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WebBonus   | Summer 2012

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Discovering Custer's Last Plants from Black Hills Expedition

plant sample
Liatris
Several plant specimens collected during Gen. George Armstrong Custer's 1874 expedition to the Black Hills have been discovered in Purdue's Kriebel Herbarium. At left is the herbarium's specimen of Liatris punctata; the right photo shows how the native plant looked when Custer went through the area. (Left photo by Tom Campbell; right photo © Glen Lee)

In early 2007, a botanist visited Purdue's Kriebel Herbarium to examine our specimens of Liatris. The label on one sheet identified the species as Liatris punctata Hook., collected in 1874 in the Black Hills, W.T. The collector was identified as Custer. Some checking revealed that Gen. George Armstrong Custer led a well-armed force of 1,000 troopers into the Black Hills of what is now western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming in 1874.

On July 25, the expeditionary force entered what Custer named Floral Valley. In a dispatch Custer wrote: "It's equal I have never seen. Ever step of our march that day was amid flowers of the most exquisite colors and perfume. So luxuriant in growth were they that the men plucked them without dismounting from the saddle…It was a strange sight to glance back at the advancing columns of cavalry, and behold the men with beautiful bouquets in their hands, while the head-gear of the horses were decorated with wreaths of flowers fit to crown a queen of May."

Aris Donaldson, a Minnesota newspaperman, served as botanist and collected plants during the trip. Donaldson sent herbaceous specimens to John Coulter, then a professor at Hanover College in southern Indiana, for identification. When Coulter moved to Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., he took his plant collections with him, including these Black Hills specimens. In 1994, Wabash College transferred its herbarium to the herbarium of the New York Botanical Garden.

Only 40 of the 71 specimens collected by the Custer expedition were included in the material from Wabash. (A 1994 article in Brittonia described the Custer collection and an unsuccessful search to locate the remainder of the specimens.)

At the time we discovered the first Custer sample, we had entered about one-fifth of our high plant collection into an electronic database. We quickly found that we had several more specimens from the Black Hills expedition. Using a complete list of species collected by Donaldson, which Coulter published in the first issue of the Botanical Gazette (November, 1875), we found three additional specimens.

The labels on all of these specimens are from the herbarium of Charles Barnes, which may shed some light on how the plants arrived at Purdue. Barnes, a Madison, Ind. native, and John Coulter met as students at Hanover College and became good friends. Barnes was a professor of botany at Purdue from 1882-1887. Perhaps Coulter sent part of the Black Hills collection to Barnes while he was at Purdue.

All but one of our specimens designates Donaldson as the collector. This leads us to ponder if Custer, identified as the collector of Purdue's specimen of Liatris punctata, plucked these plants himself, maybe without dismounting from his saddle.

Reprinted from Department of Botany and Plant Pathology newsletter

Related feature: Purdue, Plants and Pioneers

 

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