The Lackluster Major William Rich

By Nicole Tarnowsky

Aug 5 2019

Major William Rich was selected to be the botanist on the U. S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, led by Captain Charles Wilkes. He was the second choice, after prominent American botanist Asa Gray turned it down. Exploring the globe, this ambitious expedition was to be the United States' first contribution to the Age of Discovery, establishing a young nation as a major player in the world's scientific endeavors.

From a collections standpoint, this expedition was largely a success, returning with plants, birds, mammals, fish, shells, fossils, corals, crustaceans, insects and anthropological collections. These treasures became the original holdings of the Smithsonian Museum. Rich, along with Charles Pickering (the expedition's zoologist) and William Brackenridge (the expedition's horticulturist) all collected plants, returning from the four year voyage with 50,000 specimens, representing 10,000 species (Philbrick, 2004). Rich's colleagues however were not impressed with his work ethic and there were complaints of him not pulling his weight to make these collections (Eyde, 1986).

Returning from the Expedition in 1842, Rich was charged with describing and publishing all of the plant material that had been collected. Wilkes periodically checked in and Rich reported back. In late 1844, on collections from the Philippines and India, Rich claimed "more than one thousand specimens examined and over four hundred species described including several new genera".  By March 1846, "Wilkes knew better. He had seen Rich's work and it was not in any way worthy of the Expedition" (Eyde, 1986).

The Mexican American War had just broken out and in order to get out of completing his botanical work, Rich signed up in November 1846 to be the paymaster for the troops. This left Wilkes scrambling to find another botanist to step in and complete the identifications of all of the specimens. Asa Gray agreed to do it. The problem though, was that any existing herbarium specimens that could be used as a reference collection resided in herbaria in Europe. Wilkes had insisted that this was an American project and it should only be worked on by American scientists. He eventually allowed Gray to "take the plants abroad to be worked on at the big herbaria" (Eyde, 1986). This opportunity expanded Gray's knowledge of plants beyond the America's, "His broadened view of distribution and dispersal readied him for Darwin and made him evolution's most prestigious spokesman on this side of the Atlantic" (Eyde, 1986).

After three years in Mexico and California, Major Rich returned to Washington in 1849 with additional plant specimens, including some collected where gold was discovered, kicking off the California Gold Rush. This didn't seem to change his colleagues' opinion of him though. Gray was credited with describing many new species from the expedition's collections, and Major William Rich has largely been forgotten in our botanical history.


Eyde, R. H. (1986) William Rich of the Great U. S. Exploring Expedition and how his shortcomings helped botany become a calling. Huntia 6(2): 165-196. Retrieved July 25, 2019 from

Philbrick, N. (2004) The Scientific Legacy of the U. S. Exploring Expedition. Retrieved July 25th, 2019 from