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Pioneering passion for plants: Botanist Alice Eastwood explored the Southwest

The American West has always had extraordinary women, but few of them have stopped to pick the flowers.

For Women’s History Month, it is important to remember Alice Eastwood. This Canadian-born, 1879 Denver high school graduate was a determined young woman who not only picked the flowers, she named them. In turn, she had plants named after her. She explored the Southwest when single women were supposed to be home, married and raising a family. Instead, she made enormous contributions to botany and plant science in her 94 years, and she did it all with grit and grace.

In California, Alice Eastwood named 125 new plant species. The genera Aliciella and Eastwoodia were named for her. In her lifetime, she wrote 310 scientific articles, named 395 plant species and had 17 species named for her. At age 68 on a botany trip in California, she walked 20 miles the first day and 10 miles on the second. Eastwood officially retired at age 90.

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Reading in the Denver Public Library on July 31, 1891, Eastwood met Gustaf Nordenskiold, a young Swedish scientist suffering from tuberculosis. She told him of cliff dwellings recently discovered near Mesa Verde and of her friends the Wetherills from Mancos who could guide him. He took the train to Mancos and would become one of the first Southwestern archaeologists to study Ancestral Puebloan sites at Mesa Verde, map them and write a book about them. They worked together from 1891 to 1895.

A chance meeting at the Denver Public Library between Alice Eastwood and Gustaf Nordenskiold, who was suffering from tuberculosis, forever changed archaeology in the Southwest. Eastwood told Nordenskiold about the ruins at Mesa Verde, and he came to map, photograph and excavate them. As part of his mapping, he named and numbered kivas in Cliff Palace. His black paint can still be seen.

As for Eastwood, she became an early paleoethnobotanist. She helped identify plants unearthed in Wetherill excavations at prehistoric sites in Mesa Verde after first visiting Mancos Canyon on July 14, 1889. She helped study Ancestral Puebloans by understanding the plants they had used. She worked with Richard Wetherill at Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde, and with his brother, Al Wetherill, she had one of the great adventures of her life.

Eastwood taught at East High School in Denver for 11 years. Because of her wise real estate purchases in Denver and Durango, she retired at age 31 to spend the rest of her life botanizing. Regional botanist Al Schneider told me, “The properties were bought as investments and, when sold, returned her sufficient money to feed her flower frenzy.”

She became well-known in Colorado and far beyond and helped start botanical collections now at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. She gave 1,400 plant specimens to form the nucleus of the University of Colorado herbarium, including 17 species which she named from Montezuma County.

By 1892, Eastwood had become co-curator in San Francisco at the California Academy of Science’s herbarium. She would travel the West finding and identifying new plants. Eastwood edited ZOE: A Biological Journal, and in 1892, she published “Notes on the Cliffdwellers,” in which she wrote, “Corn, squash and beans were the chief crops; the walnuts now and then discovered were probably from further south with the cotton, which has been found on the pod, spun into thread and woven into cloth ... seashells have been found matted in the hair of the dead ... willow twigs fastened together something like the slats of Venetian blinds formed the outside cover, the coffin of these prehistoric people.”

Alice Eastwood was one of the few white women to explore Mesa Verde before it became a national park. She worked with the Wetherill brothers identifying plants during their excavations at Cliff Palace and wrote about it in ZOE: A Botanical Journal for the California Academy of Sciences. Though she was a pioneering botanist in the park, few National Park Service rangers giving Cliff Palace tours mention Eastwood or her accomplishments.

Always an astute observer, she noted, “Coarse grass with stiff stems, Oryzopsis cuspidate, was tied into bundles to make brushes, probably for their hair. The wild tobacco, Nicotiana attenuate, is common near their homes, and in the canons where their houses stand like statues in the rocky niches, the wild fruits are more abundant than elsewhere, leading to the belief that to some extent they were cultivated.”

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Eastwood’s letters and documents in the Wetherill Archives at the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument Visitor Center in Dolores make clear that one of her finest collecting trips occurred across southeast Utah in 1892. She wrote about it in ZOE and began, “It was my good fortune the past year, toward the end of May, to travel on horseback through a part of the Great American Desert that has been but little explored.” Al Wetherill met her at Thompson’s Spring as she stepped off the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad into a sea of sagebrush and a treeless plain.

An inveterate explorer, she invented her own type of dress with a split skirt so she could ride horseback and not go side-saddle. She was prepared for anything, unlike other male adventurers who got off at the same weathered railroad station, where with a four-horse wagon, it was 1.5 days south to Moab, two more days to Monticello, and another few days to Bluff.

Fifteen years later in 1907, an archaeological team disembarked at the same station and a squeamish young man asked the agent if he could use the urinal. “Urinal! My god, man,” shrieked the agent as he swept the room with an open palm. “Right outside that door is 40,000 acres and not a tree on it,” wrote Neil M. Judd in his memoirs.

Eastwood had no such qualms, including traveling with a married man. Her epic journey with Al Wetherill meant riding to Monticello, a “Mormon settlement at the foot of the Blue Mountains,” down Montezuma Canyon to the San Juan River and then McElmo Creek and the Montezuma Valley to Mancos. They would run out of food, but nothing stopped Eastwood from botanizing. She wrote: “It was the period when vegetation was most luxuriant, and the earth was gay with flowers.”

Eastwood impressed everyone. In his autobiography, Wetherill remembered, “She would stop to pick, or examine, some strange or rare specimen of plant that cropped up in protected places or in new territory.” As for accommodations, he admitted, “We had a regular cowboy’s layout – a greasy sack outfit. That meant limited camping equipment, a couple of saddle blankets, and a canvas covering for the pack. Grub was bacon, oatmeal, salt, sugar, coffee, and flour and baking powder.”

Alice Eastwood used Al Wetherill as a guide for expeditions into southeastern Utah and the Bears Ears and once ran out of food but refused to stop “botanizing.” Wetherill was amazed that this refined and scientific female researcher spent days in the saddle and cheerfully used camp gear from his “regular cowboy’s layout – a greasy sack outfit.” She named several plant species after him. Wetherill is in the middle of the photo.

Along the way, she turned down an offer of marriage from a Mormon widower. Because she had to prepare and dry all her plant specimens, she wasn’t prepared for a Utah wind that blew apart her samples. “She just sailed into those papers and specimens and got them all safely packed and tied in their proper places with no loss that I could see. Most of them were pretty green and had not blown far,” Wetherill wrote.

She collected in Court House Wash, now in Arches National Park, and in Comb Wash and Butler Wash in Bears Ears National Monument. She named several species after Al Wetherill, including Oreocarya wetherilli. But if her gumption and perseverance were often tested in the field, the ultimate challenge came in 1906 in San Francisco during the city’s epic earthquake. She thought nothing about herself or her possessions. Instead, she saved plant specimens from the California Academy of Sciences. She hurried into the crumbling building to climb five stories of twisted railing on destroyed stairs to retrieve 1,497 type specimens.

Alice Eastwood, one of America’s most famous botanists, shares her perpetual smile with the camera. Despite her frilly bonnet, she was camp-hardened by years of fieldwork, and in her 60s, she could still walk 20 miles in a day. She retired from the California Academy of Sciences at age 90.

Running into a damaged building, fires erupting down the block, she retrieved the academy’s historical records and irreplaceable botanical specimens by her quick thinking and by hiring a team and wagon to haul them to safety. “My own destroyed work I do not lament, but it was a joy to me while I did it, and I can still have the same joy in starting it again,” she wrote in a letter reprinted in “American Women Afield” (Texas A&M University Press). “All my pictures and books are gone and many treasures that I prized highly; but I regret nothing, for I am rich in friends and things seem of small account.”

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In her lifetime, she would rebuild the academy’s collections to 300,000 specimens. I’ll think of this amazing woman this spring as I hike in the canyons of Bears Ears looking for Erythranthe eastwoodiae (Eastwood’s monkeyflower) that appears in seeps and springs.

What a long life she lived at the intersection of archaeology, anthropology, botany and the Old West, becoming the settled West we now know. Alice Eastwood dedicated her life to science, and she enjoyed every moment of it. We should be grateful for her adventurous, pioneering spirit.

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I would like to thank botanist Al Schneider of Lewis for his help with this column. For more information about Alice Eastwood and photos of Eastwood’s monkeyflower, visit Schneider’s website at www.swcoloradowildflowers.com.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.