The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 88, July 1984 - April, 1985 Page: 2
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
which had previously been thought to be the beginnings of natural his-
tory study in this region, has only very recently begun to emerge. For
a variety of reasons-among them the failure to complete the explora-
tion because of Spanish opposition, as well as a conscious desire on the
part of the Jefferson administration to draw as little attention to the
exploration as possible-the Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis expedi-
tion has remained a lost incident in western history.2 Yet Jefferson's
Red River probe was the first major American exploration to include
an academically trained naturalist. While the natural history aspect of
the effort has shared in the entire exploration's relative invisibility,
the accounts of the 1806 examination of the Red River Valley provide
an important and provocative description of early southwestern ecolo-
gy.3 Indeed, not only is Peter Custis's work an invaluable aid in under-
standing the early Red River Valley and the changes it has since
undergone, but his forgotten story contributes much toward an under-
standing of the fusion between government exploration and American
nature study in its beginning years.
2Until very recently, the only work done on the Jeffersonian Red River exploration
consisted of a pair of syntheses by Isaac Joslin Cox shortly after the turn of the century.
See Isaac J. Cox, "The Exploration of the Louisiana Frontier, 18o3-18o6," Annual Report
of the American Historical Association for the Year 190go4 (Washington, D.C., 1905), 151-
174, and Isaac Joslin Cox, The Early Exploration of Louisiana (Cincinnati, 19o6). Cox
makes no effort in these works to identify Custis or assess his natural history work. After
urging by John R. Swanton, in 1967 Conrad V. Morton of the U.S. National Herbarium,
Smithsonian Institution, published an analysis of Custis's botanical entries entitled
"Freeman and Custis' Account of the Red River Expedition of 1806: An Overlooked
Publication of Botanical Interest," Journal of the Arnold Arboretum [Harvard Univer-
sity], XLVIII (1967), 431-459. Donald Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and the Stony Moun-
tains: Exploring the West from Monticello (Urbana, 1981), devoted a chapter (pp. 223-
241) to the expedition without going deeply into the Spanish response but summarizing
and supplementing Cox on pages 226-234. Jackson offers a tentative, one-paragraph
appraisal of Custis's work (p. 233) that concludes with a call for a complete analysis.
Dan L. Flores (ed.), Jefferson and Southwestern Exploration: The Freeman and Custis
Accounts of the Red River Expedition of I8o6 (Norman, 1984), the first book-length
treatment of the expedition, reproduces and annotates Custis's three manuscript natural
history reports in their entirety. Custis is also the model for "Dr. Raphael Bailey," the
slightly fictionalized hero of the "Freeman and Bailey Expedition" in Donald Jackson's
new historical novel of southwestern exploration, Valley Men: A Speculative Account
of the Arkansas Expedition of 1807 (New Haven, 1983).
3Custis's survey is not even mentioned in the major reference studies of American and
southwestern natural history. He is entirely absent from Susan Delano McKelvey's mas-
sive Botanical Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West, 179o-185o (Jamaica Plain,
Mass., 1955). McKelvey writes not only that John Bradbury in 18o09 was the first trained
botanist to examine western America (p. 64), but also that Edwin James of the Stephen
H. Long expedition was "the first botanist to penetrate any distance south of the Ar-
kansas River" (p 246). Similarly, Harry C. Oberholser, in the definitive two-volume The
Bird Life of Texas, ed. Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr. (2 vols.; Austin, 1974), I, 3, 6, and Samuel
Wood Geiser in Naturalists of the Frontier (2nd ed.; Dallas, 1948), 19, 30-54, believed
that scientific work in Texas began with Edwin James and Jean Louis Berlandier.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 88, July 1984 - April, 1985, periodical, 1984/1985; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101210/m1/24/: accessed April 19, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.