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Townsend, John Kirk (1809-1851) ornithologist
Autograph Letter Signed, Fort Vancouver, Columbia River, Oregon Territory, 9mo [September] 26th, 1835, to John C. Allen, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

quarto, three pages of a four page bi-folium, formerly folded, last leaf, page three, has some paper loss at fold joints, affecting several letters of text, remains of sealing wax and postal markings on integral address leaf, else in very good, clean and legible condition

John Kirk Townsend, writes to his friend John C. Allen, a Philadelphia, Quaker druggist, from Fort Vancouver while a member of the Wyeth expedition to Oregon. He describes collection plants with Thomas Nuttall along the trail and the voyage he took to Hawaii in company with Nuttall and plans to send Allen plant specimens:

"Dear John,

Thee will no doubt expect the collection of plants which I promised to make for thee sent by this conveyance with the other matters & I most certainly intended to have done so, but have not for the reasons which I shall presently state. When we started on our little ride I made an attempt to collect plants & had procured a small number, appending to them the many got from Mr. Nuttall so far as the species was known. But as I had some other matters to attend to, & as plant finding was almost the sole business of the old gentleman he advised me to give over & in consideration of my shooting & preparing a bird for him occasionally & now & then rendering him some assistance in the mechanical part of his profession, he promised to give me a collection for them. This collection I intended to get from him here, but when he packed up a few days since I was absent from the fort, off among the mountains 60 or 70 miles - & the old fellow forgot to make the selection. I could not ask him to unpack all his boxes thou knowest, but he says he will give me the collection immediately as we arrive at home & then he will have a better opportunity of arranging them properly.-

I hope thee will not be dissatisfied with this - it is not by any means what I wished but I must per force submit to it. Thee will believe that friend N - will not fly from his promise & perhaps the collection may be in better order that if it had passed through my hands here. This is all I have to console me about the matter, but I repeat it is not as I wished or would have had it. On my route home I will collect plants myself & I shall not allow any one to divert me from it.  I have already written, this siege, 8 letters to different individuals & have so often related little adventures & matters of that kind that they have become somewhat flat & stale, so I can but suggest that those of my friends who wish to know anything about these things can call & my fathers & see the letters there -

I had a most delightful visit to the Sandwich Islands last winter. When we sailed out of the river here every object in nature looked dull & gloomy, the sun was seldom seen, a small drizzling rain was constantly falling & soaking the poor pedestrian to the skin, & every thing was & had been so disagreeable & cheerless that I more than once wished myself almost anywhere else. But as we rounded Cape Disappointment & stood out to sea, the aspect of matters was totally changed - a cool, but reviving & bracing atmosphere, the sun shining gloriously & casting his rays upon the flashing waters, myriads of sea birds following the track of our vessel, now darting into our foaming wake & anon sailing & screaming over our heads, all these things with many more which might be added caused our spirits to rise to an almost extravagant degree. The change was effected in such an incredibly short space of time that it seemed almost magical. In a few days we took the fresh trades & in less than two weeks saw the identical spot where the intrepid Cook died so ingloriously far, far from his friends & from the thousands who were destined to reap so much benefit from his indefatigable enterprize. Passing the old rocky shores of Owhyhee we bore up & passed the other islands of the group & in two days anchored in the port of Oahu. I should attempt in vain to give thee an adequate idea of the beauty, richness & salubrity of this most admirable & delicious climate. Everything about it is purely oriental & realized to the fullest extent all the apparently unfounded notions I had formed about it. As you approach the pretty town of Honoruru, the eye is greeted by thousands of the neatest little conical grass houses that can be conceived - these seem to be thrown or pitched about with out any regard to regularly [sic] except an occasional attempt at grouping which is highly picturesque - the shore in many places is lined with rows of tall cocoa nut trees with their denuded trunks & tufted tops, most of them heavily laden with fruit; here & there a string of the copper colored lads & lasses may be seen roaming carelessly & indolently along the coral beach their gay robes of many colors fluttering in the breeze - while others of both sexes are observed wantoning in the foaming surf, many even venturing to swim out towards our vessel to examine the character of the new comers & in spite of sharks & dog fish keeping around our prow, occasionally pealing out a gay "Aroha", until our anchor has fallen & then mounting our decks to welcome us to their hospitable shores - All these things I have seen just as I relate them & they made an impression upon me that I never shall forget. Our stay at the islands was extended to about three months & I think I can truly say I never enjoyed myself so much within the same space of time, we were treated in the kindest & most hospitable manner by the foreign residents, we received considerable attention & were treated with much kindness by the king & his household, & in short everything was so perfectly agreeable that nothing was left to wish for - How different is our situation here among savage untutored Indians, - but lo! I'm nearly at the end of my sheet & must curb my Pegasus - he's a wild colt sometimes. I wish thee all health & happiness may old friend - Art thou married yet I suspect thou art - may thy wife be all that thou wishest her to be & "prove as a fruitful vine around thy table" - is that the quotation? I fear not. I intend to start next spring about May probably, to return across the land & hope to be at home by Oct. or Nov.

Is thee a member of the Acad? I hope so - I shall send my collection such as it is & would like thee to see it if thee will take the trouble ..."

John Kirk Townsend, ornithologist, physician, was born in Philadelphia, he became a physician and surgeon and at the same time pursued his avocation of naturalist. He was elected a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1833.  He was eager to explore the western country and joined Nathaniel Wyeth's second expedition to Oregon, leaving Independence, Missouri, April 28, 1834, with the annual fur trade caravan and by June arriving at the Green River rendezvous, from there going on to Fort Vancouver, Washington, which they reached on September 16. Townsend had been recommended as zoologist for the trip by Thomas Nuttall, the renowned peripatetic naturalist who had resigned his position at Harvard University to accompany the party as botanist. In Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences both gave Townsend cash advances for the specimens that he would collect and provide to the two societies.

Nuttall and Townsend labored intently along the route to procure natural history specimens, and, although Townsend complained about the fast pace of the trip, the scientists were able to collect many previously undescribed animals and plants. The fall months were spent exploring the lower Columbia, and from January through late March 1835, Nuttall and Townsend visited the Hawaiian Islands before returning to Fort Vancouver in mid-April. Townsend explored the lower Columbia River, visited Walla Walla and the Blue Mountains completing his bird collection. In September 1835 Nuttall sailed on the Hudson's Bay Company ship Ganymede via Hawaii to Philadelphia, taking with him some 300 bird skins and fifty mammal skins prepared by Townsend. Meanwhile, Townsend remained at Fort Vancouver, where he assumed the duties as post surgeon from September to March 1836, at which time he was able to continue his collecting after being relieved of his medical work by another physician.

Nuttall delivered most of Townsend's specimens to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where they aroused intense interest.  News of the specimens reached Audubon. Nuttall gave Audubon some of his own duplicate specimens, Audubon then rushed to Philadelphia, eager to gain access to the specimens for inclusion in his Birds of America. Audubon was permitted to use the Townsend specimens only after he consented that "the specific names agreed upon by Mr. Nuttall and myself were published in Dr. Townsend's name." Ninety-three duplicate skins were purchased by one of Audubon's benefactors and Audubon proceeded to Charleston, South Carolina in the winter of 1836-37 where he drew seventy-six new plates for The Birds of America.

Townsend left Vancouver by way of Hawaii and Cape Horn in November 1836, he arrived home a year later in such financial distress that he was compelled to sell much of his own personal collection, some of which was purchased by Audubon, who also arranged for Townsend's Hawaiian birds to be purchased in England. Two papers describing many of the newly discovered western species were published under Townsend's name in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (7 [1837]: 187-93; 8 [1839]: 148-59), and Townsend described much of his sojourn with the Wyeth expedition in the Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River and a Visit to the Sandwich Islands, Chili &c. (1839). Townsend also attempted his own comprehensive American ornithology, Ornithology of the United States of America (1839), of which only one part appeared, containing twelve pages and four color plate illustrations. The project was canceled, despite favorable notices, because of the publication of the octavo edition of Audubon's Birds of America (1840-1844). Consequently, Townsend's ornithological contributions appeared mainly in Audubon's works, including life history materials in volumes four and five of the Ornithological Biography (1838 and 1839).  Most of Townsend's mammal data from the West were described by Audubon and Bachman in Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-1849), which contained many species named in honor of Townsend.

From 1839 to 1840 Townsend was curator at the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia. By 1842, he had relocated to Washington, D.C., where he was responsible for preparing birds and other specimens at the National Institute for the Promotion of Science. Townsend returned to Philadelphia and the curatorship at the Academy of Sciences from 1845 to 1846. Townsend's health declined after his return from Oregon and he died in 1851, it was suspected that his death resulted from chronic exposure to arsenic, which he had used for many years to preserve bird and mammal specimens.     

American National Biography, volume 21, pp., 787-788

Dictionary of American Biography, volume IX, part two, pp. 617-618

Thrapp, Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, volume three, pp., 1438-1439