Into the West

Into the West
Oil on Canvas
48 x 66 inches

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Into the West

In this painting Humphry Marshall stands on the edge of a precipice, looking out at the rugged beauty of the landscape as he devises a plan to explore the vast, untapped potential of the American wilderness. In the mid-1700s, America was dependent on many imported plants. Believing that the natural resources of the American continent could replace and even improve upon these imports, Humphry began to plan the details of an ambitious expedition that could benefit his fledging country.

Practical Quaker businessman that he was, Marshall contacted friends and acquaintances who had the influence and money to make his dream a reality. To populate his botanical garden, Humphry Marshall or his agents had made many collecting trips throughout the colonies. Moses, who had begun to work for his uncle full time, had been on an arduous months-long journey to Pittsburgh, begun in the summer of 1784, and had recently returned. Humphry approached Moses and his cousin William Bartram (who was a botanist and a highly skilled illustrator of plants and animals) with the idea of travelling even further west. Moses felt that ventures to even less inhabited areas would require greater planning and a sponsor. Humphry tried to drum up interest by contacting the American Philosophical Society through the help of his friend, Thomas Parke.

Humphry saw another opportunity in 1785 when his friend Benjamin Franklin was elected the President of Pennsylvania (equivalent to the Royal Governor). Franklin apparently was not receptive. Humphry then wrote to his friend Dr. John Coakley Lettsom, an English physician and philanthropist, who was interested in the potential of this trip. He also wrote to Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society of London, saying the trip would succeed if “met with proper encouragement.” In spite of these determined efforts, nothing materialized.

In May of 1792, Humphry Marshall received a letter from Dr. Caspar Wistar, a Quaker physician from Philadelphia, who asked if his nephew was interested in travelling west of the Mississippi since Thomas Jefferson and others were sponsoring a trip. Moses did not take advantage of the opportunity. Why he chose not to go is unknown, although the short lead time and his uncle’s failing eyesight may have influenced his decision.

We do know that Thomas Jefferson remained interested in funding a large expedition to the west. Twelve years later, as President of the United States, he commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the newly acquired territory of the Louisiana Purchase and to map a route across the western half of the continent. Lewis was the naturalist and he was tasked with studying, collecting and documenting the flora and fauna along the way. Sadly, Humphry Marshall did not live long enough to see his dream realized.

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