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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

NUTTALL, THOMAS (1786–1859).

English botanist Thomas Nuttall explored the Oklahoma wilderness during spring and summer 1819. Nuttall, born in Yorkshire, England, on January 5, 1786, traveled to America in 1808 to study botany. He became the protégé of the Philadelphia botanist Benjamin Smith Barton, who sponsored Nuttall on his first journey west in 1810. Nuttall explored Pennsylvania and the Michigan Territory, descended the Mississippi River to St. Louis, and ascended the Missouri in the company of fur traders.

In autumn 1818 Nuttall set out from Philadelphia intent on exploring the southern plains to the Rockies. After descending the Ohio and the Mississippi and ascending the Arkansas River, he reached Fort Smith in April 1819. Nuttall joined a military expedition to the Red River in the months of May and June, during which he took the opportunity to collect floral specimens and to make extensive journal records of what he saw and experienced. He became separated from the soldiers at the Red River and was forced to return to Fort Smith in the company of adventurers on their way to the fort. He set out from Fort Smith by pirogue up the Arkansas in July 1819. Reaching the Three Forks, the present site of Fort Gibson, he explored the Verdigris River and made extensive observations of the local Osage tribe.

Nuttall set out from Three Forks across the Oklahoma prairie on August 11, 1819, accompanied and guided by a trapper known only as Mr. Lee. Lee had trapped in the environs of the Oklahoma wilderness for about ten years. He had fought and otherwise interacted with the Cherokee and Osage tribes, and he knew the Canadian, Cimarron, and Arkansas rivers. He told Nuttall that he had ascended them to near their western sources. The two men traveled by horseback. Soon after their departure Nuttall drank some water from a spring and became terribly ill. The sickness exacerbated his ongoing struggle with malaria. As the trapper and the scientist crossed central Oklahoma, Nuttall became delirious and very weak. Soon the two men came to the Cimarron River, which they descended to the Arkansas. Nuttall returned to Three Forks in mid-September, having barely survived the Oklahoma wilderness.

Two years later Nuttall published A Journal of Travels into the Arkansa[s] Territory During the Year 1819, which is still an excellent source for information concerning the flora, fauna, and inhabitants of the future Oklahoma region in 1819, when it was part of the Arkansas Territory. Thomas Nuttall died in England on September 10, 1859.

Russell M. Lawson


Jeannette E. Graustein, Thomas Nuttall, Naturalist: Explorations in America, 1808–1841 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967).

Russell M. Lawson, The Land Between the Rivers: Thomas Nuttall's Ascent of the Arkansas, 1819 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).

Thomas Nuttall, A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory During the Year 1819, ed. Savoie Lottinville (Reprint ed.; Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Russell M. Lawson, “Nuttall, Thomas,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=NU003.

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