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Berlandier, Jean Louis, d. 1851. Papers of Jean Louis Berlandier, 1825-1855: A Guide

Archives, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Herbaria
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138
January 1983

(c) 1998 The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Last update 2016 June 7

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: gra00013
Repository: Gray Herbarium Library
Title: Papers of Jean Louis Berlandier, 1825-1855
Quantity: (3 Boxes)

Processed by:

Lynn McWhood
January, 1983

Acquisition Information:

Berlandier's papers were purchased from his widow by Lt. Darius N. Couch in 1853. Couch gave the bulk of the documents to the Smithsonian Institution but wanted to sell Berlandier's herbarium. At some point in 1853, Spencer F. Baird of the Smithsonian apparently contacted Gray about buying the plants, and Gray asked C.W. Short if he would be willing to put up the money for the collection. Short responded on Nov. 10, 1853, that he was "heartily willing" to purchase the collection. Apparently Gray took no action at this point, and in June, 1854, both Baird and Short wrote Gray about getting the purchase taken care of. Baird wrote Gray on June 24, 1854, as follows: "I have written to Mr. Couch to know whether he will take $400.00 for the plants. His estimate was $500.00, but he may be willing to take less. I shall know in a few days, and if his answer is in affirmative, will immediately box up the collection. His stipulation was you will remember that a complete series be reserved for the Smithsonian Institution, or as nearly as possible and that in some suitable way Berlandier be commemorated in any publication which might be made. The Mss and drawings he agreed to allow the use of, but would not part with them permanently." Couch agreed to the $400.00 offer, and Baird sent 75 cubic feet of plants and a package of manuscripts and drawings to Gray on July 6, 1854. Short wrote that he sent a check on July 13, 1854. Gray worked on the plants in the following months and sent sets to the Smithsonian and to Short around April-May, 1855. De Candolle probably did not send Gray the notebook listing Berlandier's specimens until later in 1855, as his letters of April 24, 1855, and August 7, 1855, talk about the late M. Moricand's notebook but indicate that de Candolle hadn't had a chance to copy it yet.


According to A.P. de Candolle,Jean Louis Berlandier was born near Fort-de-l'Ecluse, France, to a poor family. Various estimates have been given for his birth year: John Briquet suggested around 1805, Samuel Geiser suggested before 1805, and C.H. Muller suggested that Geiser's guess was "conservative." At a young age (again according to de Candolle) Berlandier went to Geneva, where he became an apprentice in a drug firm. During his apprenticeship he managed to educate himself so well that he came to de Candolle's tutelage, Berlandier read a paper titled "Du mode de reproduction par fecondation de quelques vegetaux de la famille des Campanulaiees" before the Philosophical Society of Geneva on Jan. 27, 1825, and prepared a "Memoire sur la famille des Grossulariees," which was published in 1826 in the MEMOIRES DE LA SOCIETE DE PHYSIQUE ET D'HISTOIRE NATURELLE DE GENEVE (3: 43-60). An abstract of the Grossulariee work became part of de Candolle's PRODROMUS (3: 447-483, 1828). Berlandier looked so promising that a small group of Geneva botanists (de Candolle,Philippe Dunant, Stefano Moricand and Philippe Mercier) decided to send him to Mexico to collect plants.
Berlandier sailed on Oct. 14, 1826, and arrived at Panuco, Mexico, on December 15, 1826. As de Candolle had arranged an appointment to a commission established to survey the boundary between Mexico and Texas, Berlandier gradually made his way to Mexico City, where he was expecting to join the commission. A shortage of funds by the Mexican government delayed the commission's departure, but it finally left on Nov. 10, 1827, under the direction of General don Jose Manual Rafael Simeon de Mier y Teran. The survey group reached Laredo in February, 1828, and went on to Bexar, which they left on Arpil 13, intending to head for Nacogdoches. As Berlandier and a number of others caught maleria, General Teran decided to go on to Nacogdoches with a small contingent and sent the rest back to Béxar. Berlandier made some excursions from Bexar, including a trip in November-December, 1828, to the headwaters of the Guadeloupe and a trip to New Orleans in March-May, 1829.
In August, 1829, Berlandier's group went to Matamoros, where they stayed for a while and where Berlandier eventually settled. It seems that the survey commission ended its work around this time: Geiser at one point (p. 55) gives the impression that the Commission was dissolved in Nov. 1829 and at another point (p. 69) gives Nov. 15, 1830, as "the approximate date when the Commission was dissolved." Whatever the case, Berlandier seems to have been based in Matamoros from August, 1829, on. JOURNEY TO MEXICO recounts trips from Matamoros to Nuevo Leon in April, 1830 (to get vaccine); from Matamoros to Brazos de Santiago in August, 1830 (to get turtles for Gen. Teran); from Matamoros through the territory of Tamaulipas, Oct. 1830 to Feb. 1831 (to survey roads for Gen. Teran); and from Matamoris, Nov. - Dec. 1831 (to look at species of wood good for dyeing).
According to listings of shipments of plant specimens by Berlandier (as reported in JOURNEY TO MEXICO, 616), Berlandier sent some 52,000 dried plants to de Candolle from April 25, 1827, to July 14, 1831. De Candolle was highly dissatisfied with what he received, and communications between the two men ended. The value of Berlandier's work has been the subject of controversy ever since. Berlandier continued to study Mexican plants on his own. JOURNEY TO MEXICO describes an April - July, 1834, trip in which he retraced earlier explorations made for the survey commission in an effort to make up for plants that were lost then. He accumulated botanical notes and botanical plates, and Muller suggests that he may have seen himself as another Humboldt. He published MEMORIAS DE LA COMISION DE LIMITES ..., a sixteen page pamphlet which describes new plants found during the survey commission's work, in 1832; a short article about the commission's work, 1840; an article titled "Caza del oso y cibolo, en el nor-oeste de Tejas" in 1844; and with Rafael Chowell, a mineralogist on the boundary commission, DIARIO DE VIAGE DE LA COMISION DE LIMITES QUE PUSO EL GOBIERNO DE LA REPUBLICA, BAJO LA DIRECCION DEL EXMO. SR. GENERAL DE DIVISION D. MANUEL DE MIER Y TERAN in 1850. [For details on bibliography see JOURNEY TO MEXICO, xiv.]
Berlandier established himself as a pharmacist and doctor in Matamoros. He was apparently well-respected, and he spoke of himself as an ALCALDE in one of the manuscripts in this collection. A story is told that he was charged with delivering a demand to General Zachary Taylor that the Americans not cross the Colorado at the beginning of the U.S. war with Mexico. Berlandier lived with a Mexican woman, with whom he had several children. He died in the summer of 1851 while trying to cross the San Fernando River.
References: Berlandier, Jean Louis. JOURNEY TO MEXICO DURING THE YEARS 1826 to 1834. Translated by Sheila M. Ohlendorf, Josette M. Bigelow, and Mary M. Standifer. Introduction by C.H. Muller. Texas State Historical Assn., 1980. Briquet, John. BIOGRAPHIES DES BOTANISTES A GENEVE DE 1500 A 1931. BULLETIN DE LA SOCIETE BOTANIQUE SUISSE 50a (1940): 36-39. De Candolle, Augustin-Pyramus. MEMOIRES ET SOUVENIRS. Geneve: Joel Cherbuliez, 1826. p. 336-337. Geiser, Samuel Wood. NATURALISTS OF THE FRONTIER. Southern Methodist University, 1937. pp. 38-72.

Scope and Content:

The Jean Louis Berlandierpapers consist of several journals or autobiographical accounts; a large volume of notes on plants of Mexico, including a number of illustrations; miscellaneous small botanical manuscripts including two that date from Berlandier's time in Geneva; a listing of Berlandier's plants prepared by Moricand and Alphonse de Candolle; and a manuscript about Berlandier's plants by Asa Gray.
JOURNALS: There are three packets of journal materials which deal with the years 1830-1831, with a fair amount of overlapping among them. These do not appear to be original journals, but rather they seem to be various drafts prepared with publication in mind. A fourth packet contains a brief, possibly incomplete, account of an excursion to Fronton de Sa Isabel in 1845 and an account of Berlandier's arrest and forced trip to Mexico City in 1849, while he was serving as ALCALDE of Matamoros. These also appear to have been prepared with publication in mind. It is not clear if these journals are grouped as Berlandier left them, as they were all gone over by Sereno Watson, and possibly organized by him. It is also not clear what portion of Berlandier's journals are his own work (see introduction to JOURNEY TO MEXICO). Inserted in one of the 1830-1831 journals was what appears to be a draft of a letter sent by Berlandier to Charles Mirbel on December 20, 1838. This is of special interest because Alphonse de Candolle, in a footnote to his father's memoirs (p. 337) referred to having discovered that Berlandier had written the Museum at Paris on that date. De Candolle emphasized the long delay between this letter and Berlandier's original work in Mexico and suggested that Berlandier was pretending to be dead out of shame. The draft letter indicates that Berlandier had heard from Mirbel in 1833 and had written to him three times without receiving a response.
BOTANICAL MANUSCRIPTS: The botanical manuscripts can be divided into two broad groups: manuscripts by Berlandier and manuscripts by others about his plants. The botanical manuscripts by Berlandier were bound into four volumes in a somewhat haphazard arrangement, most likely at the Gray Herbarium during Asa Gray's life since the bindings use paper from American periodicals and since the books carry bookplates labeling them as gifts of Asa Gray. One of the four volumes has since been disbound. The major sections of botanical notes are 1) about 750 pages containing descriptions of new plants, arranged alphabetically by families; 2) about 250 pages of brief notes on plants, arranged alphabetically by families, including notes on uses; 3) about 240 pages of descriptions of "Gramineas de los contornos de Mexique." There are also 113 pages of illustrations, largely botanical, drawn by Lino Sánchez y Tapia and Berlandier. The smaller sections include a manuscript of "Memoire sur la famille des Grossulariees" and a manuscript of "Du mode de reproduction par fecondation de quelques vegetaux de la famille des Campanulaiees," both written in Geneva, and several articles pertaining to Mexican plants:"Nombres botanicos correspondientes a las denomiraciones Mexicanas que Abate Clairgeno empone a los vegetales" (referred to as the Cervantes mss), "Des plantes usuelles chez les Indiens du Mexique," and "Boissons spiritueuses retirees du Regne vegetal." The manuscripts about Berlandier's plants consist of a list of his plants prepared by Moricand and Alphonse de Candolle, a manuscript by Asa Gray listing and describing plants in Berlandier's collection, and a list by I.M. Johnston of plants described by Berlandier in MEMORIAS DE LA COMISION DE LIMITES.... There is also a letter from C.W. Short containing excerpts from a lost de Candolle letter. Information pertaining to Berlandier's plants can be found in other items in the archives. Plant List Book 2 contains an identification list of Berlandier's plants, arranged numerically, 1 - 3230 with gaps, pages 4 - 68, entries in Asa Gray's hand. Letters of Spencer F. Baird,C.W. Short, and Alphonse de Candolle in the Historic Letters file also contain information relevant to the Berlandier papers.

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