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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

JAMES, EDWIN (1797–1861).

A surgeon, a botanist, a geologist, and a linguist, Edwin James was born on August 27, 1797, at Weybridge in Addison County, Vermont, the thirteenth child of Daniel and Mary James. He attended Addison grammar school as a child and graduated from Middlebury College in 1816. James studied medicine with his brother, Dr. John James, and later studied botany and geology with John Torrey and Amos Eaton. In 1827 James married Clarissa Rodgers, and they had one son.

James was appointed surgeon and biologist (upon the death of Dr. William Baldwin) for the Maj. Stephen H. Long Expedition of 1820. This party explored the West for the headwaters of the Platte and Red rivers, made maps of the uncharted Louisiana Territory, and located sites for military posts to protect the American fur trade. Zoologist Thomas Say and naturalist and artist Titian Ramsey Peale were also members of this group. James is said to be the first white man to climb Pikes Peak in Colorado, doing so in 1820, and he was the first botanist to examine the alpine flora of the Rocky Mountains. He is responsible for presenting the idea that the lands west of the Mississippi River were the Great American Desert.

Having journeyed through parts of Nebraska and Colorado, the expedition divided into two groups, and James accompanied Major Long and eight others who entered Oklahoma on August 17, 1820. They traveled through central Oklahoma from the Antelope Hills along the Canadian River to its junction with the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma, arriving at Fort Smith, Arkansas, on September 13. On this expedition James collected and recorded many new species of flora and also recorded the geology along the Arkansas, Red, and Canadian rivers. Most of the plants he collected were described by John Torrey. An Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the years 1819 and '20 was published as a record of this expedition.

From 1823 to 1833 James served as assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. He served as editor of the Albany, New York, Temperance Herald and Journal from 1833 to 1836 and as subagent to the Potawatomi Indians in 1837–38. From his experiences with Indians he became a student of Indian languages and prepared several spelling books and translated the New Testament into the Ojibway language. James was involved with the Underground Railroad from 1838 until his death in Rock Springs, Iowa, on October 28, 1861.

Charles C. Carpenter


Howard Ensign Evans, The Natural History of The Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains 1819–1820 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Edwin James, comp., Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819 and '20, by Order of The Hon. J. C. Calhoun, Sec'y. of War: Under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long, Vols. 14–17, Early Western Travels, ed. Reuben G. Thwaites (Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1905).

Keir B. Sterling et al., eds., Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Charles C. Carpenter, “James, Edwin,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=JA006.

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