauk chief Wishecomaque, and was owned by Jabish P. Eddy, the eponym of Eddyville.” (412)


“Saturday, 3 July, the survey of the river valley commenced in earnest. Fremont forded the river and ascended the right bank, presumably on horseback. Fiver were said to be in the canoe, transporting the provisions and instruments.” (412)


“The canoe’s progress against the current was so slow that Fremont was able to join them at night, after examining the neighboring country during the day. Unfortunately, he provided little information on their itinerary during this period, beyond their departure from the upper Chouteau post on Saturday, 3 July, and their arrival at the Raccoon Fork on Friday, 9 July. Our only daily details in this regard are derived from Geyer’s herbarium specimens.” (413)


“On Sunday, 4 July, specimen labels place them ‘10 miles above the upper Saki [Sauk] village.’ [I assume this refers to the village of the Sauk-Hocak prophet Wabokieshier, which lay 1 ¼ miles upstream from the upper Chouteau post and about six miles below the mouth of Cedar Creek. This would place them in what is today Mahaska County, about six miles southwest of the city of Oskaloosa].” (413)


“Our next fix on their position is Wednesday, 7 July, when there were at the mouth of English Creek in what is today Marion County, just north of the village of Harvey. This is only 17 miles upstream from their position on 4 July.” (413)


“In contrast to this testudian pace, only two days were required to cover the 66 miles separating English Creek and their destination. Once they reached the mouth of the Raccoon River in what is today the city of Des Moines in Polk CO., Fremont complied with his orders by determining that point’s latitude and longitude via astronomical observation.” (413)


“While at the Raccoon Fork, Geyer had a close brush with a venomous serpent, presumably Crotalus horridus Linnaeus (Viperidae). Fremont related that the botanist ‘stooped down and grasped the clustered head of a low flowering plant. Under the broad leaves lay coiled a rattlesnake, close to his had. Geyer escaped, but ti gave him a spasm that made him dig his heels into the ground and jerk his arms nervously about as he threw off the shock. Always afterward he looked for snakes among his flowers...There were many snakes along the river, and botany became a hazardous pursuit.” (413)


“Once the position of the confluence had been determined, Fremont proceeded to make a survey of the river from there to its mouth. He meticulously recorded distances between various landmarks, which suggests to me that the entirety of this survey was made via canoe. However, he did not record the date of departure from the Raccoon Fork, nor any other dates in their descent.” (413)


“The sole surviving herbarium specimen from the period was collected on Saturday, 17 July, at the Red Rocks in what is today Marion Co.” (413)


“Fremont’s final report to Col. Abert, prepared in Jessie’s handwriting, was dated 19 April 1842. He then was absent from Washington on his first expedition to the Rocky Mountains…” (414)


“In closing his report to Col. Abert, Fremont wrote that the ‘botany and geology of the region visited occupied a considerable share of my attention.” (414)


“The plant communities Fremont described constituted both prairie and forest, with upland and bottomland representations of each. Earlier works of Iowa (Plumbe 1839, Galland 1840) had contained descriptions of this sort, but Fremont’s report differed in the use of binomials instead of vernacular names. For example, compare Galland’s simple reference to Iowa possessing ‘all the varieties of oak’ with Fremont’s careful notes on the ecological and geographical distribution of the various species of Quercus L. It is this commitment to the formalities of botany and the participation of a professional botanist that make Fremont’s report the first scientific publication devoted to the Iowa flora.” (414)


“Unfortunately, many of the binomials were garbled badly in print.” (414)


“Further upriver at Phelps’s post (Eddyville), the bluffs along the river were dominated by white oak, mixed with bur oak, black oak, and shagbark hickory. These are the typical species in most of Iowa’s forest on dry to mesic uplands.” (414)


“Between the Cedar Creek prairie and the Raccoon Fork, ‘the whole region [was] densely and luxuriantly timbered...covered with heavy and dense bodies of timber, with a luxuriant soil and almost impenetrable undergrowth...The heaviest bodies lie on the Three Rivers [in what is today northeastern Warren Co.], where it extends out to the top of the main ridge, about thirty miles. On the northern side of the Des Moines, the ridge appeared to be continuously wooded.’ Both bluffs and level uplands in this region were dominated by sugar maple, black walnut, butternut, and hackberry, indicating an even more mesic setting.” (414-415)


“Around Phelps’s trading post (Eddyville), they (floodplains) comprised basswood, American elm, slippery elm, river birch, pecan, hop-hornbeam, Kentucky coffee-tree, and hackberry. In areas increasingly prone to inundation, silver maple, cottonwood, and groves of sandbar willow dominated.” (415)


“Along the lower course of the river, the floodplains and terraces often were not forested. The floodplain of the Mississippi between the Des Moines and Fox rivers in Clark Co. Missouri, was ‘a luxuriant prairie bottom...covered with a profusion of flowers among which the characteristic plant was Psoralea onobrychis’.” (415)


“On the left bank of the Des Moines River in Van Buren Co., Iowa, a few miles above Leando where the folldplain averages one-quarter to one-half mile in width, Fremont noted ‘quantitites of Liatris mingled with Rudbeckia digitata’; such species are likewise characteristic of bottomland prairie.” (415)


“The most expansive prairie seen by Fremont lay in what is today Mahaska, Marion, and Monroe counties, Iowa. This prairie began at the mouth of Cedar Creek, a tributary that enters the Des Moines from the west in southwestern Mahaska Co. It covered all the uplands from there south and west to the ridge marking the watershed of the Chariton River, a tributary of the Missouri River. It was described as having ‘a rich soil, covered with the usual innumerable flowers and copses of hazel and wild plum.’” (415)


“Seven specimens from the 1841 Fremont-Geyer expedition appear on that institution’s Tropicos database. Curiously, none of them represent species mentioned in print; the two sets of names are mutually exclusive.” (415)


“The 1841 Fremont-Geyer expedition to the Des Moines River left to posterity information on 37 species of flowering plants.” (418)




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