Botanical and Cultural Treasure, Hidden in Plain Sight

On May 23, 1884, on an Arctic island just east of Ellesmere, American Army Sergeant David Ralston starved to death. He was a member of a scientific expedition that had begun three years previously. In his Lady Franklin Bay Expedition party of 25, only seven were still alive when rescuers finally reached their collapsed tent on June 22, 1884.

When Ralston’s body was exhumed and returned to the United States with the survivors, it was found to be just one of six from which strips of flesh had been removed post-mortem, the implication of cannibalism adding even more fuel to sensational accounts of polar ambition, tragic error, achievement, astronomical tax expense, and especially the riveting behaviour—resourcefulness, heroism, cowardice and survival—of human beings pushed beyond their limits.

A formal studio photograph of the expedition members.

Members of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition—including David Ralston—prior to embarking in 1881. Only seven members of the team were still alive when they were rescued from a small island east of Ellesmere. Image: U.S. Government/ George W. Rice © U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

On February 28, 2014, in the National Herbarium of Canada—a climate-controlled bank of carefully organized metal cabinets protecting Canada’s national “plant library”—botanical specimens collected by David Ralston at Lady Franklin Bay were discovered. The thrilling find was prompted by a seemingly routine request received through the website of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Requests from researchers and the public seeking details relating to specimens that make up the ongoing record of wild plants in Canada are part of the everyday service work of herbarium staff: the name of the scientist who identified a certain sedge; the number of Rosa nutkana samples from British Columbia that might be suitable for DNA extraction; the flowering dates of all the specimens ever collected at Arctic Bay. It’s isn’t every day, however, that one of these requests turns up something like David Ralston.

Collage: A herbarium sheet and an enlarged detail of the specimen.

One of the plants collected during the expedition and recently discovered in our collections: Erigeron uniflorus (one-flowered fleabane; catalogue #CAN 103777. Images: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

The specimens were in plain sight. Most are miniscule single shoots of flowers and grasses attached with narrow white tape to standard 11 × 16 inch herbarium sheets. One flower is so small that it is instead tucked inside an envelope that was glued to the sheet.

Finding 10 of the sheets was made easy by the fact that they had already been databased as part of the daunting, slow task of digitizing a collection that grew to a million specimens before databases even existed. Finding any remaining Ralston specimens will take time—we will not be sure of everything that is in our cabinets until the entire collection has been databased and imaged, years from now.

Two herbarium sheets.

Two of the specimens collected by D.C. Ralston before his fatal ordeal: Potentilla rubricaulis (on left; catalogue #CAN 72661) and Poa abbreviata, or short bluegrass (on right; catalogue #CAN 36426). The story of how the museum came to have them is still being pieced together.

Until the end of last month, the only surviving plant specimens from the Lady Franklin Bay expedition were thought to reside at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum, which received over 50 specimens and Ralston’s diary in the 1970s from the sergeant’s descendants. (More information about the Carnegie specimens).

In contrast, the specimens at the National Herbarium of Canada seem to have arrived in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Acquisition records from that time are sparse, but the specimens bear Canadian Geological Survey labels that seem to have been carefully inscribed by Miss Marie Stewart, who was the herbarium assistant to the National collection from 1902 to 1928. We suspect this because someone thought to preserve a sample of her handwriting along with that of a great number of prominent botanists, in a card index designed to help herbarium staff attribute ambiguously inscribed specimens to specific scientists.

An index card with a handwriting sample attached.

Handwriting samples such as this help National Herbarium staff determine who wrote a specimen label.

It is common for herbaria to share duplicate specimens with each other, and entirely plausible for the Canadian National Herbarium to receive a set of specimens collected on Canadian soil by an American expedition. However, the exact source and circumstances of the transfer of these few Ralston plant collections to the Museum of Nature’s precursor remains an enticing mystery for now.

Despite their presence in the collection, the significance of Ralston’s plants simply hadn’t been recognized—at least not within recent memory—among the hundreds of thousands of herbarium sheets that make up a scientific collection that also includes specimens collected by legendary 19th-century Arctic exploration “superstars” such as Edward Parry, Robert Peary, John Rae, James Ross and John Franklin.

With the museum’s specimen database becoming available online this month, the cabinets’ contents become available for browsing to potentially millions of virtual visitors, thereby making more discoveries of this kind possible—and likely.

More information about the expedition:

This entry was posted in Arctic, History, Plants and Algae and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Botanical and Cultural Treasure, Hidden in Plain Sight

  1. gpcox says:

    I never heard about this before, thank you for bringing it to my attention. This is the sort of story History Channel should have!

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