Unearthing the epic true story of a missing Scottish explorer

First published in The Scotsman, 25 April 2019

Author Gabriel Hemery believes that long-forgotten Scottish explorer and plant hunter John Jeffrey deserves to be remembered for his extraordinary achievements

Foliage and cones of Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi), above and in a watercolour by Nicola Macartney below left, and Jeffrey’s shooting star (Dodecatheon jeffreyi), above right, were both discovered by John Jeffrey in California in 1852. Jeffrey and Professor John Balfour of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh corresponded regularly with celebrated naturalists Charles Darwin and Sir William Hooker, r ight

In 1854, after three and a half years travelling 10,000 miles across North America in search of valuable trees and other plants, explorer John Jeffrey disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

Despite collecting hundreds of plant specimens – some of them new to Britain – he was publicly dismissed by his employers via a notice in a newspaper.

The extraordinary true story of John Jeffrey first came to my attention while I was writing my first book The New Sylva (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).

The mystery surrounding him stirred my creative interest: was he lost to love, violence, or the gold rush?

My latest book Green Gold is a biographical novel which interweaves meticulous research about John Jeffrey, based on his letters and other archival materials, with the fictional narrative of his lost journals. The publication of Green Gold, will coincide with a two-month exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Humble beginnings John Jeffrey was 23 years old when he was plucked from his simple life as a gardener at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and offered a unique opportunity to travel to North America. Before 1850, he had never travelled outside Scotland.

His employers had been moderately successful in attracting investors during 1849 and 1850, under the guise of the newly-formed “Oregon Botanical Association”, raising funds to support a three-year expedition. A notice appeared in The Scotsman on 9 February 1850, calling for new subscribers to the “Botanical Expedition to Oregon”. More than 100 investors were finally gathered, among them several plant nurseries, and many prominent individuals and wealthy landowners, among them Prince Albert, Lord Glenalmond ( judge and politician), Sir John Macpherson-grant (Ballindalloch Castle), Robert Mitford (admiral), Sir David Dundas (Solicitor General), and the Duke of Buccleuch. The Regius Keeper of RBGE, Professor John Balfour, oversaw the expedition, and communicated regularly with celebrated naturalists Charles Darwin and Sir William Hooker.

There were high hopes that this young man would follow in the footsteps of the illustrious plant hunter David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who discovered the Douglas-fir. The fruits of his labours would be paid to the investors as dividends in the form of seeds or plants. Jeffrey was offered passage to North America on a ship of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and after landing he was to join with one of the regular “Express” groups which travelled by boat and foot into the interior.

High promise

The odds were stacked against John Jeffrey from the start. The distances to be travelled across British Columbia and the Rocky Mountains were extraordinary, while the territory itself was challenging due to the extreme cold, high altitude, and unrest among Native American tribes.

And, all this was to be overcome before Jeffrey even reached “Oregon Country”, where he was to start his plant collecting in earnest. Much of the territory he explored had been covered already by other botanists, like David Douglas and William Lobb, making his job even less likely to be judged a success.

Fate held another card

Jeffrey arrived in North America just as the gold rush was spreading outwards from California. As he travelled southwards from Oregon, through Washington and California, the 49ers were moving north in search of new gold fields. It was a restless and violent time, and there would have been many challenges and temptations for the young explorer.

Questions raised

John Jeffrey may not have sent many letters home to Edinburgh, yet together with the labels attached to plant specimens and seeds, there is a good record of his route across British Columbia, Oregon, Washington, and California. I have plotted his route in detail, and it extends to at least 10,000 miles. I say at least, because that was the distance simply to travel from point to point, even before his wanderings in search of plants along valleys and over hills.

The minute book for the Oregon Botanical Association, together with letters of correspondence between subscribers and his employers, reveals some fractious discussions, including discussions concerning his low wage (£60 the first year). Among the archives, is an original contract which sets out Jeffrey’s responsibilities, and chief among these he was charged with keeping a daily journal “in which you will note down your proceedings… along with anything you may observe interesting or curious”.

These were to be recorded in duplicate no less, and sent separately back to Edinburgh. Yet despite repeated requests, Jeffrey’s journals were never received by RBGE. His supporters became evermore frustrated by his increasingly scant communications, his missing journals, and the poor quality and quantity of some of his botanical collections. Things came to a head on 22 May 1854 when Jeffrey was summarily dismissed via a notice in the Alta California.

Last seen when calling into the offices of the HBC in San Francisco, it was thought that Jeffrey was heading next to New Mexico. Shortly afterwards, rumours began to circulate that he had been murdered by bandits. Neither Jeffrey’s body or his journals were ever discovered, and his disappearance has forever remained a mystery.

Legacy

John Jeffrey collected at least 400 plant specimens and the seeds of 199 species, including 35 conifer tree species.

Two plants bear his name today: Jeffrey’s shooting star (Dodecatheon jeffreyi) and Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi). He is also remembered by Mount Jeffrey on Vancouver Island, and by Jeffrey Peak in British Columbia. Despite some highly critical communications about Jeffrey at the time, he was later remembered by some supporters for his great accomplishments in the face of very significant challenges.

Green Gold

The title for my fictional novel Green Gold reflects the high value of novel plants to Victorian landowners and gardeners, and the significance of the clash of Jeffrey’s expedition with the gold rush. My novel interweaves facts, taken from the minutes, letters and plant labels, with fiction in the form of his missing journals which I really enjoyed imagining.

I am looking forward to celebrating John Jeffrey’s achievements with RBGE in the exhibition which opens this month. I have been collaborating with Scottish botanical artist Nicola Macartney, whose paintings will be displayed alongside some of the archival materials from RBGE. It seems fitting that the achievements of the young Scottish explorer will be remembered at the garden where he used to work, and who supported his ill-fated expedition.

So was John Jeffrey lost to love, violence, or the gold rush? You will have to read my book!

● The exhibition Green Gold: Plants from the travels of John Jeffrey is open at the John Hope Gateway, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh from Saturday 27 April until the end of June. Open daily from 10am. Free entry.

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