Agents of Ecological Imperialism: Nurserymen and the Creation of the Nineteenth-Century Plant Trade

This summer the Resident Scholar Program at the Special Collections and Archives Research Center welcomed Camden Burd, a PhD candidate in History at the University of Rochester. Burd’s research focuses on the ecological and economic impact of 19th century nurserymen, and how the plant trade in the United States transformed the rural landscape of the American West.

Burd presented a component of his research in mid-August in a talk titled, “Agents of Ecological Imperialism – Nurserymen and the Creation of Nineteenth-Century Plant Trade.” In his lecture, Burd depicted 19th century nurserymen as both businessmen and emissaries of agricultural transformation, noting that nurseries encouraged farmers and settlers alike to change their surroundings with orchards and gardens in an attempt to both beautify and create bounty. Not only was this mindset beneficial to the businesses within the plant trade, but it was also well within the contemporary mindset and ideology of Westward expansion and frontier settlement.

One of the largest commercial nurseries mentioned by Burd was Mount Hope, located in Rochester, New York. The East Coast, and Rochester in particular, were central to the plant trade in the United States, and Burd pointed out that the number of nurserymen living in the Rochester area jumped more than ten-fold from 1840 to 1855. As these nurseries grew, they began to expand and make connections westward, where there resided an untapped market for pioneers migrating to unsettled territories. One entrepreneur, Henderson Leulling, was a nurseryman based in the Oregon Territory who is well-known today for providing plant material such as fruit trees to early Oregon growers.

While investigating the economic and cultural impact made by these nurserymen, Burd also explored the consequences of nation-wide plant distribution, mainly though a discussion of the San Jose scale, a pest insect that was originally discovered in California, and that proved to be especially devastating to orchards. The outbreak of the San Jose scale was attributed to East Coast nurseries and nurserymen, and soon led to stricter regulations surrounding the sale and distribution of plant material across state lines. These new restrictions dissuaded local farmers from purchasing plants outside their geographic area. This shift would gradually lead to declines in these once booming businesses after the turn of the 20th century. The unintended consequences suffered by these nurserymen remind us, as Burd noted, of the “tangled relationship between nature and pioneering business.”

Camden Burd is the 30th scholar to participate in the Oregon State University Libraries and Press Resident Scholar Program, which is now in its 12th year.

This post is contributed by SCARC student archivist Hannah Lawson, a chemistry major with a passion for art, conservation, and preserving history.

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