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Book Review: André Michaux in North America

You may find yourself reading more books during the cold temperatures of winter. If you love reading real-life adventures, particularly from earlier centuries, then consider adding this enormous book to your list. André Michaux in North America, Journals & Letters, 1785-1797 is an English translation of the botanist's original journals written in French. It was translated, edited, and annotated by Charlie Williams, Eliane M. Norman, and Walter Kingsley Taylor. Their copious efforts resulted in this botanical and historical treasure trove.

You may have seen André Michaux's name before. This eminent Versailles-trained botanist traveled from France to North America in 1785. He intended to find botanical treasures for the King of France, such as plants to benefit medicine and alternative timber sources. However, part of his trip was unknowingly subject to political intrigue. It seems he wanted to simply look for plants and establish gardens, but some people used his bilingual presence to their advantage. Others have covered this bit of historical drama already, so we won't get into that here.

Overall, the journals and letters give intriguing insight into the difficulties of making a cross-country trek in the late 1700's, but André Michaux met the task with tremendous courage. Even genealogists may find this book interesting due to the details of settlements throughout North America. Michaux documented many names encountered along his journey, so it's worth taking a look at the index to see if an ancestor's name is mentioned.

Michaux's voyage through North America included stops along the Atlantic coast, ranging from New York to Florida, then taking more westerly turns all the way to present-day St. Louis, Missouri. Although funding was limited due to unforeseen consequences of the French Revolution, he was able to establish two large botanical gardens: one in New Jersey and another in Charleston, South Carolina. Particularly in the southern-most garden, he was able to introduce settlers to varieties remaining popular today, such as camellias and crepe myrtles.

Michaux's adventures included a rather dangerous voyage through the wilderness of Québec, yet surprisingly, he admitted that he regained his health in the process. The Native American guides led the way by helping him remain safe while securing vital food sources. Naturally, the King of France hoped to learn more about timber sources in New France due to the depleted supplies in Europe. Some of Québec's oak trees appeared in Michaux's 1801 publication, Histoire des chênes de l'Amérique (Story of Oaks in America). His son, named François-André Michaux, was another revered botanist who published North American Sylva in 1819. He planted some of these oaks in France, as his father would have liked. Unfortunately, much of his father's plant materials were lost in a harrowing ship voyage back to France, adding to a long list of perilous experiences in his quest for botanical discoveries.

The effects of André Michaux's botanical findings are numerous, and his memory remains in both France and North America. Here in North America, his name can be found on the first forest conservation land in Pennsylvania (the Michaux State Forest) and the Réserve écologique André-Michaux (André-Michaux Ecological Reserve) in Québec next to the Gatineau River. As for his botanical gardens, the one in New Jersey was sold long-ago. The one in South Carolina was also sold, but the US Air Force allowed the Garden Club of Charleston to dedicate a South Carolina Historical Marker near the site of the former French Botanical Garden. Thank you to the entities and people who have kept such memories alive, and many thanks to the Michaux family for sharing such botanical beauty with the world. We are still enjoying their botanical bounty today!


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