Two-hundred years ago, during the spring of 1820, 22 men of the Stephen H. Long Expedition headed west from Engineer Cantonment, which is just north of present-day Omaha, Nebraska. They were bound for the high plains and the Front Range of present-day Colorado. Their goals were ambitious and included exploring and documenting some of the vast land acquired via the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The group also included scientists trained in the European tradition, and their goal was to study the natural history of the area. One of these scientists was Edwin James, who doubled as the expedition’s physician and botanist.
From June 27 through July 27, the Long Expedition traveled through present-day Colorado. Entering near Julesburg, the men followed the South Platte River southwest through the plains. Until their first view of the Rocky Mountains and Longs Peak on June 30, there were few notable landmarks other than the occasional bluff, various creeks and islands in the channels of the river.
On July 6, after their 10-day journey through the hot and dry plains of Colorado, the expedition reached the foothills of the southern Rocky Mountains. Here, the group encountered many iconic landmarks including Waterton Canyon, the hogbacks near Roxborough State Park, Elephant Rock, Dawson Butte and a view of Pikes Peak.
A week later, on July 14, 1820, Edwin James and two other men summited Pikes Peak, thus becoming the first Americans of European descent to have done so. This was both literally and metaphorically the high point of the Long Expedition of 1820.
The group continued south, and near present-day Pueblo Reservoir, the party connected to the Arkansas River. After several members of the party took an arduous excursion to the Royal Gorge, the expedition was on its way again. The men followed the Arkansas River into southeastern Colorado, where they descended into the Purgatoire, Chacuaco, and Bachicha Canyons. After a grueling journey through the canyon bottoms the party ascended to the high plains and soon reached the Colorado and New Mexico border.
On September 13 the party arrived at Fort Smith, Arkansas, having completed the expedition. James carried with him around 700 plant specimens, well over 100 of which were previously unknown to science (Goodman and Lawson, 244). Many of these were collected in what would become Colorado.
This tour is one of three and focuses on plant species that were collected (or were likely collected) in the eastern plains of Colorado and that were scientifically recorded on the 1820 expedition. Many of these species are part of the collections at the York Street location of Denver Botanic Gardens.
Those absent from the Gardens’ collections (from the eastern plains portion of the trip) include Quincula lobata (purple ground cherry), Baccharis salicina (Great Plains false willow), Dalea formosa (featherplume), Dalea jamesii (James’ prairie clover), Palafoxia sphacelata (desert palafox), Pomaria jamesii (James holdback), and Paronychia jamesii (James’ nailwort).
Ackerfield, Jennifer. Flora of Colorado. (Fort Worth: BRIT Press, 2017).
Goodman, G. J., & Lawson, C. A. (1995). Retracing Major Stephen H. Long's 1820 expedition: the itinerary and botany. University of Oklahoma Press.