This is the first of our “Cabinet Curiosities” series, which explores significant items in our Herbarium collection. This article was written by Joe Lippert, Digitization Coordinator.
In 1852, the former Republic of Texas was two years past the Compromise of 1850 that solidified the state borders we are all so familiar with today. The portions of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming once connected to our state were very sparsely held by any form of government because of raiding parties by hostile Comanche warriors from the nearby Comancheria. And one of the places raided by those fierce warriors was a tiny trading post named Frontera, the same name written in flowing cursive on the original collection label of our specimen. To the left of the primary label is another, smaller note that reads “Coll. Charles Wright”.
Located 8 miles northwest of present day El Paso, for a short time this small outpost established in 1848 was the first custom house on the recently established international border between Mexico and the State of Texas. The newfound importance brought with it surveyors to delineate and parcel out the open and boundless land of the Southwest, and included on a survey in 1849 by the U.S. Army was a young Yale graduate and botanist by the name Charles Wright. Promised nothing more than transportation of his baggage during the 673 mile trip, he arrived on foot in El Paso 104 days later but flush with collections of wildflower seeds and botanical specimens. Wright lived in El Paso for the next four years, surveying the US-Mexico border and discovered 50 new species of plants in addition to collections of avifauna such as Empidonax wrightii (American Gray Flycatcher). Then in 1853, Wright left West Texas for a spot on an expedition to the North Pacific via Asia, and never returned to the high deserts of the Southwest.
Frontera did not exist much longer after Wright’s time, remaining a small frontier trading post and later a ranch until 1855, when the spot was abandoned for too many Comanche raids and not enough military protection. One can still find evidence of the post on mail delivery maps until the 1860s, but today only paved streets and quiet neighborhoods remain of that outpost.
Unlike the forgotten town of Frontera, we retain a tangible memory of the region’s botanical history that can never be lost as long as we preserve these irreplaceable specimens. In the process of digitizing BRIT’s collection of specimens from Texas, to date we have uncovered almost a dozen specimens by Charles Wright from this period of his life. With the help of Herbarium staff and volunteers, we have now preserved the life’s work of a lesser known but no less important Texas botanist who worked tirelessly to explore and collect plants from the unfilled places on a world map.