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John Le Conte’s 1811 Botanical Survey of Manhattan Island

John Le Conte’s 1811 Botanical Survey of Manhattan Island

John Eatton Le Conte, Jr. (sometimes John Eatton LeConte or John Eaton Leconte) (February 22, 1784 – November 21, 1860) was an American naturalist. He was born near Shrewsbury, New Jersey, the son of John Eatton Le Conte and Jane Sloane Le Conte. He graduated from Columbia College, where he showed an interest in science and was taught natural history by David Hosack, founder of Elgin Botanical Garden.

John Le Conte’s earliest publication (1811) was a Latin text catalog of plants found on Manhattan Island. Click the image to download a PDF of this 1811 catalog (opens in a new browser).

Le Conte catalogus00leco

Le Conte 1811 Manhattan catalog

In April 1818 Le Conte was appointed captain in the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His early assignments included surveying the vicinity of Norfolk, Virginia, the harbor at Savannah, Georgia and Ossabaw Sound, Georgia. Le Conte was promoted to brevet major in April 1828, and resigned his commission in August 1831.

Early in 1821 John Le Conte approached Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to propose an exploration expedition to the newly acquired territory of Florida. Later in the year he again contacted Secretary Calhoun, noting that he was assigned to survey the harbor at Savannah that winter, and proposing that he undertake an expedition to Florida while in Georgia for the winter. He requested $970 for the expedition, including the cost of hiring a sloop and crew for one month. The War Department provided him with $600. In early 1822 he proceeded to Fernandina, Florida, carrying an order issued by Major General Winfield Scott that the commanding officer at Amelia Island provide eight men and a non-commissioned officer to accompany Le Conte on his expedition. A Lieutenant Edwin R. Alberti also joined Le Conte’s expedition.

The Le Conte party explored up the St. Johns River. The St. Johns River had previously been explored by John and William Bartram in 1765-66 and again by William Bartram in 1773-77, but neither expedition had reached the source of the river. Le Conte also failed to find the headwaters of the river. He wrongly concluded that Lake Okeechobee (which was shown as the source for the St. Johns River on many maps) did not exist, and his description of the river upstream from Lake George is inaccurate.

John Le Conte’s earliest publication (1811) was a Latin text catalog of plants found on Manhattan Island. Click the image to download a PDF of this 1811 catalog (opens in a new browser).

Le Conte catalogus00leco

Le Conte 1811 Manhattan catalog

An early ambition to publish an American flora was partially pre-empted when Stephen Elliott began A Sketch of the Botany of South-Carolina and Georgia.

He then published a number of papers, each on a separate plant genus. In some, he was critical of Elliott’s work although sharing his notes on Utricularia with Elliott. After Elliott’s death, Le Conte published only occasional papers on plants.

Le Conte’s primary interests were zoological, and he co-authored with Jean Baptiste Boisduval a book on insects, Histoire général et iconographie des lepidoptérès et des chenilles de l’Amerique septentrionale (that is, “General history and illustrations of the Lepidoptera and caterpillars of North{ern} America”), which was published at Paris. Many of the illustrations for this work were done by John Abbot.

He also wrote on frogs, toads, small mammals, reptiles, and crustaceans. Le Conte’s color drawings of North American tortoises led to him being called The Audubon of Turtles. He described and named twenty-two species and sub-species of terrapins and tortoises in the southeastern United States.

John Eatton Le Conte was a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and served as vice-president of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York. When he moved to Philadelphia after 1841, he was elected vice-president of the Academy of Natural Sciences.


Additional botanical information for Central Park and Manhattan can be found by following this link.

This Post Has One Comment
  1. This John Eatton LeConte is a distant relative of mine through marriages. The original LeContes ( Gulliame LeConte) were Huguenots from New Rochelle, New York along with my family , the Renouds/Arnauds . Thank you for putting this out there. It is a suburb reference for anyone dedicated to using native material in the garden…Notice the fact that LeConte put Castanea dentata as Fagus dentata. The fact that General Winfield Scott, who my great great grandfather fought under in the Mexican War, funded LeConte’s plant exploration of Florida made this article even more pertinent…Thank you…

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