Remembering America’s First Woman Botanist

Jane Colden

Driving along the distinctly suburban stretch of Route 17K in Coldenham, a hamlet in Orange County’s Town of Montgomery, it’s hard to imagine a time when this could have been “the habitation only of wolves and bears and other wild animals.” Yet that’s how Cadwallader Colden described the 3,000 acres of wilderness he acquired around there in the 1720s.

Colden turned some of this acreage into farmland and created ornamental gardens near the (long-demolished) stone mansion built for his family. That left plenty of habitat for trees and wildflowers, which Colden loved to explore. In time, he shared this interest with his daughter, Jane, whose zeal for identifying plants would earn her distinction as America’s first woman botanist.

Jane Colden (March 27, 1724 – March 10, 1766) (Photo: Unknown Author / Public Domain)

Born in 1724, Jane Colden was fortunate to have a father who wanted her to do more than run a household, the common fate of most 18th-century women. That he steered her toward botany was not serendipitous: Despite a demanding “day job” as a high-ranking official in New York’s colonial government, Cadwallader Colden avidly pursued his study of plants. He provided the first scientific documentation of New York’s flora using the new system of classification developed by Sweden’s Carolus Linnaeus.

Colden shared his findings with botanists around the world. When queries from his correspondents became too time-consuming, he recruited Jane. Around 1754 she began documenting plants around the family estate, quickly earning her father’s praise. “[S]he is more curious & accurate than I could have been…her descriptions are more perfect & I believe few or none exceed them,” he admitted.

Jane Colden Manuscript Title Page (Photo: Beatrice Scheer Smith / Public domain)

Soon, renowned botanists were writing her. Among those who admired her work were Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram, the father of American botany.    

Going beyond identification, Jane sought out Native Americans to learn the medicinal and nutritional benefits of plants she “discovered.” She documented her findings in a manuscript containing written descriptions of 341 plants accompanied by 340 hand-drawn illustrations and leaf impressions. (It’s now in the British Museum’s collection.) She also shared her skills, perhaps most importantly with the young Samuel Bard, a future pioneer of American landscape design.

Jane Colden drawing of leaves (Photo: Beatrice Scheer Smith / Public domain)

Throughout, Jane remained self-effacing about her talent. “You complasantly intimate that anything that I shall communicate to you, shall not be conceald,” she wrote a fellow botanist in 1756. “But this I must beg as a favour of you, that you will not make any thing publick from me, till (at least) I have gained more knowledge of Plants.”

Sadly, Jane Colden ended her studies in 1759, when she married. Even sadder, she died in childbirth 7 years later. For much of the next 200 years, her contributions were forgotten by all but hard-core botanists.

Over the last 50 years, the Garden Club of Orange & Dutchess County has worked hard to revive and sustain interest in this Hudson Valley pathbreaker. In 1963, it published a portion of her manuscript in book form. Later, it created a wildlife sanctuary at Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site featuring native wildflowers identified in her manuscript. Most recently, in 2018 the club partnered with Bear Mountain State Park to build another garden filled with plants Jane Colden documented. Located near the park’s zoo, it helps to fulfill the wish of Peter Collinson, an English botanist who corresponded with Jane and later declared: “She deserves to be celebrated.”

Rachel Carson & the Clearwater

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, is considered the bible of the modern environmental movement. Its compelling and science-based account of the horrors inflicted on Earth’s entire ecosystem by the pesticide DDT galvanized people to take a stand against this poison, leading to its prohibition in 1972.  

Carson (1907-1964) remains a heroine of environmentalists around the globe, but did she have a Hudson Valley connection? Yes. You could say she’s responsible for the sloop Clearwater. In a 1998 radio interview, Clearwater godfather and folksinger Pete Seeger, an environmental icon himself, he was asked how he came up with the idea for the boat:

It was Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring. I read it in The New Yorker, in installments. Up to then, I’d thought the main job to do is help the meek inherit the Earth. And I still, that’s a job that’s got to be done. But I realized if we didn’t do something soon, what the meek would inherit would be a pretty poisonous place to live.

And so I made almost a 180-degree turn, started reading books like The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich, or The Poverty of Power by Barry Commoner. I’m a readaholic. And I was reading a book about the sailboats that sailed here, oh, all during the 19th century. Alexander Hamilton wrote one of the Federalist Papers on his way to Poughkeepsie in a sloop, where they were arguing whether or not to sign the Constitution idea and agree to it.

Well, I write a letter to my friend: wouldn’t it be great to build a replica of one of these? Probably cost $100,000. Nobody we know has that money, but if we got 1,000 people together we could all chip in. Maybe we could hire a skilled captain to see it’s run safely and the rest of us could volunteer.

And three years later [1968] the sloop Clearwater was built up in Maine, and I helped sail it down with Don McLean and a batch of other singers. And now it takes school kids out. It’s not a rich man’s cruise boat. Two or three times a day it takes groups of 50 school kids out, teaches them what makes rivers dirty and what’s got to be done to clean them up. Of course, people say what can a sailboat do? It can’t do much except bring people together. But when people come together, that’s when miracles happen, right?

Postscript: In 1970, Seeger and the Clearwater crew sailed to Washington, D.C., to hold a forum on the need for Congress to pass a Clean Water Act. Seeger not only presented the legislators with a petition bearing hundreds of thousands of signatures, but delivered an impromptu concert. Although it took two more years for the act to become law, Seeger’s appearance, courtesy of the boat inspired by Rachel Carson, is considered a “watershed” moment leading to its passage.

First Women’s March

Womens' Suffrage March (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

On December 6, 1912, a group of 200-plus women began marching from Manhattan up the Hudson Valley to the State Capitol, to raise awareness and urge legislators to support female suffrage in New York and the nation. All along their 170-mile route through communities on the east side of the Hudson River, the women stopped to share their platform with thousands of supporters and opponents.

Womens' Suffrage March (photo courtesy Library of Congress)
Womens’ Suffrage March (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

This type of direct political activism was rare for women at the time, and their 13-day hike is considered one of the nation’s first examples of “walking for a cause,” something so commonplace today. Why did they march in December, forcing the women to brave frigid temperatures and snowstorms? They wanted to connect with farmers and their wives when they wouldn’t be working in the fields.

Nationwide press coverage the hike received is credited with reinvigorating a moribund “Votes for Women” movement. It also led to New York being one of the first states to pass female suffrage, in 1917 — so you could say the sore feet were worth it.