A recently acquired collection of papers belonging to longtime Salem educator James Carlton Nelson have yielded a few unexpected surprises. The papers consisting of a number of letters indicate that for some time in the 1910s, Nelson was interested in botany and maintained a robust correspondenc
Portrait of James Carlton Nelson. WHC 0094.023.0008. Panegyric III Awards Program.
e with scholars (professional and amateur) across the country. All while serving as principal of Salem High School.
The papers themselves are full of information about various species of plants, which Nelson was apparently actively collecting and sending to his correspondents for identification and preservation. They also offer an interesting look into scholarship in a pre-digital age.
James Carlton Nelson
By day, James Carlton Nelson was principal of Salem High School, dealing with the day to day needs of students in their academic quests. But in the evenings and on weekends and summer breaks, a newly donated collection of letters to the Willamette Heritage Center reveals that Nelson had another passion: botany. He collected specimens from all over Oregon and carried on correspondence with scholars across the country. His pressed flora specimens even made their way into the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University.
James Carlton Nelson was born in Kentucky in 1867, just two years after the close of the Civil War. Nelson’s father was a farmer turned newspaper editor. Nelson was educated at Hannover College in Indiana and began a life-long career in education in Carthage, Missouri. He taught and served as a principal in schools in Iowa, Illinois and Wenatchee, Washington before arriving with his wife Anna Van Horssen Nelson and son Thomas in Salem in about 1914. Nelson worked for Salem High School until his death in 1944, as principal for 15 years, then as principal emeritus and registrar.
Beyond an undergraduate degree in “science,” membership in what an obituary calls the “Botany society and Fern society” and a friendship with Willamette University botany professor Morton Peck, Nelson does not appear to have any academic credentials in the field of botany. Nevertheless, this new collection of letters donated to the Willamette Heritage Center reveals Nelson maintained a lively correspondence with renowned botanist James Francis MacBride and several others, amateur and professional. In addition to requesting help from MacBride in identifying specimens he had collected, Nelson was also able to help the scholar by sending specimens back to Cambridge for MacBride to use. MacBride referred to Nelson as his one of his “good ‘botanical’ friends of the far west” and frequently encouraged him to send any specimens he might come across, sometimes mentioning specific materials he was seeking. In a letter dated January 6, 1919, MacBride writes: “We shall indeed be mighty grateful for material from Oregon of Plantago major var. intermedia, because we do not have this variety from farther west than Ontario…” At least 53 specimens collected by Nelson are part of the Gray Herbarium’s collections today.
The location notes of the specimens collected seem to indicate that Nelson’s collecting expeditions were sometimes quite casual in nature. He found specimens on a “vacant lot on Marion Street” and the “bank of Mill Creek at N. Winter Street” as well as in more exotic locations like on a “dry rocky hillside near Mule Creek” in Curry County and “on old ballast in ship yard” in Portland. One can almost imagine him taking evening walks from his home at 541 Cottage Street SE (and later 104 E. Wilson Street) keeping an eye out for specific species. As he passes “a yard on south Church St.” he bends down and snaps off a twig from an interesting shrub. Later, at home he presses the sample between heavy books or in his plant press and by the dim light of the lamp pours over his collection of botanical treatises, systematically crossing out potential classifications based on the shape of the leaves and how they attach to the woody stem. After determining the genus and species, he carefully writes out on a small card the identification, the date and a few short notes about where the piece was found in his curling script.
After more than a half century in education, I think that Principal Nelson would be proud to know that the specimens he sent back to MacBride continue to serve researchers at the Gray Herbarium. Several of his pressings have been digitized and are now available for us at home to view through the Gray Herbarium website. Thanks to the work of our volunteer Lew, you can also read some of the letters sent to Nelson on the Willamette Heritage Center website.
The collection itself consists of 23 letters and a pamphlet. You can see a listing of all the materials here. Perhaps the most distinguished correspondent was a very young James Francis MacBride. At the time of these letters MacBride was working at Gray’s Herbarium at Harvard. A selection of letters from MacBride and others have been digitized and are available for reading below.