Join us all this week as we learn about André Michaux, the French botanist who played a little-known but pivotal role in the history of North American exploration. Leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe!
André Michaux left Philadelphia on July 15, 1793, accompanied by two non-commissioned French officers of artillery. On August 14, he took a keelboat down the Ohio to Limestone (now Mayesville), Kentucky, observing plants and animals along the way. There Michaux he took leave of his companions, got horses for his journey, and headed into the interior of “Kaintuck.”
Michaux started visiting the people Citizen Genet had instructed him to see, for whom he had letters of introduction. On his way to Lexington, he spent time looking at the deposits of fossil shells and bones at Buffalo Lick, an area of bitter saline springs. On September 13, Michaux presented himself to Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby. Michaux did not record Shelby’s reaction in his notes, but later Shelby sent a letter to Jefferson expressing his opposition to the Louisiana Scheme and predicting its collapse.
On September 16, Michaux reached Louisville and finally made contact with George Rogers Clark. Unlike Shelby, he found Clark “very eager for the undertaking.” Michaux waited a month for Clark to frame a reply to Genet, spending his time botanizing around Lexington and Danville. On October 21, 1793, he finally received Clark’s note to Genet, in which he enthusiastically accepted his commission and concluded: “I will surmount every obstacle and pave my way to Glory which is my object.”
But there was one problem – “no bucks, no Buck Rogers.” Though Clark was confident he could recruit as many men as they needed, first he had to get boats and provisions, and he needed cash. “Without it our Scheams may be Ruined, and for so fair a prospect to meet with any difficulty of that nature would be lamentable,” he told Michaux. Michaux got busy soliciting donations from merchants in Lexington and Danville. “They have all promised to advance me so much money as possible,” he wrote Clark, but for immediate funds “I shall be in the necessity to have recours to Philadephia.”
On November 10, Michaux set out once more for the East. He traveled the 130-mile Wilderness Trail to Cumberland Gap and down to the Tennessee settlements on the Holston River, noting plants and ferns along the way. He arrived in Philadelphia in December to find that all hell had broken loose. The city was recovering from a terrible outbreak of yellow fever and thousands had fled, leaving government offices, newspapers, postal services, and businesses almost at a standstill. Michaux also learned that across the sea in his native France, the Reign of Terror was taking its fearful toll, with Robespierre in control, a civil war raging, and the French army embattled on every front.
As for Genet, he’d spent the last four months in New York, desperately trying to commandeer for his Louisiana scheme the ships of the French fleet which had fled to New York harbor in the wake of the terrible insurrection in Santo Domingo. Genet was chagrined and disappointed when the ships returned to France, but this was nothing compared to his shock when he learned that the Washington administration had formally requested his recall. The official document, prepared by none other than Thomas Jefferson, had reached Paris in October. The French Committee on Public Safety agreed without protest, already well-aware of Genet’s indiscreet behavior. They did, however, agree to allow Genet to stay in his post until a replacement arrived.
Ever optimistic, Genet received Michaux and his report about events in Kentucky enthusiastically. He instructed Michaux to report to George Rogers Clark that the plan was on, but would have to be deferred until the spring of 1794 because of the difficulty of obtaining the needed French ships. Michaux wrote Clark about this, telling him excitedly about recent French military successes (“All the Troops under Duck of York taken prisoners … the Queen of France paid for her treasons of her head”). He enclosed 400 dollars for the cause, all he could pry loose from Genet.
With the liberation of Louisiana postponed, Michaux had hopes of resurrecting his plans for his journey to the Pacific. He visited with Jefferson and others in the American Philosophical Society to discuss the planned Western journey. He seems to have been broadening his interests during this time to include birds and animals.
In mid-January 1794, news of Citizen Genet’s official recall reached Philadelphia. By this time, much of Genet’s rude and insolent conduct toward the U.S. government had been made public. Michaux recorded nothing in his journal about this, but he did report a meeting in which he returned all the blank commissions entrusted to him. Genet, still in his post until a replacement arrived, permitted Michaux to return home for a visit to Charleston, promising to send him on another mission to Kentucky in the spring.
With a sigh of relief, Michaux headed toward Charleston and home. He was not on hand for the February 1794 arrival of the new French minister to the U.S., Jean Fauchet. Almost immediately, Fauchet quashed Genet’s Louisiana plans. Responding to protests by the Washington administration and disturbed by wild rumors of large-scale military recruitment by Clark in Kentucky, Fauchet issued a proclamation in March 1794, canceling all commissions conferred by Genet and instructing French citizens in America to abide by American neutrality. The Louisiana scheme was officially dead.
As for Michaux, he was probably glad to lay down his role as secret agent and go back to what he loved best: botany. He set out on one more major American expedition, in the spring of 1795, traveling across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Tennessee. Near Nashville, he stopped at the plantation home of Andrew Jackson, then an obscure lawyer. He visited Kentucky and dined with Governor Shelby, and discussed with him the idea of an overland journey to the Pacific. He traveled through Indiana and Illinois. During the following autumn, he roamed the Mississippi as far north at St. Louis, and as far south as Fort Massac. One night, he camped on the shores of the river where the Belle Riviere falls into the Mississippi. On the opposite shore was the camp of the Spanish Governor of Natchez, Don Manuel Gayoso. Gayoso sent a boat to find out who he was, and told him the news of the peace between France and Spain. Michaux probably didn’t tell Gayoso of his involvement in the late plot to dispossess him and take Louisiana for France.
Weathering harrowing winter storms, Michaux’s last port of call before turning for home was Louisville, where he conferred for the last time with George Rogers Clark, who was still trying to obtain reimbursement from the French government for all his expenses raising and equipping an army on their behalf. Michaux couldn’t help him out there, as he himself hadn’t been paid in years, and had all but exhausted his own estate supporting his country’s enterprise.
It is no doubt with regret that André Michaux turned his back forever on his dream of exploring the Missouri River. He arrived back in Charleston in early summer. In August 1796, he sailed for France. Though many of his specimens were tragically lost in a shipwreck, upon returning home he produced two landmark books on North American plants, the Histoire des chenes de l’Amerique septentrionale (“Oaks of North America,” 1801) and the Flora Boreali-Americana (“Flora of North America,” published posthumously in 1803). Michaux never returned to American shores. He died during an expedition to Madagascar in 1802.
Michaux’s contributions to botany cannot be overestimated. He is credited with the discovery and description of over 300 plant species, and his work and that of his son Francois, also a famous botanist, is still well-known today. He was an outstanding scientist, a loyal Frenchman, and an able diplomat. I wonder how the history of North American exploration might have been different if this brilliant botanist had blazed the trail up the Missouri River, instead of Lewis & Clark?