Good grief, Charles Geyer

By Amy Weiss

Mar 1 2019

Charles (Karl) A. Geyer was a pioneer botanical collector of the Northwestern United States whose descriptions of the plants and habitats he encountered were often more perceptive than the better known botanists to explore the region, David Douglas and Thomas Nuttall. Born in Germany, Geyer traveled to America to “satisfy his thirst for exploring new countries.” There he put his botany skills to use and collected on the lower Platte in 1835, was a part of the J. M. Nicollet & J. C. Frémont expedition to the upper Mississippi River valley in 1838-39, and joined Frémont again in 1841 to explore the Des Moines River.
While in St. Louis, Geyer gained the patronage of the prominent botanist George Engelmann, also based in St. Louis. Engelmann encouraged Geyer to go on an expedition up the Missouri River, led by William Drummond Stewart, and paid most of the expense of outfitting him for the journey. In return, Geyer was to provide Engelmann with his pressed plant specimens to study and sell. Geyer explored many regions of the west from 1843-44; from Missouri, up the Missouri and Platte Rivers, into Wyoming. From there he traveled to Montana, and continued west through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. In order to not repeat the arduous trip back to Missouri, he caught a boat from Washington and sailed to England.
Time and time again Geyer proved himself to be socially inept. When getting lost in the December snow, he spent the winter at Tshimakain Mission (in Washington) run by the Eells & Walkers. Geyer remained at the mission until the following March, when he was able to return to the field. Geyer had worn out his welcome—Elkanah Walker wrote in his diary “I was glad when Mr. Geyer went away,” and Mary Walker added “good riddance.” By leaving the west coast by boat, he was unable to return his collections to Engelmann in St. Louis, who was angered by Geyer’s decision to instead deliver them to William J. Hooker at Kew. One suspects Geyer’s failure to win a spot in Frémont’s additional expeditions in the west¹, or employment in Europe on his return, was due in part to the ill will he provoked.
Perhaps it was best Engelmann didn’t write Geyer’s obituary², and instead an acquaintance described him as being a “capital swimmer and an excellent pedestrian”—traits that served him well during his adventures on the American frontier. At least fifteen species have been named in his honor. 

See Geyer's 1838 field notebook (from the expedition with Nicollet)  [external link]
See Geyer's sketch of the Tshimakain Mission where he spent a winter  [external link]


Cox, T. R. (2017). Charles A. Geyer (1808-1853). In R. Potter & P. Lesica (eds.). Montana’s pioneer botanists (pp. 17-25). Missoula, MT: Montana Native Plant Society.

Engelmann, George (1846, Jan 15). Letter from George Engelmann to Sir William Jackson Hooker. Directors' Correspondence 63/188. Library and Archives at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available at [paywall]: (Accessed: 26 Feb 2019). 
¹ Exerpt 1: “[Frémont] complained of his sullenness, and the same as Mr. N. [Nicollet] of his laziness, and when he undertook his expedition to the Rocky Mountains 1842 he refused to take G. [Geyer] along.” 
² Exerpt 2: “His faults arise from a weak vain, vacillating character; but he has also many good points and can be kind and obliging.”