***Please change publication date to November 20, 2021.

On May 18, 1885, an important exhibition heralded as a “noble gift to the city”1 opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Beneath the high ceilings of the exhibition hall, glass cases displayed 350 specimens as the Jesup Collection of North American Woods. Each was a whole log, about four and a half feet tall, still cloaked with bark as in life, with the upper half cut away to reveal the wood inside. Many of the specimens were accompanied by original watercolor illustrations of foliage, fruit, and flowers.

A writer announced of the exhibit in Harper’s Weekly, “The average visitor will be impressed and surprised by the beauty of some and by the extreme oddity of others.… The various coloring of the woods, often rich and sometimes startling, and running into the most delicate shades, and the strength or grace or whimsicality of form, as traced in the divers[e] coursings of the grain, are matters to attract even the casual eye, and to stamp as absurd the hasty judgement which would say that a collection of logs can not be interesting.”2

Over the coming years, the collection grew to include more than five hundred species. It represented the scientific and philanthropic vision of two noteworthy individuals: Morris Ketchum Jesup, one of the founders of the American Museum of Natural History, and Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum. The collection remained a cornerstone of the museum’s exhibits for more than six decades. The fact that an exhibition of this magnitude could almost entirely vanish from the public memory seems almost improbable. Yet, the story of its exile is as intriguing as that of its origins.

A Generous Friend

On the occasion of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, William H. Brewer, a professor of agricultural science at Yale University, observed, “America has long been described by geographers and naturalists as the wooded continent, distinguished for the luxuriance and extent of its forests and the number of its arboreal species.”3 At that time, scientists were beginning to comprehend the vastness of North American forests, but popular appreciation of this forest wealth lagged behind. At the Exhibition, audiences were introduced to displays of American woods and wood products through exhibits mounted by individual states and by the United States Department of Agriculture, which showcased specimens representing four hundred tree species from around the country.4 Such exhibits distilled an abstract general abundance into the remarkable variety of trees that comprised the country’s forests. The Exhibition’s millions of visitors vastly exceeded the number of people who had ever traveled across the country or explored its forested lands, and early efforts to organize around the idea of forest conservation took root at that gathering.

At the time, there was not a museum in the country that possessed a similar, permanent exhibit that could perpetuate the transient awe from the Centennial Exhibition into an enduring educational mission. In 1880, such an exhibit—but one even more monumental—became Jesup’s vision for the American Museum of Natural History. A forest lover himself, Jesup was also keenly interested in the uses of forests and, increasingly, in the roles forests played in the wider landscape of human settlement and industry. Jesup and the museum’s director, Albert S. Bickmore, discussed the possibility of developing this exhibit at the museum for the expressed purpose of showcasing the contributions of American forests to industrial and artistic endeavors.

In August 1880, while attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Bickmore approached Harvard botany professor Asa Gray for advice. He described the museum’s planned Department of Economic Botany, which was primarily to feature important products from the forests of the country. Gray directed him to interview Sargent, who at the time was in charge of the census of American forests for the Tenth Census of the United States. Bickmore spent an afternoon at Dwight House on Sargent’s Holm Lea estate in the suburb of Brookline. Although Sargent was away conducting fieldwork, Bickmore toured the grounds and learned about the work Sargent was pursuing for the forest census.

Bickmore soon wrote to Sargent in care of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where Sargent was briefly stopped along the last leg of his grand tour of western forests. As Bickmore explained, a “generous friend” of the museum wished to develop an “instructive and attractive collection” of the wood products of North American forests, “placing it in a tangible, visual form before our citizens and our tide of visitors from all parts of the continent.”5 Of course, that unspecified friend was Jesup, who would become the museum’s president from 1881 until his death in 1908. His foresight had led him to Sargent, whose zeal and breadth of knowledge were positively suited to realizing this singular goal, and whose awareness of his own expertise prevented him from letting the opportunity pass to someone else. Jesup also sponsored other collections and many expeditions in varied fields of study during his tenure at the museum, and Sargent simultaneously expanded the Arnold Arboretum’s living collection and pursued an astounding schedule of publication. Yet, the wood collection was seen as a crowning achievement during the lifetimes of both men. It was, according to one commentator, “a perfectly unique collection which cannot anywhere be repeated.”6

Unprecedented Activity

Following his return from the west, Sargent met with Jesup and Bickmore in New York in the first week of November 1880. In response to the proposed project, he sent a seven-page letter describing his “suggestions” for the wood collection and its exhibition, which in effect were stipulations to guarantee his participation. Sargent believed that the collection should incorporate every tree species that grew naturally in the United States, even those that were of limited distribution or held little economic value. As a reflection of his recent and ongoing work on the forest census, he argued that only this approach would allow the collection’s importance to be realized by both the public and scientists, who, he would later assert, “will value it in proportion to its completeness.”7 Further, Sargent insisted that the exhibit be arranged according to the botanical relationships of the species, following the organization of his report for the forest census, and that the labels should incorporate the data from his investigations as to each species’ geographic distribution and the properties of its wood. He shared Jesup’s interest in including foliage and fruit to illustrate the aspect of the living trees, as well as the products derived from the trees that were important to commerce and the trades.8 In essence, it would be a full-scale adjunct to his census report, one that Jesup hoped would also have popular appeal and that all concerned believed would be an asset to the museum.9

Sargent’s primary role in the project was to direct and coordinate the field efforts and, later, to provide interpretation for the resulting specimens. By mid-December 1880, once a general plan for the collection was understood, he was becoming impatient to send collectors into the field.10 The first to be recruited were alumni of the forest census who were familiar with both the terrain and tree species they were to locate, as well as the rigors and routine of moving logs from the forests to the railroads for shipping. Some were in the field as early as January, and specimens began arriving at the museum in early March 1881.

Map of the United States indicating regions where collections occurred
Arnold Arboretum

Charles Mohr, a physician and botanist who lived in Mobile, Alabama, was charged with finding trees in the Gulf Coast states. (Records show that the first specimen to be received may have been Yucca treculeana, or Spanish dagger, an arborescent species, if not precisely a tree, sent from Texas by Mohr.11) Samuel B. Buckley, a botanist and long-time resident near Austin, Texas, began collecting nearby and at points across the southern interior of the state. Allen H. Curtiss, a naturalist living in Jacksonville, Florida, was sent to explore southern Florida, the Florida Keys, and the interior Southeast; in his first season, Curtiss sent more than forty specimens, and he ultimately contributed more than any other collector.

George W. Letterman, a schoolteacher and amateur botanist in Allenton, Missouri, began his work that spring in Arkansas, made numerous collections in southern and central Missouri, and later ventured as far as northeastern Texas and Louisiana. Henry W. Ravenel, an accomplished botanist of Aiken, South Carolina, sent specimens from the Piedmont and coast of South Carolina and Georgia that year. Starting in the fall of 1881, John H. Sears, a naturalist in Salem, Massachusetts, explored the “Atlantic forests” of northern New York state and eastern Massachusetts. For the first two years, Vermont botanist Cyrus G. Pringle traveled well beyond his home state to collect in Arizona, California, and the Pacific Northwest, and later sent logs of several species from Texas and northern Mexico, as well; second only to Curtiss in number of specimens sent, Pringle certainly traveled more extensively for the project than anyone else.

The collecting corps came to include physicians, veterans of state geological surveys and departments of agriculture, itinerant botanists, horticulturists, foresters, several of Sargent’s professional acquaintances in the lumbering and milling industries, Sargent himself, and even the collection’s caretaker, Samuel D. Dill, at the museum. The majority of specimens were collected by a handful of men, but over time more than fifty individuals contributed material to the Jesup Collection.

Sargent initially envisioned an ambitious schedule, entailing just one or two years to complete the explorations necessary to find and acquire the specimens.12 That, like the costs involved, turned out to be underestimated—not only were there unforeseen delays but more species in newly explored places were discovered over time, in part as a result of Sargent’s own studies. As time went on, Jesup sometimes questioned the necessity for including extraneous, noneconomic species, noting to Sargent, “Its completeness in a scientific or botanical sense, to my mind is secondary.”13 To Bickmore privately, he observed that many tree species, “while they may be rare and valuable in a scientific sense, are useless economically owing to the remote and inaccessible districts where they grow and the necessary cost of transportation to manufacturing centres.”14

Sargent nonetheless continued to send collectors far afield and on special trips for newly discovered or rare species in the interest of amassing a comprehensive collection. He had taken on the project gratis, with an eye toward his own long-term interests in American forests. With the collection’s scientific contributions as his priority, Sargent advised Jesup early in 1881, “It is not too late for us both to retire altogether from the undertaking, which unless carried out largely will add neither reputation to the Museum, nor credit to the parties most interested.”15 The project went on, and fifteen years later he emphasized the significance of the work to Jesup: “The formation of your Collection, the publication of my book, and other causes have led to an unprecedented activity in dendrological exploration and study in all parts of the country and several new species of trees have been discovered.”16 Sargent’s aim was to represent the arboreal flora of the continent, and he wanted Jesup’s vision to match his own.

It Should Contain Every Tree

As the sponsor of the collection, Jesup not only funded the collector’s activities but organized logistics for travel and shipping. He was wealthy and generous, but disciplined and frugal in his philanthropy, interested to see that his money was well spent for the greatest benefit. To this end, he set as a goal keeping costs of travel and freight to a minimum, even zero, whenever possible. Nonetheless, the cost of transportation, shipping, and tracking the specimens across the country represented the majority of the project’s expenses and occupied much of the correspondence between Sargent and the museum during these early years.

In the early weeks of 1881, Jesup personally communicated with the officers of dozens of railroad and steamship companies in order to procure travel passes for the collectors and free shipping for the weighty specimens they were expecting to send to New York from points around the country. Because the favors granted were often specific to individual collectors, over certain routes, and good only for specified periods of time, this became for him a never-ending task that strained his ample reserves of tact and humility. Through Jesup’s general success in securing waivers, Sargent could then assign collectors to regions where they could travel freely and ship at no or reduced cost.

In practice, there were frequent misunderstandings on the part of station agents who were unaware of these unconventional arrangements or would not act on them. Specimens were sometimes shipped from points or by routes other than what had been agreed upon, exceeded the weights and dimensions originally anticipated, were delayed so long that they decayed in transit, or were occasionally even lost. The railroads, and Jesup, wanted definite parameters ahead of time, whereas Sargent better understood the idiosyncrasies and exigencies of field work and insisted that flexibility was necessary. It was Jesup’s money, and indeed his reputation, at risk, and these overages and losses were routine points of contention between the two principals almost from the beginning.17

As the true scale of the task became apparent, Jesup questioned Sargent’s early estimates about the cost of the project. He had initially thought that the collection could be completed for ten thousand dollars or possibly less,18 but that sum was exceeded before the end of the second year of work; total expenditures multiplied fivefold before the sixth field season and continued to grow from there.19 Although Sargent promised to proceed as economically as he could, he maintained his emphasis on the need for a complete and scientifically valuable set of specimens. Following one expensive expedition in 1885, for example, Sargent countered Jesup’s objections, telling him, “I hope you will not endeavor to separate practical value from scientific value in your mind when considering this collection. They cannot safely be separated. And it is because I have always refused to do this in the treatment of the matter that the collection is what it is, the best of its kind.”20 Bickmore and Jesup at the museum recognized that ceding some control to Sargent (and absorbing additional expense) was necessary both to achieving that goal and to maintaining goodwill in general.21

Nearly two decades after the project’s inception, as he and Jesup revisited this same familiar disagreement in 1899, Sargent argued, “It should contain every tree described and illustrated in my Silva of North America.22 Although their differences in philosophy did not entirely fade over time, Jesup grudgingly found himself obligated to continue to subsidize these missions—well into the 1890s and, for a few species, even past the turn of the century—rather than risk the appearance of incompleteness once so many others had been gathered. Early on he remarked to Sargent, “To have our museum contain that which cannot be found at any other will fully compensate me for the cost.”23

A Grand Showing

Unlike the small blocks of wood Sargent prepared for his census investigations24 or the short logs cut lengthwise for display at the Centennial Exhibition, the museum’s specimens were to be whole logs, over five feet long when collected, and of such diameters as necessary (from a few inches to three feet or more) to represent the best-grown examples of the trees. Collectors routinely shipped thousands of pounds of specimens at once, where certain individual logs could weigh hundreds of pounds when freshly cut. At the outset, Sargent anticipated that about four hundred species would need to be assembled, but that number increased by another one hundred or more over time.

Within the year, Bickmore reported to Sargent, “We have been frequently receiving the magnificent series of logs your agents have gathered until they make a grand showing in the cellar.”25 After the first full year of fieldwork, nearly three hundred were in various states of preparation at the museum, with more arriving by the month.26 Incoming shipments were initially delivered to the museum’s “new building” (opened in December 187727) on Manhattan Square, west of Central Park. When space became limited, the logs were directed instead to the historical Arsenal building, where the museum’s collections were originally housed, near the eastern boundary of the park.

When the logs were prepared in the field, collectors were careful to wrap each one in burlap or other “bagging” material, sometimes also in rawhide, and to construct crates in which the log could be shipped with ample padding to preserve the bark intact. Once at the museum’s workshop, they underwent a lengthy process of preparation for eventual display. Because the logs were shipped “green” and were full of moisture, the primary concern was for drying them carefully to prevent “checking” or splitting that would ruin them for display. Bickmore himself devised a method of boring holes into the bottom of a log to allow the wood to “season” or dry out more evenly.28 Bickmore notified Sargent further, “We have a fire under the boilers in the cellar constantly so that that is probably the driest room in the building, and the heat is gentle & slow and I believe particularly well adapted to preparing the fine logs that are now coming in, and I think there will be no necessity of having the specimens kiln dried, unless you have reason to suspect they contain destructive larvae.”29 It was estimated that logs could lose up to half their weight in drying, and that thorough seasoning could sometimes require one or two years.30

Following the drying process, the logs were cut to a uniform fifty-six inches in height; the upper twenty-four inches was sawn longitudinally in half, and the top edge of the cut end was beveled, resulting in the grain of the wood being exposed in three directions. Finally, one half of the cut surface was finished with varnish to provide a clear view of the grain. Sargent requested that a diagram be made of each log to show the pattern of the bark, the widths of the sapwood and heartwood, and the growth rings apparent in cross-section;31 these data, as indicators of growth rate, were eventually reported for many species in Sargent’s fourteen-volume Silva of North America, but the diagrams themselves have not survived.

Jesup’s initial hopes that the collection would be ready for public viewing by the autumn of 1882 were not realized, but both he and Sargent agreed that the collection’s “value and permanence,” from a scientific standpoint, and its “beauty and usefulness” to the public would be favored by postponing until all the specimens were fully seasoned, prepared, and labeled.32 The exhibit space dedicated to the Jesup Collection was intended to be on the third floor of the Arsenal, an area the museum regarded as “dangerous” even when exhibits had been open to the public there a decade earlier.33 Almost immediately, there were concerns about the combined weight of the specimens.34 When the walls of the building were observed to have to spread slightly by October 1882, the Department of Public Parks architect, Calvert Vaux, insisted that the excess weight be removed to comply with his specifications: not to exceed thirty-eight and a half tons, evenly distributed in the halls and the octagonal alcoves at each corner.35 At that time, there were 388 logs on-site and in preparation, with 60 more expected to “complete” the collection.36 This circumstance hinted at another persistent theme that would follow the collection through time: housing it would always present substantial, even prohibitive infrastructural challenges.

Soon, the allotted hall at the Arsenal became a workshop and storeroom for the log specimens rather than their exhibit space. By the spring of 1883, construction at the museum’s new building included the installation of “a large glass case, in two sections, extending along the middle of the Lower Hall,” meant to accommodate the log collection but necessarily displacing an exhibit of shells to another floor.37 By that autumn, there were two large cases, each 135 feet long, with six additional cases along the side.38 The initial delay of six months had extended to a full year, and even then, opening by the following year was in doubt. In February 1884, Sargent estimated that just 105 specimens were “finished and ready”;39 in April, he wrote to Jesup and Bickmore to suggest delaying until the spring of 1885, when he thought that as many as 350 specimens would be fully prepared for exhibition.40

A Credit to the City

With a date finally fixed for the exhibit’s opening, Bickmore promoted it as “the first effort yet made in this country to gather the native woods together in one collection on a scale commensurate with the extent of the new continent and the importance of its forests.”41 Sargent had been at work on a condensed version of his census report, enumerating 412 species as The Woods of the United States, which would serve as a guidebook to the collection.42 In April, he reassured Jesup, “The geographical labels will be finished this week. They have cost me an immense amount of labor & bother, but I think they will be a great success, and are certainly the best things of the kind ever attempted. I shall be in N.Y. next week, long enough to see that everything is properly arranged.”43 In his annual report to the trustees of the museum, Jesup hoped that the collection “will prove another popular attraction to the museum, and be the means of largely increasing the knowledge and information of the people on the subject of our forests, now demanding so large a share of public attention.”44

Black-and-white illustration of wood samples
The press lauded the opening of the Jesup Collection in 1885. This engraving by C. Graham appeared in Harper’s Weekly shortly after the exhibition opening. Courtesy of the author

The exhibit opened to visitors on May 18, 1885, to popular acclaim. In addition to 350 logs with their labels, the new exhibit featured about eighty watercolor illustrations of the foliage, flowers, and fruit of tree species, prepared by Mary Robeson Sargent (Sargent’s wife) at Jesup’s request. These, in particular, met with high praise: “The artist has been true to nature, without loss of refined and purely artistic method, a combination almost unknown in what is called a scientific treatment of natural objects. The result is delightful … many persons will appreciate for the first time the beauty and grace possessed by the flowers and fruits of many of our common forest trees.”45 For the benefit of individuals wishing to study the woods from a botanical perspective, a corresponding herbarium had been prepared by Charles Faxon, the assistant director and herbarium curator at the Arnold Arboretum, and shipped to the museum that spring.

The Jesup Collection was soon described in the press as “a credit to the city, and a lasting testimonial to the wisdom and public spirit of the gentleman who caused it to be created.”46 It was a first step toward Jesup’s original ideal, still awaiting not only more species but examples of economic products and additional illustrations to fully represent the American forests. As far as Sargent’s objectives, there was also more to come, but scientific visitors had already found it as informative as it was popular.

Worthily Housed

In its first incarnation, the woods exhibit occupied the lower floor of the Museum, “in the space between the rows of side cases,” leading to the observation on opening day that the space “is too contracted for this use, and the floor has a cluttered appearance which those who recall its original spaciousness and light will regret. Plainly the time has come when a new wing for the Museum is demanded, so that this collection, unique in its scientific and industrial importance, shall have the sweep of an entire floor.”47 At the time, the logs shared the hall with the collection of mammals, whose curator was critical of the disruption to those displays.48 Sargent, naturally, weighed in, complaining that “nothing can be worse than the present mixture of mammals & woods.”49

While there were already long-term plans for additions to the museum’s building, Sargent proposed an alternative idea to Jesup: the museum should construct a separate one-story building for the purpose of housing the wood collection and associated forestry resources, including a library and herbarium, and call it the Jesup Building. He wrote to Jesup, “The whole thing could be put up in a couple of months and you could have your collection in safe quarters where it could never be interfered with by any one & arranged in such a manner that there never could be any danger of its becoming merged or mixed with the other collections.”50 It is clear that Sargent wanted to resolve some of the fundamental curatorial problems that the collection was already experiencing, but it is also tempting to suppose that Sargent wanted his own museum of woods (and that Jesup would build it for him). That notion was never pursued, but the Jesup Collection did prevail in occupying the lower hall all to itself.

A new display was opened to the public on November 15, 1890, revealing 425 species and almost 250 watercolors, arranged in family groups in the cases along each side of the hall.51 While this was seen as an improvement, and many visitors believed the collection actually was complete, Sargent advised Jesup not a year later, “I don’t think that we ought to consider the arrangement as final or that the collection is worthily housed or properly arranged until some radical change is made by which sufficient room for its display can be had.”52 In 1893, planning began for the construction of the museum’s southeast wing, part of the Seventy-Seventh Street facade, the ground floor of which would be dedicated to the wood collection when it was completed in 1895.53

As the new wing took shape and its opening drew closer, there ensued a paramount disagreement (most emphatic and least charitable on the part of Sargent) over plans for the new hall. In a two-page, typewritten response to Jesup’s early scheme for cases and general arrangement, Sargent replied vehemently, and disproportionately: “A good deal of additional work in connection with the Collection has been laid out for me but I confess I do not feel much like undertaking it if the results are to be as bad as you seem to be determined to make them.” He asserted that his reputation among scientists could suffer if Jesup’s plans were followed, concluding, “This, from my point of view, is the unfortunate thing in the whole matter and why I believe that I have not been treated properly by you.”54 Jesup wrote out a six-page reply (that he did not send) in which he recounted their previous discussions about the design. He concluded, “It would be more agreeable to me in meeting with objections from yourself to have them presented to me in a spirit of help and friendliness … During the many years of our friendship I have exerted myself to please you, and shall continue to do so in any way I can, but I expect consideration at your hands also.”55

Black-and-white photograph showing large cross-sections of wood samples positioned on either side of a museum doorway
Cross-sections of giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum, left) and coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) flank the entrance to Forestry Hall. The giant sequoia is the only specimen from the Jesup Collection now displayed at the museum. AMNH Research Library Digital Special Collections, 5299

In place of this letter, Jesup sent museum secretary John H. Winser to consult with Sargent in person about the central points of dispute, namely the design of the new cases and the placement of the immense cross-sections of coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). In short, Jesup had wanted to include two or more round cases to break up the “monotony” of the exhibit, but doing so would have interrupted the botanical order to a degree that Sargent could not tolerate. At the same time, Jesup had arranged to place the cross-sections of the big trees just outside the main hall, on either side of the entrance, in part because of the architectural requirements for supporting them; Sargent was adamant that they should be placed in the center of the hall with the other logs, despite that this arrangement would require structural reinforcement of the floor. Jesup’s proposal took into account the flow of visitors, the overall aesthetic, costs, and the physical constraints of the building; Sargent worried most about what other scientists would think of the exhibit and felt that those concerns had not been adequately considered.56 Citing engineering and safety factors, an Executive Committee of the museum resolved the practical question, temporarily, in favor of the original layout.57

Early in 1896, when the specimens were moved into the new hall and the watercolors were hung, the debate subsided, and Sargent’s attention turned back to his usual curatorial concerns. Jesup assured the museum’s trustees that the lower hall of the new East Wing had been designated for the “permanent lodgment” of the wood collection and concluded, “It is thought that no better plan can be conceived whereby the effectiveness of the exhibit can be increased.”58 Not surprisingly, however, even this latest arrangement would be revised again as specimens were added to the exhibit, at Sargent’s urging, through the early 1900s.59

Practically Complete

As Sargent’s early work on the forest census had concluded in 1884, his focus shifted to taxonomically oriented investigations in support of his Silva of North America and other publications. For nearly two decades, the development of the Jesup Collection was synergistic with that work. Sargent never rested in his ambition to add species to the wood collection, even when his practice conflicted with Jesup’s financial concerns and with the museum’s pragmatic considerations for their curation.

As early as April 1883, after more than two full years of collecting effort, Sargent had indicated that there were twenty-one species needed to complete the collection.60 Still, in February 1886, he reported that there were another “18 or really 19,” of which several had already been sent for.61 Just a year later, he wrote, “I find that there are still a few species which must be added to the Jesup Collection in order to make it complete, and that, moreover, a few important species are not yet properly represented in the Collection.”62 Sargent reflected in 1889, “I consider that the collection is practically complete,”63 but that notion was short-lived.

Sargent soon organized a special expedition to the West Coast and Arizona in 1891 for several unrepresented species. In January 1894, Jesup reported that Sargent had sent him “the gratifying assurance” that the collection “is now complete”64—even as Sargent was preparing to leave on another collecting trip to Arizona to support his work on the Silva, resulting in at least one new specimen for the museum.65 In April 1898, another twenty-eight species were called for.66 In May 1900, Sargent wrote to museum secretary J. H. Winser, “We have been finding a lot more trees in the United States during the last year. None of them are very large but all have a scientific interest.… Now what I want to know is whether I shall go ahead and use my discretion in obtaining such material as may be necessary to complete the Collection.”67 A year later, Sargent ordered several more specimens from Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri, and noted, “I understand there is still a good deal more work to do on the collection before it can be considered complete.”68

Very late in this process, Sargent occasionally accompanied his requests with a lament, such as, “If it is not continued, I shall be saved a lot of disagreeable bother and letter-writing.”69 Jesup at times wondered at the necessity of so many very similar species, the number of duplicate specimens that had been sent, and the many that needed to be replaced over time because of damage or decay. He was also not naïve to the fact that he was often financing Sargent’s research by supporting new collecting trips for certain trees, and he once expressed frustration about this habit.70 In a note to himself on the back of one letter, Jesup wrote, “I wonder when the getting of specimens is going to stop.”71 Both men were clearly tiring of the work of supervising and organizing the collection, wanting it to be both comprehensive and finished, but Jesup’s support continued. Still additional specimens were received at the museum late in 1901,72 but by July 1902, Sargent was again discussing sending a collector for more.73 In 1908, the year of Jesup’s death, thirty-five specimens (possibly the last) were added to the exhibit.74

Intelligence, Technical Knowledge and Enthusiasm

While Sargent continued to direct the collection of new specimens, the opening of the museum’s public exhibit in 1885 had added an informal duty: the role of absentee curator. Although S. D. Dill, an experienced carpenter, had been hired specifically to oversee the preparation and installation of the logs and related materials, as well as to build the cases for them, Sargent had ideas of his own about how the collection should be handled and displayed. Beyond persistently lobbying for more space, he involved himself in the minutiae of how logs should be arranged, directly supervised the preparation of labels, and critiqued the display of illustrations following his occasional visits to New York.

Only months into the exhibition, Sargent wrote to Jesup with concerns that some specimens housed in new cases were “already suffering from extremes of temperature as I feared that they would.” He added that he was “very anxious & troubled” that Dill’s workroom in the Arsenal was inadequately heated and exposed the specimens to “danger of destruction by fire or at the hands of outsiders.”75 Nearly fifteen years later, he offered a similar assessment and insisted that Dill be provided with a workspace that better protected the specimens, adding, “The money value and cost of these specimens is small in proportion to the expenditure of intelligence, technical knowledge and enthusiasm necessary to procure them, and it is discouraging after all the labor which has been expended in getting them if they are allowed to go to ruin in the Museum.”76

Black-and-white photograph showing display cases in exhibit hall
A large cross-section of a Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) appears among cases in the American Museum of Natural History’s Forestry Hall, shown in 1903. AMNH Research Library Digital Special Collections, 42124

Although work remained to be done, and to Sargent’s dismay, Dill, the collection’s chief preparator, caretaker, and de facto on-site curator for twenty years, left the museum for his native Nova Scotia in 1902. To facilitate interpretation of the specimens, museum director Herman C. Bumpus began an inventory of the wood collection in 1903 77 and enlisted Roy W. Miner from the Department of Invertebrate Zoology for the task. Even at that time, the museum’s growing bias toward other facets of natural history, to the neglect of botany, was apparent to Bumpus, who frankly acknowledged the economic entomology and wood collections as the entirety of the museum’s botanical holdings.78 The “Forestry Department” (comprising essentially the collection itself) was without a dedicated curator until 1907, when Alfred C. Burrill, an entomologist by training, was appointed to oversee the exhibit of woods.79

In 1909, Mary C. Dickerson was hired as curator of the Department of Woods and Forestry and served in that capacity for a decade.80 During her editorship of the American Museum Journal, forestry was several times a featured topic. In her 1910 guide to “Trees and Forestry,” which drew examples from the Jesup Collection, she expanded on themes of ecology and conservation that were not only current but had long been advocated by the collection’s progenitors, Jesup and Sargent.81 Just two years after Jesup’s death, museum president Henry F. Osborn reported, “The Jesup Collection of North American Woods is being rearranged and installed in a way to bring out more clearly the classification of trees, their relationship and their economic uses.”82 With the wood collection numbering 505 specimens on display, additions were made for several more years in the form of watercolors, photographs, and wax models of foliage, flowers, and fruit;83 Mary Sargent had continued to add to the watercolor series, until more than four hundred paintings were on display with the logs. Space continued to be a problem as time went on (there, and throughout the museum), and activity centered around rearranging specimens to avoid crowding to the extent that was possible.84

Aside from Sargent, who had contributed his knowledge during the collection’s genesis, only an oversight committee—chaired in absentia by Gifford Pinchot (cofounder of the Yale Forest School) and James W. Toumey (the school’s first Morris K. Jesup Professor of Silviculture)—afforded forestry expertise after the turn of the century. It was not until 1917 that the department had the benefit of an in-house, credentialed forester. During an era of very limited departmental budget, Yale graduate and future forest ecologist Barrington Moore had been hired as assistant curator, and it was hoped that his experience would contribute to topical research and education at the institution.85 He was shortly called to service in the First World War, however, and by 1920 both he (for other opportunities) and Dickerson (for health reasons) had left the museum. This loss of expertise and energy only compounded the obstacles faced by the wood collection and related subjects that Jesup had promoted. As institutional memory of the collection’s formation had been episodically lost since the turn of the century, and the collection’s place of priority eroded after the death of its creator and benefactor, its fate became inexorably linked to that of the department going forward.

An Old-Fashioned Systematic Arrangement

Unlike other collections and exhibits prepared by the various dynamic and actively growing departments of the museum—especially Mammalogy and Ornithology, Paleontology, and Anthropology—the wood collection remained little changed from the 1910s through the 1930s. While the curatorship went unfilled, the Jesup Collection had a champion in museum director Frederic A. Lucas, who in 1922 wrote to President Osborn, “It is extremely important that we should revive our forestry department, for its own sake and also in memory of Mr. Jesup.”86 Following Lucas’s death in 1929, George H. Sherwood, as museum director and curator of the Department of Education, became its defender. After his death eight years later, the scientific staff of the museum proposed that “an attempt be made to place some one in charge of the wood collection.”87 For another decade, the Department of Forestry and Conservation was again chaired and staffed by scientists borrowed from other departments, until a curator was hired for the position in 1946.

In the meantime, the finished logs not only occupied an entire exhibit hall but myriad smaller duplicates and miscellaneous wood samples took up valuable storage space when lack of such space at the museum was a chronic problem. Discussions about disposing of the Jesup Collection began to stir at least as early as 1937, when museum director Roy C. Andrews (Sherwood’s successor) had suggested that the collection be donated to the New York Botanical Garden “or some other institution” in order to create space for new exhibitions. In response, the museum’s Council of the Scientific Staff resolved that the collection remained important scientifically as well as to the work of the Department of Education, and argued that to give away this “superb gift” could discourage other donations to the museum.88

When the question resurfaced in 1942 under the museum’s new director, Albert E. Parr, calls to abandon the wood collection were again met with protest. Informal opinions attributed to the museum’s Advisory Committee on Plan and Scope included regret “that serious proposals have been made to burn up the collection,” and indicated a strong consensus that the museum had an obligation to find “a satisfactory or a better home for it” in order to avoid a “gross” breach of trust.89

Parr’s plans for the museum were dampened during the ensuing years of the Second World War as the institution adjusted to extended absences among curatorial and administrative staff who had joined the armed forces, changes in visitation and patronage, curtailed research activity, and altered demands on the museum’s technical and human resources.90 Following the war, Parr discussed the process of “reconversion” from the distorted wartime operations of the museum to a post-war vision for its future. He made it clear that he saw this process, both inevitable and necessary, as an opportunity to focus the museum’s scope and actively integrate its research and educational activities across disciplines and into the wider landscape of public consciousness. He wanted to find alternatives to standard approaches to exhibition, where “an old-fashioned systematic arrangement of specimens, unrelieved by an occasionally freer use of artistry, becomes dull and boring to the spectator.”91 Abandoning staid practices was the foundation for planning the museum’s “program of modernization” in the years to follow.92

Black-and-white photograph of wood samples packed for storage
After more than sixty years on public display, the Jesup Collection was dismantled in Forestry Hall in 1948. AMNH Research Library Digital Special Collections, 2A1316

In addition to its orphan status among the departments of the museum, there may have been no single display in the museum at that time that so epitomized a nineteenth-century-style exhibit than the Jesup Collection of North American Woods. Shortly after Parr became the museum’s director in 1942, he initiated discussions with botanist Bror E. Dahlgren, once an assistant curator in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the museum, who since the 1920s had been affiliated with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Dahlgren was asked to reconsider how the subjects of forestry and conservation would be represented at the museum. Initially, his advice pertained to a rearrangement of the existing log specimens, “to break up the single linear, traditional systematic arrangement,” emphasizing instead the geographic distributions and associations of the many species represented. He envisioned this new scheme as representing the composition and structure of regional American forests, resulting in displays that were more like the dioramas familiar from the museum’s zoological exhibits.93 Even with this new thinking toward repurposing the logs, however, the collection’s future was not secure.

In July 1946, botanist Henry K. Svenson became chair and curator of the reconstituted Department of Forestry and General Botany, which counted two other museum associates, Clarence Hay (anthropology) and Charles Russell (education), as its scientific staff. As a long-time consultant to the museum while a curator at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Svenson had been designing a new forestry hall and began his tenure at the museum with a preliminary plan for the new exhibits. He recognized the historical importance of the wood collection as “a heritage of the America that is past, and that our forests would no longer provide such a fine assemblage of material,” and noted that it would “become of greater and greater value as time goes on.” At the same time, Svenson recognized that the future of the department would be a departure from its past. The emphasis of its work would not be on specimens, which would be kept “behind the scenes,” but on illustrating the integrated relationships and landscape processes represented by forest vegetation.94 Toward this end, the existing Hall of Forestry was closed on November 1, 1948, after which the exhibits were dismantled.95

As exhibits were revised, Parr explained in 1951 that the role of natural history museums in the progress of science had been evolving over the prior decade. There remained an abiding interest in individual organisms, which were the realm of basic research and a staple of the museum’s scientific program. At the same time and increasingly, the museum identified new objectives for their work: understanding the interactions of organisms with their environment (their ecology) and recognizing the necessity for their conservation in nature. It was in these areas where Parr saw the museum’s most critical educational mission.96

An early expression of this philosophy was the Felix M. Warburg Memorial Hall of Ecology. Occupying the space where the Jesup Collection had been exhibited, several new exhibits were intended to illustrate the ecosystems of New York State and how the human population influenced the landscape. Adjacent to this, in the southeast corner of the first floor (formerly known as Darwin Hall or the Hall of Invertebrate Zoology), the new Hall of North American Forests was unveiled on May 14, 1958, featuring life-sized dioramas of eleven forest types from across the continent. Where the hundreds of individual trunk segments, separate models of foliage and flowers, and illustrations that populated the former hall had left their forests of origin to the imagination of visitors, the new displays revealed integrated forest ecosystems, with characteristic herbaceous plants, animals, and physical elements (sunlight, water, soils) conspicuously represented in three dimensions. The focus of the new hall was on forests as habitats, the interrelationships among organisms that live in forested regions, and the importance of maintaining these ecosystems.97

Black-and-white photograph of artists creating life-size tree trunks in a museum diorama
Artists create detailed replicas of trees for the Olympic Forest diorama during the renovation of the Forestry Hall in 1952. AMNH Research Library Digital Special Collections, 322587

Although the tree species themselves were no longer the raisons d’être of the new exhibits, the new hall was, effectively, an embodiment of the ideals that its namesake had hoped to promote through the assembly of the original Jesup Collection. The new exhibits were met with admiration.98 Of all the pieces formerly on display, only the large cross-section of giant sequoia remained, as it does today. Meanwhile, as the penultimate step toward disposition, the woods had been officially designated a “scientific storage collection” in 1953, and the specimens were sequestered elsewhere in the museum.99

Ponderous and Not Easily Handled

In September 1956, Parr ultimately succeeded in convincing the museum’s Management Board that “there was no probability of this material [the wood collection] ever being put to any real use by The American Museum of Natural History.” He asked the board to approve the transfer of the Jesup Collection to the Smithsonian Institution, which he hoped “would guarantee proper care and use of the material in accordance with the purposes for which it was collected.”100 With the board’s approval to pursue disposition, then-curator of the museum’s Department of Vegetation Studies, Jack McCormick, initiated correspondence with the National Museum to effect this transfer. Because the Smithsonian was preoccupied with the construction of new buildings and other exhibits, these discussions proceeded intermittently over the next two years.

The director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, Remington Kellogg, finally submitted a formal request to Parr in December 1957. His proposal outlined a dramatic new vision for the specimens:

Our plans foresee the utilization of the collection in several ways. The large redwood, Sitka spruce, Douglas-fir, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, white pine, oak, walnut, and longleaf pine trunk specimens are being considered in connection with exhibits, in the coming Museum of History and Technology, on early lumbering in the Northeast, the Lake States, the Central Hardwood Region, the Southern Pinery, the Pacific Northwest, and the California Redwood Region.

A few of the other large specimens may possibly be halved lengthwise, one half being exhibited with tangentially and radially cut boards from the other half, and the remainder cut into study samples for distribution to educational institutions, colleges, universities, and museums.

The remainder of the collection would eventually be cut into study samples for distribution as stated above. We would retain at least two specimens of each species that is cut.101

Parr expressed reticence toward the Smithsonian’s plans to destroy the majority of the logs, but he was steadfast in his determination to relocate the huge collection.102 The museum’s Board of Trustees approved the transfer at its April 1958 meeting.103

Despite this progress, the arrangements for the collection’s transfer remained suspended for another two years. Parr retired, and James A. Oliver became the museum’s new director in 1959. During this same time frame, both the directorship of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History and the curatorship of its Department of Botany (which included its wood collection) also changed.

In 1960, William L. Stern became the Smithsonian’s new curator of the Division of Woods. Stern, formerly the curator of the Samuel J. Record wood collection at Yale University, had earlier in that role declined the museum’s offer of the Jesup Collection. He explained to McCormick, “We refused on the grounds that the space needed for storage would be beyond our means, that many of the pieces were ponderous and not easily handled.” At the Smithsonian, Stern was again faced with the prospect of acquiring the Jesup Collection. In January 1960, he noted to McCormick, “If I had been Curator of the Division of Woods in the National Museum at the time the Jesup Collection was offered, I do not know how I would have reacted to the offer.… I just hope that there will be no restrictions on cutting the specimens and that there are no qualifications regarding the handling of the material once it is in the National Museum.”104 Stern had expressed his opinion to the Smithsonian’s new director of the Museum of Natural History, Albert C. Smith, that despite “the historical importance and unique nature” of the Jesup Collection, “it would not greatly increase the usefulness of our present collections for anatomical study.”105

In his correspondence with Oliver in June 1960, Smith explained, “One of the problems that we both inherited, in connection with our new positions, concerns the Jesup Collection of Woods of the United States.… I am now in the embarrassing position of having to ask you to allow the Smithsonian Institution to reverse itself, as to acceptance of the Jesup Collection.”106 He indicated that although one or two of the monumental cross-sections might still be useful in their exhibits, the costs of relocation and the ever-present problem of storage were obstacles to their previously agreed-upon plans. Oliver, of course, was disappointed but acknowledged the Smithsonian’s position.107 For the sake of the logs, it was certainly a fortuitous development: the very scope and volume of the collection that had inspired museum visitors had made it difficult to accommodate elsewhere, and just as onerous to cut up into tiny hand samples. These were only the first obstacles the museum encountered in its efforts to dispose of the Jesup Collection, but the reasons would not change going forward.

McCormick next approached William C. Steere, director of the New York Botanical Garden. After initially suggesting that the garden could accept the Jesup Collection, however, the offer was declined later in 1961.108 Following McCormick’s departure from the museum in August of that year, at which time the Department of Vegetation Studies disappeared forever, Oliver took up the cause himself. To an inquiry from Stanley A. Cain, of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources, he wrote: “This collection is really a very important one and it should be transferred to a single institution intact. The bulk of the collection is one of the big problems that hinders anyone from accepting it. However, there are no restrictions on it and the wood samples could easily be cut up for other institutions.”109 This latest offer was not pursued. With essentially the same preamble, Oliver next approached the Field Museum of Natural History, but received no favorable reply.110

Happy to Turn it Over

As Oliver’s frustrated efforts began to resemble desperation, a promising inquiry arrived from the Pacific Northwest. Early in 1963, Oliver had spoken with a man named Lloyd S. Millegan, a retired public servant who lived in McMinnville, Oregon, and ran a small marquetry business, Lloyd’s of Oregon, in nearby Portland. Millegan envisioned mounting a display of the logs at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, then displaying the collection in Portland to generate publicity and business for his handicrafts. Having been unsuccessful in finding another museum to accept the collection, Oliver explained that the museum was “eager” and “would be happy to turn it over to anyone who will undertake the cost of packing and transporting the entire collection from the museum to the new location.” He emphasized that “the entire collection be taken in its entirety because we have no personnel to dispose of it properly piecemeal.”111 When another group, coincidentally also in Portland, inquired about the collection later that year, Oliver asked Millegan to submit a formal offer indicating his intentions and to confirm that the collection would be removed by February 1964.112

While Oliver awaited word from Millegan, he continued to entertain correspondence with Aldred A. Heckman, director of the Louis W. and Maud Hill Family Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota. Through the common acquaintance of William Steere at the New York Botanical Garden, the Hill Family Foundation had been in discussions with the Gallery of Trees Committee, a group of industry and civic leaders as well as forestry professionals, about assisting them in acquiring the Jesup Collection for their museum in Portland. Heckman explained, “There is real interest in having the Collection in Portland.” He emphasized that there was both local expertise available to prepare and interpret the proposed exhibit, as well as an audience already interested in trees and forestry attending the existing forestry museum. Further, the City of Portland and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry had indicated willingness to participate in structuring the acquisition.113 Steere himself wrote to Heckman, “Naturally I am deeply grateful to you for your personal interest in seeing that an exhibit of national importance is not reduced to veneer or small samples—or ashes.”114

At an early meeting in January 1964, the Gallery of Trees Committee proceeded to address questions about transportation of the collection and the siting, design, and construction of a new building to house it. The Hill Family Foundation offered to defray the costs of transporting the collection to Portland, provided that it be publicly owned and exhibited. The City of Portland’s Park Bureau and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry were identified as the preferred partners.115 Whether it had intended to or not, the meeting illustrated the contrast between the committee’s plans, for which the organizers could demonstrate institutional, technical, intellectual, and financial support, and those of Millegan, whose intentions had not addressed any of the real practicalities involved with adopting these specimens.

Both the Gallery of Trees Committee and the Hill Family Foundation had been surprised to learn of Millegan’s prior claim, but their strong interest in obtaining the logs for Portland’s museum compelled them to include him in their discussions. Millegan was asked to explain his relationship to the collection. The meeting minutes recorded: “He asked for it not knowing then what could be done with it. His offer was accepted.… [He] said he had no deed for the collection, merely a letter saying he could have it.”116 He was asked what conditions he would place on forfeiting his “claim” to the collection so that the committee could proceed. Millegan stipulated first that the collection should be freely accessible and well presented; beyond that, he wanted to use the exhibit to educate visitors about marquetry and its use of various woods, and to display his marquetry products alongside the exhibit.117 At this time, Heckman indicated to Oliver that there would be no further discussion among the foundation and the entities in Portland until Millegan’s position was clarified. He concluded, “It seemed to me that we were rapidly getting to the point of having too many cooks as far as the North American Woods Collection is concerned.”118

The chair of the Gallery of Trees Committee, Thornton T. Munger, addressed Oliver shortly after the meeting, indicating that the committee was “impatient” to understand where they stood in relation to Millegan’s plans to acquire the collection.119 Heckman soon wrote to Oliver, as well, reinforcing the message of progress that had been made toward planning for the collection’s move to Portland under the assumption that Millegan would cede the collection. He added, “We thought that if funds were assured to cover the costs of transporting the Collection to Portland and preparing it for display, the decisions regarding these other matters would be made with reasonable speed. This is as far as we can go. The next steps will have to be taken in Portland.”120

Millegan subsequently contacted the committee to revise his terms for relinquishing his claim to the collection, introducing the demand that he be allowed “to operate in the exhibit area a concession where selected gift and educational items in wood could be purchased.” The committee’s chair, Munger, was a retired forester of long tenure in the U.S. Forest Service whose career and research had been devoted to developing methods for sustainable forestry and conservation. He and the Gallery of Trees Committee envisioned a much broader mission for the collection, that it would illustrate the forest resources of the country for the benefit of public education. Neither the committee, nor the City of Portland, nor the Hill Family Foundation approved of the idea of using the collection to support a commercial enterprise, which in terms of the proposed new building would also be prohibited by city ordinance.121 Although the committee was at an impasse as the negotiations stretched into April, May, and June, Munger had continued to plan as though a compromise would eventually be reached.122

After hearing again from Munger following a meeting in May, Oliver decided to finally draw the matter to a close. He informed Millegan in June, “You have repeatedly stated that you were interested in acquiring this collection and were given several deadlines for the acquisition of the collection.… I think we have been exceedingly patient in waiting for you to fulfill your intentions. Therefore, your option to the collection has been withdrawn and we shall seek to dispose of the collection through other channels.”123 Oliver notified Munger of the transaction and renewed his offer to the Gallery of Trees Committee, with the only requirement being “that we hope it will be exhibited for the benefit of the public and will be available to students for study.” He urged that the collection be transferred by September 1.124 The Gallery of Trees Committee was relieved, the Hill Family Foundation was satisfied, and the City Council and Oregon Museum of Science and Industry all agreed that the collection would finally belong to Portland.

In the meantime, the Gallery of Trees Committee had reached a consensus about the location for the new exhibit. Rather than constructing a new building, the Jesup Collection could be displayed on the unoccupied second story of the old Forestry Building, a stupendous log structure that had been built in northwest Portland for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905. The main floor was already in use as a museum of forestry and the logging industry, and it was thought that the log specimens would complement these exhibits. Because the aging balconies required engineering changes to accommodate the collection, the committee intended to store the collection once it arrived in Portland while funding was raised for the renovations.125

Just a month after the final July meeting that approved of these plans, tragedy swept them all aside. A fire started in the office of the Forestry Building on the evening of August 17 and rapidly spread to the entire structure. The next morning, Munger observed the smoldering remains, which included the entire contents of the city’s forestry museum that he had helped to oversee.126 By 1971, when the new Western Forestry Center building opened, the story of the calamity in the museum’s own informational materials had come to include the Jesup Collection and its miraculous escape of this fate by having still been in storage in Portland.127 Twenty years after the fire, the story read: “When the old log museum burned in August 1964, two box cars full of the Jesup collection had just arrived. Sidetracked and waiting to be unloaded, the collection narrowly missed destruction in the fire. The exhibit then was stored by the city until the new forestry center opened in June 1971.”128 In fact, the Jesup Collection had still been safely in New York.

Munger wrote to Oliver just days after the fire, expressing the committee’s sadness at the loss and explaining its plans to rebuild. He noted, “It is very fortunate that the Jesup Collection was not there.”129 At the museum, Oliver and his staff were solidifying plans for an early October moving day. The Santini Brothers moving company was contracted to pack and transport the collection.130 On October 6, 1964, the specimens departed the museum aboard three moving vans destined for Portland, Oregon (the surviving paperwork gives no indication that railroad cars were employed).131 How they were stored once they arrived there is not recorded, but it is possible that the Gallery of Trees Committee took advantage of one of the offers for local warehouse space that had been made during their planning process.132 The Jesup Collection would not be put on display for nearly seven more years while a new building was constructed, but that building promised to include dedicated space for the logs.

Black-and-white photograph of wood samples arranged in new exhibition space
In 1971, the Jesup Collection of Woods reopened in a new home at the Western Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum

At the new Western Forestry Center, which opened in June 1971 in Washington Park, west of downtown Portland, the Jesup Collection was “the background theme that links together feature displays at the Forestry Center. Some of the largest logs are stationed at the entrance and around the outdoor covered walkway; inside, smaller specimens circle the first-floor display room. Other logs fill corners and file along corridors.”133 Following their move, the logs had been cleaned, refinished, and given new labels by local members of the Society of American Foresters and the International Wood Collectors Society. The historical value of the 505 logs said to be on display, representing trees of such stature that in many cases could no longer be observed in the United States, was well appreciated, and the collection remained a popular exhibit.134 As the Western Forestry Center expanded its educational mission and shifted its focus to forests at a global scale, taking on the name World Forestry Center in 1986, the collection’s relevance was again eclipsed by its physical footprint. About January 1994, the collection was donated to Agricenter International in Memphis, Tennessee.135 Although exhibited there for several years, the logs have since spent more than two decades in storage.

A Heritage

Following Jesup’s death, Sargent reflected, “The formation of the Jesup collection of North American Woods … was a matter of national importance. The preparation of this collection enabled us to study the distribution of the economic value of many trees which, before Mr. Jesup’s undertaking, were largely unknown. I think it can be said that this collection is the finest representation of forest wealth that exists in any country.”136 In its time on exhibit, the collection was marveled at by audiences for more than eighty years altogether. It provided not only Jesup and Sargent but some early influencers of American forestry—including Heinrich Mayr, Carl A. Schenck, Gifford Pinchot, Bernhard E. Fernow, Barrington Moore, and later even Thornton Munger—with inspiration and a platform to promote a growing movement supporting the conservation of American forests. What the logs represent has not changed, and their historical significance has only grown.

Apart from the varied circumstances leading to their assembly in New York from all across North America, as a group the collection has twice crossed the country; it has evaded annihilation more than once, each time saved by well-meaning caretakers facing formidable logistical challenges. More than 120 years since the consolidation of the collection, although many of the logs are superficially weathered and show wear and tear from handling and the elements, their number is mainly intact. The wood itself has largely not suffered and will be restorable in some future, truly permanent, home. Research to document the geographic origins of individual logs is ongoing; these findings will enable many of them to retake their scientific potential, where study of the wood itself may contribute meaningfully to the knowledge of our environmental past. All of them may yet function as emissaries for their species and for the forested regions from which they came—possibly even more so today than at the time of the collection’s unveiling, when many contemporaries believed that such trees would be lost from America’s forests in time, even as forests generally were disappearing, and that such a collection could never again be made.137


This research was supported in part by a 2019 Sargent Award for Visiting Scholars from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. For their assistance, the author is grateful to the curators of the Harvard University Herbaria; Lisa Pearson at the Arnold Arboretum; Rebecca Morgan and Gregory Raml at the Archives of the American Museum of Natural History; Alex Wiedenhoeft and Regis Miller at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory, Madison, Wisconsin; John Butler and John Charles Wilson at Agricenter International, Memphis, Tennessee; and Mark Reed, Beavercreek, Oregon.


1A Noble Gift, Sun (New York), 17 May 1885, p.8.

2American Woods, Harper’s Weekly 29(30 May 1885), p.350.

3Brewer, 1877: 4.

4Norton, 1879: 110.

5A. S. Bickmore to C. S. Sargent, 12 Sep 1880, Letterpress Books, 3a: 273, AMNH.

6Joseph H. Choate, in Hovey 1907: 5.

7C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 2 Nov 1885, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

8C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 11 Nov 1880, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

9Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History 1881.

10C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 14 Dec 1880; C. S. Sargent to J. J. Bargin, 20 Apr 1881, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

11M. K. Jesup to C. S. Sargent, 12 Mar 1881, Letterpress Books, 4: 19, AMNH.

12A. S. Bickmore to C. S. Sargent, 29 Jun 1881, Letterpress Books, 4: 55; C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 5 Jul 1882, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

13M. K. Jesup to C. S. Sargent, 1 Sep 1881, Letterpress Books, 4: 80, AMNH.

14M. K. Jesup to A. S. Bickmore, 1 Sep 1881, Letterpress Books, 4: 82, AMNH.

15C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 25 Apr 1881, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

16C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 18 Feb 1896, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

17C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 20 Aug 1881, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

18C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 25 Apr 1881, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

19M. K. Jesup to C. S. Sargent, 21 Jun 1882, Letterpress Books, 4: 277; J. J. Bargin to M. L. Saley, 3 Mar 1886, Letterpress Books, 9: 83, AMNH.

20C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 2 Nov 1885, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

21C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 25 Apr 1881, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I; A. S. Bickmore to C. S. Sargent, 17 Aug 1881, Letterpress Books, 4: 73, AMNH.

22C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 17 Jun 1899, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

23M. K. Jesup to C. S. Sargent, 28 Apr 1881, Letterpress Books, 4: 35, AMNH.

24Sargent, 1884.

25A. S. Bickmore to C. S. Sargent, 3 Dec 1881, Letterpress Books, 5: 50, AMNH.

26J. J. Bargin to C. S. Sargent, 10 Apr 1882, Letterpress Books, 4: 235, AMNH.

27Osborn, 1911.

28 The Woods of America—A Great Collection of 394 Specimens, New York Times, 22 Oct 1882, p.13.

29A. S. Bickmore to C. S. Sargent, 17 Aug 1881, Letterpress Books, 4: 72, AMNH.

30S. D. Dill to M. K. Jesup, 8 Nov 1882; C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 1 Jun 1884, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

31J. H. Winser to M. K. Jesup, 26 Jan 1899, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

32C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 9 May 1882, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I; M. K. Jesup to C. S. Sargent, 16 May 1882, Letterpress Books, 4: 250, AMNH.

33Osborn, 1911: 19.

34S. D. Dill to J. J. Bargin, 24 Oct 1882, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

35C. Vaux to Department of Public Parks, 13 Nov 1882, Early Admin Files, CN1739, AMNH.

36C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 1 Nov 1882, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

37Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History 1883: 6.

38American Wood Specimens: Mr. Jesup’s Present to the Museum of Natural History, New York Times, 26 Dec 1883, p.8.

39C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 15 Feb 1884, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

40C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 30 Apr 1884; C. S. Sargent to A. S. Bickmore, 7 Jun 1884, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

41Bickmore, 1885: 778–779.

42Sargent, 1885.

43C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 26 Apr 1885, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

44Jesup, 1885: 6–7.

45A Noble Gift, Sun (New York), 17 May 1885, p.8.

46American Woods, Harper’s Weekly 29(30 May 1885), p.350.

47The Jesup Collection—All the Woods of the United States, Formal Opening To-day at the Museum of Natural History, New York Times, 18 May 1885, p.1.

48J. J. Bargin to M. K. Jesup, 9 Oct 1885, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

49C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 13 Oct 1885, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

50C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 13 Oct 1885, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

51An Interesting Collection—Mr. Jesup’s Gift to the American Museum of Natural History, New York Times, 16 Nov 1890, p.9; Sargent 1890b; Jesup 1891.

52C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 9 Jun 1891, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

53Jesup, 1894.

54C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 2 Jan 1895, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

55M. K. Jesup to C. S. Sargent, 17 Jan 1895, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

56J. H. Winser to M. K. Jesup, 23 Jan 1895, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

57Extract of Minutes, Regular Meeting of the Exectutive Committee, 20 Dec 1895, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

58Jesup, 1896: 14.

59Jesup, 1898, 1899, 1907.

60C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 6 Apr 1881, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

61C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 19 Feb 1886, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

62C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 11 May 1887, Early Admin Files, CN2169, AMNH.

63C. S. Sargent to B. Strong, 12 Feb 1889, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

64Extract of Minutes, Regular Meeting of the Exectutive Committee, 19 Jan 1894, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

65C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 13 Sep 1894, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

66C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 21 Apr 1898, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

67C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 29 May 1900, Early Admin Files, CN3540, AMNH.

68C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 26 Oct 1901, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

69C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 7 Jun 1899, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

70C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 7 May 1898, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

71C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 1 Nov 1898, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

72C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 4 Dec 1901, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

73C. S. Sargent to J. H. Winser, 23 Jul 1902, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

74Osborn, 1909.

75C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 6 Oct 1885, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

76C. S. Sargent to M. K. Jesup, 7 Jan 1899, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

77H. C. Bumpus to C. S. Sargent, 14 Oct 1903, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

78H. C. Bumpus to H. H. Kopman, 28 Oct 1904, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. I, AMNH.

79Osborn, 1908.

80Osborn, 1910.

81Dickerson, 1910.

82Osborn, 1910: 41.

83Osborn, 1911: 118.

84Dickerson, 1912.

85Dickerson, 1917.

86H. F. Osborn to F.A. Lucas, 11 Dec 1922, Central Archives, 777, AMNH.

87H. E. Anthony, Meeting Minutes, p.88, Council of the Scientific Staff, 4 Oct 1937, Departmental Records, 086, AMNH.

88H. E. Anthony, Meeting Minutes, pp.88–89, Council of the Scientific Staff, 4 Oct 1937, Departmental Records, 086, AMNH.

89Papers presented by the Advisory Committee on Plan and Scope, 6 May 1942, Central Archives, 1232, AMNH.

90Parr, 1943.

91Parr, 1946: 13.

92Davison, 1946: 4.

93B. E. Dahlgren to A. E. Parr, 6 Jul 1943, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

94H. K. Svenson, Report: Department of Forestry and General Botany, 1947, Departmental Records, 091, Ser. IV, AMNH.

95AMNH Department of Education Division of Publications 1949.

96Parr, 1943, 1951.

97Burns, 1958.

98Museum Opening Hall of Forests, by S. Knox, New York Times, 14 May 1958, p.35.

99A. E. Parr, Report of the Management Board, Special Meeting of the Board of Trustees, 20 Apr 1953, Central Archives, 1118, AMNH.

100Extract of Minutes, Management Board Meeting, 27 Sep 1956, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

101R. Kellogg to A. E. Parr, 19 Dec 1957, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

102A. E. Parr to R. Kellogg, 26 Dec 1957, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

103Extract of Minutes, Spring Meeting of the Board of Trustees, 28 Apr 1958, Central Archives, 1117, AMNH.

104W. L. Stern to J. McCormick, 15 Jan 1960, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

105A. C. Smith to J. A. Oliver, 24 Jun 1960, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

106A. C. Smith to J. A. Oliver, 24 Jun 1960, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

107J. A. Oliver to A. C. Smith, 5 Jul 1960, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

108J. McCormick to J. A. Oliver, 20 Jun 1961, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

109J. A. Oliver to S. A. Cain, 26 Dec 1961, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

110J. A. Oliver to J. Millar, 26 Dec 1961, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

111J. A. Oliver to L. S. Millegan, 19 Feb 1963, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

112J. A. Oliver to L. S. Millegan, 15 Nov 1963, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

113A. A. Heckman to J. A. Oliver, 15 Jan 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

114W. C. Steere to A. A. Heckman, 17 Jan 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

115 Minutes of Meeting to Discuss Prospects of Getting for Portland the Jesup Collection of Woods, 15 Jan 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

116 Minutes of Meeting to Discuss Prospects of Getting for Portland the Jesup Collection of Woods, 15 Jan 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

117 Minutes of Meeting to Discuss Prospects of Getting for Portland the Jesup Collection of Woods, 15 Jan 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

118 A. A. Heckman to J. A. Oliver, 15 Jan 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

119 T. T. Munger to J. A. Oliver, 17 Feb 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

120 A. A. Heckman to J. A. Oliver, 20 Feb 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

121 T. T. Munger to J. A. Oliver, 14 Apr 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

122 Minutes of Meeting of Committee on the Jesup Collection of Wood, 29 May 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

123 J. A. Oliver to L. S. Millegan, 24 Jun 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

124 J. A. Oliver to T. T. Munger, 24 Jun 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

125 Statement to the City Council of Portland regarding transfer of the Jesup Collection to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, 14 Jul 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

126 Curator Watches as Embers of History Linger On—Oregon Logging Associates Consider Plans to Restore Forestry Building, Oregonian, 19 Aug 1964, p.1.

127 Press release: Jesup Wood Collection, Western Forestry Center, Portland, Ore., ca. 1971, I G 9.1 WUS: Woods of the United States Exhibit Records, AA.

128 Jesup Wood Collection historic, enduring exhibit, by J. Sansregret, Oregonian, 28 Sep 1984, p.D7.

129 T. T. Munger to J. A. Oliver, 22 Aug 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

130 P. H. Grouleff to J. A. Oliver, 29 Sep 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

131 Bill of Lading and Freight Bill, United Van Lines, 6 Oct 1964, Central Archives, 1203, AMNH.

132 T. T. Munger to J. A. Oliver, 2 Jul 1964, Departmental Records, 125, Ser. I, AMNH.

133 Sansregret, 1984: 50.

134 Reed, 1987.

135 Meeting minutes, 25 Jan 1994, Agricenter International (Memphis, Tennessee).

136 Brown, 1910: 165–166.

137 The Woods of America—A Great Collection of 394 Specimens, New York Times, 22 Oct 1882, p.13; Sargent 1890a.

Primary Sources

Archival resources have been used with permission and are housed at the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Boston [AA]; the American Museum of Natural History Research Library Archives, New York [AMNH]; and elsewhere as indicated.

Published Sources Cited

AMNH Department of Education Division of Publications. 1949. General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History. Science Guide 118 (5th ed.). American Museum of Natural History.

Brewer, W. H. 1877. General report of the judges of Group VI and report on awards. Pages 1–50 in: Walker, F. A. (Ed.), Reports and awards, Group VI. United States Centennial Commission. J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Brown, W. A. 1910. Morris Ketchum Jesup, a character sketch. Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Burns, W. A. (Ed.). 1958. General guide to the American Museum of Natural History. Science Guide 118 (revised ed.). American Museum of Natural History, Man and Nature Publications.

Davison, F. T. 1946. Seventy-seventh report of the President. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 77: 1–6.

Dickerson, M. C. 1910. Trees and forestry: An elementary treatment of the subject based on the Jesup Collection of North American Woods in the American Museum of Natural History. Guide Leaflet 32. American Museum of Natural History.

Dickerson, M. C. (Ed.). 1912. Museum notes. American Museum Journal, 12: 35–40.

Dickerson, M. C. (Ed.). 1917. Museum notes. American Museum Journal, 17: 76–80.

Hovey, E. O. (Ed.). 1907. Introduction: Pioneers of American science: An account of the exercises held and the addresses delivered at the American Museum of Natural History, December 29, 1906. Guide Leaflet 25. American Museum Journal, 7(Supplement): 3–7.

Jesup, M. K. 1891. Twenty-second annual report. Annual Report of the Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History … for the Year 1890–91: 7–13.

Jesup, M. K. 1894. Twenty-fifth annual report. Annual Report of the President of the American Museum of Natural History … for the Year 1893: 7–15.

Jesup, M. K. 1896. Twenty-seventh annual report. Annual Report of the President, Act of Incorporation, Contract with the Department of Public Parks, Constitution, By-laws and List of Members for the Year 1895: 7–23.

Jesup, M. K. 1898. Twenty-ninth annual report. Annual Report of the President of the American Museum of Natural History … for the Year 1897: 9–27.

Jesup, M. K. 1899. Thirtieth annual report. Annual Report of the President of the American Museum of Natural History … for the Year 1898: 9–26.

Jesup, M. K. 1907. Thirty-eighth annual report. Annual Report of the President of the American Museum of Natural History … for the Year 1906: 11–34.

Norton, F. H. 1879. Illustrated historical register of the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876, and the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1878. The American News Co.

Osborn, H. F. 1908. Thirty-ninth annual report. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 39: 15–48.

Osborn, H. F. 1909. Fortieth annual report. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 40: 15–42.

Osborn, H. F. 1910. Forty-first annual report. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 41: 15–51.

Osborn, H. F. (Ed.). 1911. The American Museum of Natural History: Its origin, its history, the growth of its departments to December 31, 1909 (2nd ed.). New York: The Irving Press.

Parr, A. E. 1943. The year’s work. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 74: 5–21.

Parr, A. E. 1946. In transition. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 77: 7–21.

Parr, A. E. 1951. Purposes and progress report of the Director. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 82: 7–36.

Reed, M. 1987. The Jesup Collection of Woods. Forest World Magazine, 3(1): 7–11.

Sansregret, J. 1984. A history in wood. American Forests Magazine, 90(9): 50.

Sargent, C. S. 1884. Report on the forests of North America (exclusive of Mexico). Tenth United States Census, vol. 9. Census Office, Department of the Interior. Government Printing Office.

Sargent, C. S. 1885. American Museum of Natural History Jesup Collection: The woods of the United States. D. Appleton and Co. (John Wilson and Son).

Sargent, C. S. 1890a. Recent publications: The forests of North America, I. Garden and Forest, 3: 193–194.

Sargent, C. S. (Ed.). 1890b. The Jesup Collection of the Woods of the United States. Garden and Forest, 3: 570.

Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History. 1881. Twelfth annual report. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 12: 5–12.

Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History. 1883. Fourteenth annual report. Annual Report of the American Museum of Natural History, 14: 5–10

Kathryn Mauz writes from Colorado. Previous publications include a 2018 book on Jesup collector Cyrus Pringle: C. G. Pringle: Botanist, Traveler, and the “Flora of the Pacific Slope” (1881–1884).

Citation: Mauz, K. 2021. Such a fine assemblage: The Jesup Collection of North American Woods. Arnoldia, 78(5-6): 24–49.

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