After English naturalist Thomas Nuttall (1786 – 1859) finished accumulating and identifying 834 species of flora, he published his collection in The Genera of North American Plants and a Catalogue of the Species, to the Year 1817. The two-volume book was the first reference for plants of North America written in English rather than Latin. 

Upon the completion of Genera, Nuttall was ready to resume plant gathering and collecting. In 1819, Nuttall tried to be a part of an expedition that American Stephen H. Long (1784-1864) was leading to build a fort at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. Nuttall was excluded, in all likelihood, due to lingering tension between England and the United States. Nuttall then decided to set out on his own expedition. He collected and documented a wide variety of new plants, suffered from sickness and disease, and survived numerous confrontations with Indigenous people over the course of 5,000 miles of which he gave full account in A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the year 1819

In 1822, Harvard University asked Nuttall to be a lecturer in natural history and to be the curator of the school’s botanical garden. In 1832 he published the Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada. Among those who relied heavily on Nuttall’s Manual for his work and study was John James Audubon. Nuttall remained at Harvard for eleven years until succumbing again to his desire to be in the field.

Opportunities, like those Long was leading, were growing since 1803 when the United States came into possession from the Louisiana Purchase vast areas of land west of the Mississippi River. The main hinderance to their development was Indigenous people. Whether by bloodshed or legal powers such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the U.S. government forced Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Cherokee, and many others west of the Mississippi to compete with groups already established in western North America. Most of those left standing and still willing and able to fight began working together to ward off the encroaching Anglo-Americans. Up until the late 1800’s, fewer places in the world were as dangerous and unmerciful than anywhere west of the Mississippi. But for people like Thomas Nuttall, the Louisiana Purchase was a chance to go where “no naturalist had ever traversed.”

Nathaniel Wyeth (1802-1856) had gained enough wealth through his ice business in Boston to finance his own exploration of ways to exploit the lands west of the Mississippi River. Among those Wyeth recruits to join him in 1834 is Thomas Nuttall. Also joining the party at Nuttall’s request is John Kirk Townsend (1809-1851), a young ornithologist from Philadelphia. When it came time to publish Birds of America, almost all of the birds that John James Audubon either never saw or did not discover himself are those that Thomas Nuttall and John Kirk Townsend find and collect while a part of Nathaniel Wyeth’s expedition into the hostile lands west of the Mississippi River.

The Red-headed woodpecker as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.
The Red-headed woodpecker as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America.

On April 28, 1834, Wyeth and his party reach Independence, Missouri. Continuing west into the plains along the Missouri River, Nuttall is often in the lead before horses and riders trample upon the plants he is anxious to identify, and depending on the species, add to his collection. The birds are still familiar to Nuttall and Townsend, like the Red-headed woodpecker. Although the further west they travel, the fewer the number, thus gauging better the bird’s range.

To the east in the areas where John James Audubon travels and explores, he describes the Red-headed woodpecker as “extremely common.” So much so that “It is impossible to form any estimate of the number of these birds seen in the United States during the summer months; but this much I may safely assert, that a hundred have been shot upon a single cherry-tree in one day. Pears, peaches, apples, figs, mulberries, and even peas, are thus attacked.” The guns, the removal of dead trees, collisions with automobiles, and other forms of human impact have changed the numbers of Red-headed woodpeckers in the United States to uncommon and diminishing.

Plate 388 of the double elephant folio of Birds of America. The top bird is labeled Nuttall’s starling. The bottom bird is a Bullock’s oriole. The middle three birds are Yellow-headed blackbirds.

Opposed to the Red-headed woodpecker, Nuttall and Townsend observe the Yellow-headed Troopial become increasingly common. In the octavo edition of Birds of America, Audubon names the bird a Saffron Headed Marsh Blackbird. The bird’s current common name is the Yellow-headed blackbird. Nuttall and Townsend observe them searching open areas for insects and larvae and frequenting marsh areas for nesting. Another spot is “on the backs of horses.” Herds of grazing animals like horses must cope with a variety of insects that gather, crawl through their fur coats, and find places to bore into bare skin. The horses welcome the Yellow-headed blackbird to relieve them of such irritation. Before horses and other stock animals were bred to take over North America’s western plains and prairies, the Yellow-headed blackbird had ample opportunity to perform the service for buffalo.

By June 4, the Wyeth party starts following the Platte River just south of Omaha, Nebraska, at “Lorimor’s Fork.” It is at this point that Nuttall and Townsend see their first Louisiana tanager. Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) documented the bird in American Ornithology and named it based on a specimen that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark found “in the remote region of Louisiana” during their explorations of western North America from 1803-1806.

Further along in their expedition and well into the nesting season, Nuttall and Townsend note the Louisiana tanager becomes “very abundant in the forests of the Columbia [River], below Fort Vancouver.” Audubon never sees the Louisiana tanager. The Louisiana tanager is still extremely difficult to find anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. Such scarcity in Louisiana and the rest of the eastern United States prompted the Louisiana tanager to be re-named the Western tanager. 

Tanagers as drawn by John James Audubon for Birds of America. The top two birds are male Western tanagers. In the middle is a male Scarlet tanager in its breeding plumage. Below the male Scarlet tanager is a female Scarlet tanager. Above and to the left of the female Scarlet tanager is most likely a female Western tanager.

Audubon bases his drawing of the Western tanager on specimens collected by Nuttall and Townsend (the males) and James de Berty Trudeau (the female). The two males are in their spring plumage and appear as #1 and #2 in Plate 354 of the double elephant folio of Birds of America. The female Western tanager is in the drawing also but is not identified. There are two more birds in the drawing. They are both Scarlet tanagers: a male in its spring plumage (#3) and a female (#4). The female Western tanager does an encore as #3 in Plate 400 along with a menagerie of western birds (the Arkansaw siskin, Mealy red-poll, Townsend’s finch, and Buff-breasted finch). Audubon later attempts the best he can to sort out the dizzying array of Nuttall’s and Townsend’s western birds in the octavo edition of Birds of America.

Plate 400 of the double elephant folio of Birds of America. The middle bird is a female Western tanager.
Plate 400 of the double elephant folio of Birds of America. The middle bird is a female Western tanager.

The Louisiana Purchase provided Audubon and Birds of America and the U.S. government a staggering addition to its potential for growth and opportunity. Inferior drawings and perplexing identifications in Birds of America and an extreme degree of complexity, conflict, and expense for the U.S. government also suggests Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase was not the bargain of all time but more like France unloading a colonial burden.