by Anne D. Bullard
Winner of the Best Student Essay Award in the
1993 San Diego Historical Society Institute of History
Charles Russell Orcutt was “a librarian’s nightmare,” somewhat careless in his work, peculiar in nature, and passionate about his collecting.1 A naturalist who lived in San Diego for much of his life, he made extensive trips to Baja California, Arizona, Mexico, Jamaica, and Haiti to collect plants and shells. Charles Orcutt looked like a scientist. He had a ponderous expression, wore glasses, and his face was framed by a full beard and ample hair. His grandchildren mistook him for Santa Claus on occasion.2 Many San Diegans knew him as the “cactus man,” probably because of the large numbers of cacti he grew on his properties at 21st and J streets. What most people did not know was that Charles Orcutt contributed valuable specimens to some of the most important botanical gardens in the world, as well as museums, universities, and scientific societies.3 Viewed by many as a hopeless eccentric, he was a pioneer plant and shell collector in the West.
Charles Orcutt was born in Hartland, Vermont on his father’s farm, the youngest of five sons. Charles never knew three of his brothers because they died before he was born in 1864.4 His father, Heman C. Orcutt, was a farmer and horticultural enthusiast. He not only grew cash crops, but also studied professional plant journals and sometimes contributed articles for publication. Charles’ mother, Eliza Gray Orcutt, was an accomplished poetess.5 She composed poetry and articles for literary magazines, and wrote medical journals for her father.6 She and her husband shared their interest in plants. Together they taught their children to read and write, and how to cultivate satisfying individual interests. Charles and his brother did not go to school, but they nonetheless became educated.
In 1879, Charles Orcutt came to San Diego with his parents and brother.7 Heman Orcutt bought land near the ruins of the Mission San Diego de Alcalá where he started a small horticultural nursery and also applied for a post office commission.8 The family collected plant specimens from local areas for their nursery stock. His sons helped with the business, but Charles disliked caring for trees and propagating plants. He preferred to collect new specimens not yet represented in the nursery. With his father, Charles explored throughout the San Diego region collecting plants. They visited Cuyamaca, Soda Springs, Campo, and Borrego as well as places closer to home. They found dozens of plants not familiar to them.9
At the time the Orcutts moved to San Diego, naturalists were just beginning to study Baja California. Charles Orcutt made his first trip to Baja California at age eighteen. He and his father joined a group of botanists on an expedition to Ensenada in 1882. Charles, the youngest and least experienced of the group, accompanied the expedition as driver of the wagon that carried supplies for the camp and specimens collected along the way. Charles Parry,10 the expedition leader, noted that Charles was an inquisitive boy — interested in everything.11
Orcutt learned from Parry and the other scientists how to collect, preserve, and catalog specimens for study. His journal from that trip is in the form of short notes, sometimes just a single sentence. His descriptions were vivid: He caught a pretty lizard with a bright indigo blue tail, there was rabbit for supper, and the next day was again, very warm. He celebrated a Saturday by putting on a clean shirt and panning for gold and rubies.12 His accounts are witty and provide a distinct impression of what life was like on these expeditions.
Charles and Heman Orcutt continued collecting together until 1885.13 Along the way Charles became interested in shells, which would become his second major love in collecting. Eventually the young man began to take expeditions alone. He immersed himself in learning about the Baja California landscape and collected as many specimens as possible. As Orcutt learned more about the plants and shells of the region, he loved to recognize plants named for familiar people, or to recognize specimens that he had only read about in scientific journals. Orcutt made lengthy notes including his observations of plants and details about the places he visited.
During this time the young man had an idea. Orcutt wanted to publish a journal to present his field work. This journal would also report local scientific news and provide information of general interest about nature. He knew that his journal would be unique for the West. In 1884 at the age of twenty, Charles Orcutt began to write and publish The West American Scientist, which appeared sporadically until 1919.14 It was the first of several scientific journals he published during his lifetime.15
The first issue of The West American Scientist carried the masthead “A popular review and record for the Pacific Coast.”16 It contained a collection of scientific articles, poems, reviews, and advertisements. A regular feature was titled “Notes ‘n News” and contained miscellaneous information such as recent volcanic eruptions around the world, and the causes of death in San Diego for the month.17 The West American Scientist was often an amusing publication sprinkled with Orcutt’s droll humor. For example, he reported:
A sea-monster which was neither ‘shark nor whale’ was recently observed in San Diego Bay. It was said to move at the rate of fifty miles an hour, and was observed by several reliable people. It was subsequently captured and proved to be a wharf pile that had broken loose!18
Another example reported the following:
A crank in Savannah, Missouri, shot at the woman who refused him, but the ball was stopped by her bustle, made of old newspapers, and she was uninjured. Now is the time to subscribe.19
Orcutt encouraged his readers to write to him with questions, assuring them that he planned to answer every letter promptly. Once, the collector returned from an expedition to find over one hundred letters awaiting his reply. In the next issue of The West American Scientist Orcutt apologized to his readers for his inability to answer all the letters right away.20 Every issue published presented this sort of eclectic material, especially for the first several years. Later the content became more serious and the layout more formal as Orcutt strove to produce a journal of scientific value.
In July of 1892, Heman Orcutt became ill and died at the age of sixty-five.21 Distraught with the loss, Charles ceased publication of The West American Scientist. Fifteen months later, Orcutt returned to his readers with a long article about his father’s life, and a rambling editorial where he expressed his sorrow about his father’s death, alluded to his recent marriage, expressed his outrage at a recent banking crisis [Panic of 1893], and concluded with a pledge to renew his efforts to preserve scientific journals.22 Charles Orcutt had reached a definitive point in his life, but his distracted style and ambitious character remained the same.
Orcutt’s life began anew with his marriage to Olive E. Eddy, a young doctor from Michigan. Olive lived with her sister in Pasadena, California. In addition to her medical practice, Olive and her sister wrote and published a magazine titled Out of Doors For Women.23 She met Charles through mutual friends and they married in 1892. For their wedding trip they rode horseback from Pasadena to San Jacinto, and then to San Diego, collecting plants the along the way. The couple settled in San Diego in one of several houses built by Orcutt and his brother at 21st and J streets. During the next six years they had four children.25
Charles Orcutt continued his expeditions and was away from his home much of the time. He attempted to make money selling parts of his collection and by running a small printing business, but Olive provided most of the financial support for the family through her medical practice.25
By 1922, Orcutt was away almost continuously.26 He wrote letters to Olive and the children often, but rarely returned home. He collected primarily in Texas and Arizona, and whenever possible traveled to Mexico. All this time the collector worked alone or with one companion. Because money was scarce, the man relied on the charity of acquaintances, and took advantage of whatever he could along the way. Orcutts’ letters to Olive were full of requests for money. The lengthy notes were written on scraps of paper or on plain postcards. They often described his current expenses including meals, blankets, and transportation. They included descriptions of his efforts to sell parts of his ever-growing collection, complaints of ill health, and expressions of his excitement about rare finds.27 The letters reveal a man who thought of little else but his work and his day-to-day existence. Although he eagerly awaited responses from home, Orcutt did not seem to be lonesome or unhappy. On the contrary, the man was in his element. He read the letters right away, and then burned them to save space in his luggage!28 Olive sent what money she could spare, but Charles’ need was constant despite her support.29
While he collected, Orcutt took every opportunity to ship bundles of plants to large herbariums for identification. The botanists at these institutions came to know him, and were good natured about trivialities such as postage due and duplicate specimens submitted. They went through all the material and wrote back to Orcutt with lists of plants identified.30 On occasion, Orcutt would send something that was not yet cataloged. By the end of his career the collector had a total of one genus and fifteen species of plants named for him.31
In addition to plant specimens the man also collected all types of shells, both living and fossil. Of these shells, nineteen species were named for him.32 Orcutt was careful to number all of his finds because he was very interested in the total number of specimens collected, and wanted to be sure to receive credit for any new types he might happen to submit.33
Orcutt wanted to start his own museum to preserve and exhibit his various collections. He craved recognition from professional scientists and the public, but, unattached to any institution, and careless in his collecting methods, Orcutt remained at the fringe of the scientific world.34 He envisioned the efforts of “many hands” to organize and display everything he collected or wrote. Orcutt was unable to interest others in the idea, and his treasures continued to accumulate in boxes and warehouses.35
When Orcutt realized that he would not be able to start his own museum, he decided to make a gift of the entire collection to the San Diego Society of Natural History.36 This occurred in 1918, but the matter remained unsettled for the next ten years. A variety of problems complicated the situation. The most difficult problem was that Orcutt was still alive and adding to the collection all the time. In addition, he actively traded and sold items whenever he pleased. The ever-expanding collection included an extensive library, plant specimens, shells, photographs, and a large assortment of other curiosities collected over the years. He felt it implicit that he could sell and trade items at his discretion, especially duplicate copies of The West American Scientist.37 Orcutt assumed that the collection was so large and encompassed so many different elements, there would always be plenty for the museum. The museum officials however, did not view the situation the same way. They felt that the inherent value of the collection would be diminished if Orcutt continued to sell and trade items as he pleased.
The museum established a committee to evaluate the material donated by Orcutt, and to negotiate a new agreement with him.38 This action angered Orcutt because he was now one man against a faceless entity. His personal relationships with the museum officials were put aside in the name of business. Orcutt was living in Jamaica at the time, and he corresponded with the committee through a long series of letters.39 Another problem was that the museum did not want all the material Orcutt wished to give them. After viewing the contents of his warehouse in Old Town, members of the committee determined that the collection was mixed with a large amount of junk such as old newspapers, popular magazines, personal files, government reports, and all manner of memorabilia.40 This incensed Orcutt even more. In a letter to the committee, he expressed his anger at the situation and his willingness to settle for five hundred dollars to compensate for the inconvenience caused him by the predicament. He wrote:
…the society is the loser, and may sometime realize their error…You do not need write to me again – just act – pay Mrs. C.R Orcutt …and move at your earliest convenience.41
The whole issue of his gift to the museum became a tremendous disappointment to Charles Orcutt. His bitterness toward the committee and his frustration about the lengthy negotiations were never fully resolved. His lifelong dream of making a lasting contribution to science fell apart because of misunderstanding, disorganization, and distance. In the end, the museum paid Mrs. Orcutt $750 as reimbursement for shipping and expenses related to incorporating new materials added to the collection since the original agreement.42
By 1927, Charles Orcutt maintained a residence in Jamaica. He continued to collect specimens and send material to museums, especially the Smithsonian Institution.43 In 1929 the Smithsonian notified Orcutt that they had assigned a technician to catalog material sent from Jamaica, and expected the task to take three months. He was then given funds for work in Haiti.44 Finally, a clear sign of recognition from the scientific community!
After seven months of work in the region, he traveled to Jeremie, Haiti. He was exhausted and ill. He stayed with an American embassy official until he was taken to the hospital. He died at 6:00 on the morning of August 25, 1929.45 A telegram from the secretary of state notified his family.46
After Charles Orcutt’s death, the Museum of Natural History made efforts to locate missing parts of the collection, authenticate records of his collecting trips, and to work out the details of his life. The museum officials deemed the collection a “magnanimous gift,”47 especially copies of the West American Scientist and rare scientific monographs. But the collection was scattered over a wide area, and often stored in such a way that many parts had deteriorated.48
Orcutt made significant contributions to science, but not in the way he had imagined. There is no single body of Charles Orcutt’s collection in existence. It’s disparate parts are essential to larger collections in a several specialized disciplines. Because he was a “librarian’s nightmare,” a representative group of his collection has yet to be assembled.
1. C.R. Orcutt’s granddaughter quoted Billie Meeder, Librarian emeritus at the Natural History Museum when she described Orcutt’s personality. He was a “librarian’s nightmare” because of the casual way he edited and published The West American Scientist. Letter from Edalee Orcutt Harwell, San Diego, 24 October 1992.
2. Barbara Bisbee Bradford, Riverside County, Calif., Telephone interview by Anne Bullard, 27 October 1992.
3. Obituary, San Diego Union, 29 August 1929.
4. Barbara Bradford, 27 October 1992.
5. C.R. Orcutt, The West American Scientist, 8 (July 1893): 31.
6. Barbara Bradford, 27 October 1992.
7. C.R. Orcutt did not give a reason why his family moved to California, but his tone suggested that he did not want to leave his “Green Mountain State.” The West American Scientist, 8 (July 1893): 31.
8. A post office was established at Orcutt, California on February 5, 1890 and was discontinued on May 15, 1896. See H. E. Salley, History of California Post Offices (San Diego: The Depot, 1991), 157. An article in the San Diego Union, May 15, 1891 stated that this post office was called Orcutt to honor the highly esteemed citizen Heman C. Orcutt.
9. The West American Scientist, 8 (July 1893): 32.
10. For more on Charles Parry see Coinger, Ronald S. and Edward J. Collins, eds. “Parry, Charles Christopher,” World Who’s Who In Science (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1968).
11. Typed notes of Dr. Reid Moran, Curator of the Herbarium, San Diego Museum of Natural History, Balboa Park, c1964.
12. This entry stated that “a thousand or more” gold and rubies were taken out of the soil. There is no remark about this being unusual. Orcutt, The West American Scientist 1 (July-August 1885): 56-57.
13. Orcutt, West American Scientist 8 (July 1893): 34.
14. The volumes of West American Scientist at the Museum of Natural History in Balboa Park are bound editions of volumes 1-22, covering the dates of 1884-1919. There could be some later issues in existence. Helen DuShane stated in her book, The Baja California Travels of Charles Russell Orcutt (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1971), p. 26, that Orcutt published the journal until 1921. Orcutt himself stated in a letter (19 October 1927) to the Natural History Museum committee overseeing his gift, that he intended to continue publication “…if I live.”
15. Other journals include California Art and Nature (1901-1902), West American Mollusca (1900-1902), Orange Blossom (April 1891-August 1891), Golden Hints For California (1891-92, six total). See DuShane, The Baja California Travels of Charles Russell Orcutt, 70.
16. The West American Scientist, 1 (December 1884): 1.
17. Ibid.; 2 (July 1886): 105.
18. Ibid., 3 (April 1921): 218.
19. His continual call for material such as letters, articles, and items for trade demonstrates his desire to create a community of natural history enthusiasts such as himself. Ibid., 1 (July-August 1885): 52.
20. Ibid., 8 (July 1893): 24.
21. The West American Scientist, 8 (July 1893): 46.
22. Olive Eddy was the first woman to graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in medicine. Her diploma is part of the collection at the Orcutt Collection at the Research Archives, San Diego History Center, Balboa Park.
23. They named their children as follows: Charles Eddy, Mary, Eunice, and Heman Cortis. Charles Eddy Orcutt is the father of Edalee Orcutt Harwell, and Mary Orcutt Bisbee is the mother of Barbara Bisbee Bradford, both of whom have provided useful information for this essay.
24. Orcutt placed advertisements in West American Scientist for his publishing business and plant businesses. See West American Scientist 8 (July 1893): 75. This page carries the advertisement: “C.R. Orcutt Publishing House, Commercial Printing. Books and Catalogues a Specialty.” See also West American Scientist, 1 (July-August 1885): 52. This page carries an advertisement for his “dealership” of native seeds, birds, bulbs, and plants. Barbara Bradford stated that Olive ran a small medical practice and provided most of the money for the family. Barbara Bradford, 27 October 1992.
25. Charles Orcutt’s journeys are traceable through examination of his plant lists and the numerous letters he wrote home during this period. Many of the letters, especially for the years 1922-1929, are contained in the Orcutt Collection at the San Diego History Center.
26. Letters to Olive (1922-1929), Orcutt Collection, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society.
27. Barbara Bradford, 27 October 1992.
29. A letter from the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis dated Jan. 26, 1914 to C.R Orcutt, thanks him for the “plants forwarded by you from Mexico City.” This letter mentions that the plants arrived with postage due, but that they took care of the matter.
30. Typed notes of Dr. Reid Moran, Curator of the Herbarium, San Diego Museum of Natural History, c1964.
31. A complete list of shells collected by Charles Orcutt is included in an article by Eugene Coan titled Charles Russell Orcutt, Pioneer Californian Malacologist, and The West American Scientist, Transactions of the San Diego Society of Natural History 14 (California: 1966): No. 8, 85-96. Also, Helen DuShane provides a summary of the shells collected by, and named for Charles Orcutt. DuShane, The Baja California Travels of Charles Russell Orcutt, 73-75.
32. Interview with Judy Gibson, assistant curator of the Herbarium, Natural History Museum. Ms. Gibson located a specimen of the grass genus Orcuttia, which was named for him. She explained that collectors number all of their specimens, starting with 1 for the first item they collect, and continuing for their entire career.
33. Orcutt’s occupation was a source of hardship to his family. Not only was he gone much of the time and not did not support the family much, but his work was not considered important at that time. His eldest son’s resentment was telling of the situation. Edalee Orcutt Harwell writes: “My father was always bitter …because grandpa was such a poor wage earner…There are stories about the family owning…blocks of property on fifth avenue (sic) and down Broadway — property sold for money to support the family and finance further expeditions. My Dad would be pleased to know that now-within a few generations-C.R. is regarded with awe by the plant people who count.” Letter from Edalee Orcutt Harwell, San Diego, 24 October 1992.
34. As early as 1890, Orcutt recognized that his collection was becoming too large to house at his residence and other properties. He also indicated that other people were needed to help with the task of cataloging and displaying the collection. He always seemed hopeful that someone might become interested in his cause and help him make something grand of the collection. The West American Scientist 7 (August 1890): 1-20.
35. In June of 1885, Orcutt was elected a Life Member of the San Diego Society of Natural History. After that, the masthead of The West American Scientist read “The Official Organ of the San Diego Society of Natural History.” He was quite involved with the Society while he lived in San Diego, and felt that the Museum would be the best place for his collection. It may be that because he was away so much of the time after he made the gift, that the interpretation of the terms of the agreement diverged. See DuShane, The Baja California Travels of Charles Russell Orcutt, 71-72.
36. A letter from Clinton J. Abbott of the Natural History Museum to Charles Orcutt discusses the problem of duplicates and the rare books, and why the museum wants all of them under the terms of the gift. In 1927, Orcutt published a pamphlet “To Friends of Science” offering some “twenty tons of miscellaneous printed matter dated from 1571 to modern times” for sale. Interested parties could contact him in Kingston, Jamaica. The pamphlet, which seems to have been printed circa 1927, is in the collection at the Natural History Museum.
37. Museum memos in the collection of the Natural History Museum.
38. Letters in the collection of the Natural History Museum.
39. A letter from Charles Orcutt to Frank Klauber of the Natural History Museum, dated 10 July 1928, expresses his anger at the situation.
40. This letter is in the collection at the Museum of Natural History. It is dated 10 July 1928 and was sent from Kingston, Jamaica.
41. The new agreement was finally executed 25 January 1930. The money paid to Mrs. Orcutt was explicitly intended as a reimbursement for expenses and not in any way payment for the Orcutt’s “magnanimous gift.” In addition, personal items found among the materials sent to the museum would be returned to Mrs. Orcutt. Legal Document in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Natural History.
42. Orcutt also sent material to Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, the American Museum of Natural History, the San Diego Museum of Natural History, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. See DuShane, The Baja California Travels of Charles Russell Orcutt, 73.
43. San Diego Union, 29 August 1929.
44. These details are given in a letter to Mr. Eddy Orcutt of San Diego, Calif., from Samuel W. Honaker, Consul in Charge at Port au Prince, Haiti, 6 September 1929. The Consul in Charge did not have any information about the exact cause of Orcutt’s death.
45. San Diego Union, 29 August 1929.
46. This description of the gift is found in the legal agreement in the collection of the San Diego Museum of Natural History.
47. Orcutt stored his collections wherever he could, often in buildings poorly maintained. In El Paso, Orcutt had built a shack where he lived and stored books obtained in Mexico. After he left for Jamaica, he gave the house key to his friend Charles Hammond, who tried to look after the books as best he could. After Orcutt died, Hammond was contacted by Clinton Abbott of he Museum of Natural History, and subsequently arranged to have the books — 1000-1500 — packed and shipped to the museum. Letters dated October 1, 1930 – November 5, 1930, Museum of Natural History.
Anne D. Bullard is a recent graduate of the University of San Diego where she earned a master’s degree in history. Her thesis work concentrated on early San Diego naturalists, focusing on those involved in creating the San Diego Society of Natural History. She received a B.A. in literature from Claremont McKenna College. Ms. Bullard has a particular interest in designing and implementing automated information systems for archives, and is currently working on projects in this area for the San Diego Natural History Museum and for the corporate offices of Mail Boxes Inc.