Friday, March 13, 2009

Architect of Manifest Destiny: Maps, Flowers, and a National Scientific Institute

At Christmas time we are all familiar with his namesake: the Poinsettia. This beautiful tropical, red flower is named after the man who brought it home from Mexico to grow in his home state of South Carolina in 1828. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) is almost forgotten other than that note in history. But he was much more than an amateur botanist and promoter of this flower. He served as the first United States minister to Mexico and later as the United States Secretary of War with President Martin Van Buren. He was also a mentor to fellow southerner and western explorer John C. Fremont. His thoughts on race and civilization served as a foundation for what would later be called Manifest Destiny. He expanded the size of the United States Topographic Bureau and supported explorations to better map the West. And because of his interest in natural history he helped to found the predecessor to the Smithsonian.

Poinsett, a statesman, physician, and amateur botanist was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1779. He was schooled in Connecticut and then later in Europe. He was very well-educated and very well-travelled before his return to the United States. He served his own state of South Carolina as state representative and as an United States Congressional Representative. He was then appointed special envoy to Mexico in 1822-23 because of his experiences in South America observing and offering assistance to various revolutionaries who hoped to overthrow Spanish rule and establish republican style governments. It was in Mexico, as an interested naturalist and observer, that he wrote Notes on Mexico (1822), one of several popular and official descriptions of this country. Because of his considered expertise he was later appointed as the first United States Minister to Mexico in 1825 and held that post until 1830. He continued to champion republican styled government in Mexico along with certain racial and imperialist views of Mexico and its relationship to the United States. These views would color later relations among these two countries and Poinsett was not favorably viewed by some Mexicans who rightly feared American expansion at the expense of Mexico.

It was during this time that he brought back the red flower known to the Aztecs as Cuetlaxochitl (meaning "skin flower.”) The flower had a connection to Christmas traditions in Mexico since the 16th century. There was a legend of a little, poor girl who received a visit from an angel at Christmas. The angel guided her to pick roadside weeds and place them before a church alter as a gift for baby Jesus. The weeds were then transformed into beautiful red flowers. These flowers, from the legend, became a traditional part of Christmas in Mexico. By 1836, they had also become a staple of American Christmas traditions, thanks to Joel Poinsett who grew them in his greenhouses in Charleston and then distributed them to friends and others.

Several Years after he returned from Mexico, Poinsett was picked by President Martin Van Buren as his Secretary of War (1837-41). Here he pushed for policies of continued Indian removal from the East and presided over the Seminole War in Florida. He also called for the expansion of the United States Topographic Bureau. He said that, “We are still lamentably ignorant of the geography and resources of our country.” This expanded institution would impel him to send explorations to the West to seek new mineral and natural resources and to create new accurate maps. One of the young men he had mentored, John C. Fremont, would become one of the greatest of western explorers. He helped Fremont, a fellow Southerner, to get a job mapping the Southern Appalachian Mountains for a proposed railroad from Charleston to Cincinnati. (The railroad was never built but one of the tunnels was started. Stumphouse Tunnel is an abandoned, partially finished railroad tunnel blasted into the mountains just above Clemson University.). With this experience in mapping rugged terrain and his patron, Fremont was later helped to find work with the Army Corps of Engineers to survey the Upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. His accurate mapping on this expedition and other western ones helped to produce maps which were carried by thousands of settlers and others on their rush to the West and in their fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.

Poinsett, ever interested in natural science, asked for these expeditions to bring back new plants and animal specimens when encountered. This also led him, in 1840, to found the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts. This was to be the forerunner to what would become the Smithsonian. Although, a South Carolinian, Poinsett was a devoted unionist with ever an eye on how to help the United States become one of the great civilized nations of the world. He passed away in 1851 and is buried at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg, Sumter County, South Carolina. His importance lies in many areas. His name is forever connected with Christmas and the red, Aztec flower we call the Poinsettia. However, his importance is much more than that. He was one of the earliest of the architect’s for Manifest Destiny. He colored the relationship between Mexico and the United States, a relationship that would eventually lead to the annexation of Texas and a war with Mexico. He expanded the United States Topographic Bureau and called on expeditions to map the West. He was a mentor to the great western explorer, John C. Fremont who would carry out much of that mapping. And he helped to found one of the great scientific and museum complexes in the world: the Smithsonian. When you think about, it’s a wonder we don’t know more about Poinsett, other than how his last name graces the most famous of all Christmas flowers.

See articles I consulted for this blog:

Freed, Feather Crawford. “Joel Poinsett: Agent of Empire, Patron of Science” (2008): Hidden Transcripts:

Volpe, Vernon L. “The Origins of the Fremont Expeditions: John J. Abert and the Scientific Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West.” The Historian, (January 1, 2000): Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. Gale Group: Farmington Hills, Michigan

Andy Thomas

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