Birds, Botany, and the American RevolutionBy
Remember the Hessian mercenaries, the bayonet-wielding drunken louts hired by George III to fight his American war?
Sure you do. Every American schoolchild learns about these monsters–and the come-uppence they suffered in Trenton in 1776, when their Christmas debauch came to an abrupt and bloody end in a battle their alcohol-blurred eyes never saw coming. At least that was the story I learned, nearly half a century ago.
For over 200 years now, we’ve painted the German soldiers in America with a mighty broad brush. I’m sure there really were barbarians among them, but there were also, inevitably and chiefly among the officers, educated men who spent their time on this side of the Atlantic studying this new continent and its inhabitants. When they weren’t fighting and drinking and skewering Patriot children, of course.
The German botanists are the best known. The Saxon Baron von Wangenheim, for example, described to science a number of North American trees while he was in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Johann David Schoepff, surgeon to the Ansbacher regiment, traveled through the central and southern states after the war, cataloguing the plants he encountered on his way to Florida and the Bahamas; Schoepff was the very model of an all-around naturalist, and his most important work is his Natural History of the Turtles, in which he describes for the first time the diamondback terrapin.
The contributions of the Germans to American ornithology are much less well known. Sometime before 1786, though, we know that “a certain German soldier serving in North America” sent a large, colorful bunting to Blasius Merrem, the first Professor of Zoology at Marburg.
Who knows how long we would have had to wait for the first description of the Red Fox Sparrow had George III not asked his Teutonic cousins for help?
The rich layers of culture and history that cover the eastern US provide the material for my new WINGS tour, Birding the American Revolution. Hope to see you next May!