The Ecology of the Red River in 1806:
Peter Custis and Early Southwestern
DAN L. FLORES*
IN THE COURSE OF AN ADDRESS BEFORE THE PHILADELPHIA LINNAEAN
Society early in 1807, the eminent Pennsylvania professor of natural
history, Benjamin Smith Barton, alluded to the work of a pupil-
Dr. Peter Custis of Virginia-that had been conducted on the Red
River during the preceding year.? Barton did not consider it necessary
to remind this assemblage of northeastern scientists that the young
man whose western natural history survey he mentioned had been the
designated naturalist of President Thomas Jefferson's second major
exploring expedition into the Louisiana Purchase. Perhaps he did
realize, however, that some promotion was essential to prevent his stu-
dent's work from being obscured, even among scientists who ought to
have appreciated it. Already the more dramatic discoveries of Meri-
wether Lewis and William Clark, along with the administration's po-
litical embarrassment at the early abortion of the southwestern ex-
ploration, were combining with the limitations of Custis's work to
erase his important Red River study from American natural history.
The obscurity into which Custis's work soon fell has now prevailed
for more than a century and a half.
The story of Peter Custis's pioneering scientific work in the South-
west, performed nearly two decades before the expeditions of Thomas
Nuttall, Edwin James and Thomas Say, and Jean Louis Berlandier,
*Dan L. Flores is assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University and the
editor of Jefferson and Southwestern Exploration: The Freeman and Custis Accounts of
the Red River Expedition of i8o6 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984). He
would like to thank professors William H. Goetzmann, Benjamin H. Newcomb, James E.
Brink, Martin V. Melosi, Fred Rathjen, and Jerry Stannard for having read and com-
mented on all or parts of this article.
1Benjamin Smith Barton, "A Discourse on Some of the Principal Desiderata in Natural
History, and on the Best Means of Promoting the Study of This Science, in the United
States," Keir B. Sterling (comp.), Contributions to the History of American Natural
History (New York, 1974), 23.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 88, July 1984 - April, 1985. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101210/. Accessed April 21, 2015.