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Deciphering Joseph Hooker's letters

I am currently trying to decipher a number of letters that Joseph Hooker wrote to Asa Gray, the great American botanist, between 1877-80. These were located at the Asa Gray Herbarium at Harvard last year where I was visiting to film correspondence between the two men following their trip across America in 1877. I was hoping to find letters where Joseph might have mentioned the similarities he noticed between the Flora of the Southern Rocky Mountains and that of the Russian Altai.

This has been of much interest to Bill Weber a veteran botanist in Colorado for many years. His paper is entitled ‘The Middle Asian element in the Southern Rocky Mountain Flora of the western United States : a critical biogeographical review’, William A Weber, Herbarium COLO, University of Colorado, Campus Box 265 Boulder CO 80309 USA, Copyright 2003 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Bill had only seen passing reference to it and I was hoping to find out more as I was about to retrace Joseph’s and Asa’s travels through the American west. The idea seemed to get lost during the writing of an important paper by Joseph and Asa called ‘The Vegetation of the Rocky Mountain Region and a Comparison with that of other Parts of the World’ available as a reprint from

When I first contacted the Asa Gray Herbarium they thought they had only a few letters from Joseph during the years of interest but managed to find a number more for my visit. I photographed them and am now attempting to decipher them. As anyone who has tried to read Joseph’s letters will agree this is no mean feat. His early letters from India to his father Sir William are very difficult to read as he used slanted script and small writing and wrote them on thin paper. The result is that the writing on the back has bled through resulting in a page having two scripts almost at right angles to each other. An example of this is shown below. Interestingly the letters he wrote from India to his fiancée are much easier to read and the language much more free flowing.


Letter from Joseph Hooker to Sir William Hooker from Calcutta (courtesy of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew UK)

I have great admiration for the staff at Kew and elsewhere who have transposed many of the Indian letters for the Joseph Hooker Correspondence project.

As Joseph aged his writing style became more free flowing but even harder to read. At times I look at a page and it seems to resemble Arabic with its swirls and curves and I find it hard to understand anything. So I write down what I can understand and leave gaps for the rest. I then go back after a while and sometimes the missing paragraph jumps out at me and I wonder why I couldn’t read it before. The more I read, the easier it is to understand but then I encounter botanical names of plants and they require some detective work. Some recent letters on Cupressi are a good example. At present they are only partly transposed and I would be happy to provide high resolution photos to anyone who could further assist with this job. The transposed letters will be provided to Harvard University. All letters are courtesy of the Asa Gray – University of Harvard Herbaria .

IMG 3926 Pages 1 and 4 Peter Donaldson

Royal Society Burlington House May 8/78
Dear Gray
Yours of April 26 just received and much welcome. I have this moment concluded a brief and very dull relation of … … life for the Geographical journal? Of which I shall send you a copy that may serve for you to contract into what you want for Stillman. It has taken me three days to construct for I get slower and slower in the matter of composition – I envy you your ready pen.
Max? Bertaly? Is here …. But pretty weak – he is making his herbarium over to Kew and cataloguing it here for us. A grand gift:
I …. Be indeed glad to see the James? Again.
As to the Cupressus macrocarpus, (Monterey Pine Editor) there

IMG 3927 pages 2 and 3 Peter Donaldson

…are two distinct ? things .. called here more difficult by than the varieties? of Cupressus

IMG 3930 pages 1 and 4 Peter Donaldson

May 25 /78
My fingers are half paralysed with writing – so I shall write slowly and beautifully too!
The …..Flora has arrived and I am delighted to see it- I like it altogether – very many thanks.
I am worried to death with correspondence about the morning opening of the Garden which is to be proposed to Parliament and am in correspondence besieged with queries and bombarded with letters. I wish Kew had never

IMG 3931 pages 2 and 3 Peter Donaldson

been created!. Smith is in …. about it and in truth his wife not … able to cope with it… We had the Garden open last Bank Holiday, and not a stroke of work was done after 10 AM?
However the matter must come on, The First ?… will oppose it, as will many of the advanced liberals. The motion will be made by Sir?(….(Sir Trevor Lawrence) the son of the late old Mr L ….. I know him well. …is … .. himself, but is acting under political pressure, being member for this part of the County. I have brought the matter before Lord ….. who … whip… it. Noel (….) is confident it will not be carried, but no minister should be confident.

I have your’s this morning about the Cupressi. Unquestionably nthyopsris? bovesli is nothing but Cupressus Nuthanis? – we have long known this, and our tallies bear both names (the former as a synonym)
C Lawsoniani is very like it but certainly different in habit and cone; we have hundreds of both very fine plants; 20 feet high some of them. Lawsoniana

IMG 3930 pages 4 (left) and 1Peter Donaldson

(our Sacramento valley friend) has a smaller cone with smaller …. and has slenderer branchlets by far. The male cones also differ. I am drying both for you. I tried hard but in vain, to run? them together. I cannot distinguish the separate leaves side by side. Our J boxcais? (ie Nutkatensis (Nootkatensis-editor?) has hardly any of … subulate? Leaves, at least I never saw them.
Carrier? And paulatan? Have both muddled these things but they are horrid difficulties;; …. Carriers S gigantis is a …. Libocedrus dec…. I believe.
I send a list of our American Cupressi.. the …. of Lawsoniana? are innumerable and most curious?

IMG 3932 Page 5 Peter Donaldson

May 25 78
But none approach C nuthiansis?. or nootkatensis possibly-Editor……
I have seen much of ….. James?

IMG 3933 page 6 Peter Donaldson

I took him to the Royal Society club dinner then to the Geographical? Society soiree for which I got the ladies tickets. Also we spent Saturday here in the Gardens.
I send proof of my lecture. I will try to keep it standing in type? Until I hear from you. It will need some foot notes.
Thanks for Danas’ and lequ…. letter; the latter clearly wholly unfitted for what he’s undertaken - … In … his letter of the… of ….. …. ….. which is just what they are not. We are all well but Harriet who is not making a good …. …. recovery? JDH

IMG3934 page 7 Peter Donaldson

May 25 78
American Cupressus at ….. Kew
List 1-4

IMG3935 Page 8 Peter Donaldson

List of Cupressus continued
Species 5- 14

Any help deciphering these letters and in particular the botanical names would be most appreciated.

If we have success with this I will post the deciphered letter and more letters .