JANE COLDEN
AMERICA'S FIRST WOMAN BOTANIST

by Paula Ivaska Robbins


From the Epilogue:

Cadwallader Colden is a forgotten figure in colonial American history. Although he and Franklin were frequent correspondents, his name is not mentioned once in Franklin's autobiography. To quote the preface to Colden's papers published by the New-York Historical Society, "had Cadwallader Colden been a patriot to the Cause of the American Revolution instead of a staunch Loyalist and upholder of the Crown his name to-day would have shared equal honors with the men of his time such as Benjamin Franklin. . . . As a matter of fact he was the most learned man in the colonies during his long public service."1 "He was an important factor in settling Boundary disputes. . . . His interest in the native Indians was very great and he had distinct ideas as to the management of Indian affairs which led him as early as 1727 to publish his History of Five Indian Nations.

In political matters, however, Colden was a royalist so narrow in his views, so rigid, and so concerned about his personal rights and privileges as lieutenant governor that even men of his own party considered him an obstinate old fool.

According to New York historian Michael Kammen, "While the vox populi grew in volume, royal authority was on the wane, and the figure who must bear much of the responsibility for undermining it is Cadwallader Colden. The irony, of course, is that this intelligent man, who served intermittently as acting governor and lieutenant governor between 1760 and 1775, wanted nothing so much as to uphold the royal prerogative. Despite all of his political maneuvering, he lacked politique; and for all of his vast learning, he remained one of the most nave and tactless figures in the British colonies. It would not be unfair to call him an unwitting provocateur of the early revolutionary movement in New York."

The place in history of his daughter Jane, however, has emerged since the last half of the twentieth century and the increasing interest in social history and the role of women. In 1963, the Garden Club of Orange and Dutchess Counties published a selection of fifty-seven of Jane's descriptions of species native to North America in a limited edition of fifteen hundred copies in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Garden Club of America. They were chosen because they were of familiar common plants or those of particular interest, such as native orchids, or because the descriptions best illustrated Jane's "remarkable powers of observation and description."5 The Jane Colden Native Plant Sanctuary was named in her honor at the Knox's Headquarters State Historic Site in Vails Gate, New York.


Paula Ivaska Robbins has combined her love of history with her interest in the natural world to write another book about the history of botanical discovery to join The Travels of Peter Kalm, Finnish-Swedish Naturalist Through Colonial North America (Purple Mountain Press, 2007). Other previous books include The Royal Family of Concord and Successful Midlife Career Change. Dr. Robbins is a retired university administrator and medical editor; she has degrees from Vassar College, Boston University and the University of Connecticut. She lives in a cohousing community in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a volunteer guide at the North Carolina Arboretum.


96 pages, illustrated, 6 x 9, 2009
$12.50 paper--A Purple Mountain Press original

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