Lutheran Clergymen, German Patriots, Twenty Sedges, a Pennsylvania College, a Yellow Oak, and a Small Turtle: what's in a name?
Up through 1956 it was known by everyone as Muhlenberg's turtle, but common names commemorating individuals fell out of favor, and the committee overseeing the checklist of North American reptiles and amphibians gave Clemmys muhlenbergii a new common name. In many ways the new name "bog turtle" was an unfortunate one, for only in a few places within the turtle's range does it actually inhabit true bogs. It is more a creature of streamhead sedge meadows but, for those familiar with its behavior, perhaps "mole turtle" would have been an appropriate name. Since its original 1801 description by Schoepf who named it Testudo muhlenbergii, this turtle has been placed in at least nine other genera by various authors. The specific epithet, muhlenbergii, unlike the common name and assigned genus, has survived. The close association of Muhlenberg's name with this turtle is a direct result of his giving a specimen to Schoepf, while Muhlenberg's discovery of the turtle in the first place is an indirect result of an odd sequence of events centering around the American Revolutionary War and a naturalist's obsession with obscure plants.
So who was this Muhlenberg guy? Gotthilf Hunrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815), the third son of Henry Melchin Muhlenberg, was a Lutheran minister. G. H. E. Muhlenberg, a self-taught botanist, termed by his contemporaries as the American Linnaeus, was personally responsible for the names of about 150 species of plants. His eastern Pennsylvania family was a prominent one. Henry M. Muhlenberg was German born and immigrated to America when called to do so by the Lutheran church of Pennsylvania. Eventually he came to oversee of all the Lutheran churches from New York to Maryland. He and his three sons were influential patriots throughout the Revolutionary War. The sons were born in New Providence (the town later became Trappe), Pennsylvania, but all were educated in Germany. John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, the oldest of the three, served under George Washington. He became a brigadier-general in the Continental army and led in a number of successful battles including the one at Yorktown. He was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Fredrick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, the second born, was a member of the Continental Congress and later the first speaker of the House of Representatives.
Gotthilf Henry Ernst Muhlenberg was the youngest of the three, and during the Revolutionary War, because of the prominence of his patriot brothers, was always in danger. Four days before the British occupation of Philadelphia he escaped what was almost certain death at the hands of the Torys. Disguised as an Indian and carrying a rifle under a blanket he left Philadelphia to join his family in New Providence . He was nearly caught and did not return to Philadelphia until after the British withdrawal in 1778.
It was during his temporary exile during the British occupation that Muhlenberg's interest in Botany became serious. In the course of his studies he became acquainted with many eminent botanists of the period. He exchanged letters and specimens in the Americas and abroad. In fact, the centers of science were then mostly in western Europe and his exchanges with other botanists in England, Germany, France, and Sweden are well-documented. Many of his specimens and notes still survive. After the War, Muhlenberg was visited by Dr. Johann David Schoepf, a well-known botanist who served as a military surgeon with the Hessian army. Schoepf made an extended tour of the eastern states searching for medical plants, and during his visit he compiled, and later published, a lot of Muhlenberg's information on local plants. This visit was during the period when Muhlenberg was deeply involved in a survey of the plants of Lancaster County, and it is likely that this is when Schoepf was given the turtle which was later named in Muhlenberg's honor.
Muhlenberg's actual publications were few in number. In July 1785 he presented a paper titled "Flora Lancastriensis" to the American Philosophical Society. This along with a companion piece on a calendar of flowers, were never published. Only his "Index Flora Lancastriensis", which was intended as a tentative index to the never completed "Flora", and a supplement to the index completed five years later were published. Between the two publications they list nearly 1,400 species of plants. He planned a comprehensive North American Botany in which all American botanists could collaborate with their knowledge of the plants of their area. The first edition of such a work was eventually prepared by Asa Gray and was published in 1848. The preliminary basis for Gray's work had been published by Muhlenberg in 1813 as a list of all the known plants of America, both native ones and those which had become naturalized. Despite the limited amount that Muhlenberg actually published it is informative to see all the scholarly works which have resulted from Muhlenberg's efforts. Muhlenberg's studies occurred at the dawn of the heyday of natural history, and his collections and notes became bench marks in plant taxonomy. The historical nature of his collections, and the number of taxa attributed to him, make his botanical studies some of the most important ones on the continent.
In addition to the fact that historic botanical nomenclature is not something that catches the public's interest, there were a number of reasons that Muhlenberg did not receive adequate credit for his contributions. In the early phases of his interest he was intrigued with mosses and lichens and his contributions were published by the European biologists with whom he corresponded. He spent a good part of his time assisting other scientists of the day, and as was typical of the time, they gave him no credit for his contributions. Dr. Schoeph, for example, was given all of Muhlenberg's notes on herbs, but in his publication he does not even acknowledge knowing Muhlenberg. Similarly, Bigelow's Medical Botany, an important book in its day, failed to recognize Muhlenberg for his extensive contributions. Muhlenberg's publications contained few descriptions of the new plants he found, and his writings were primarily of a personal nature describing plant observations. His notations did not follow standard rules of nomenclature, but it should be recognized that these rules did not exist in Muhlenberg's time. Subsequently botanists rewrote many, but certainly not all of Muhlenberg's discoveries and credited him with the discovery. Had nomenclature rules been available for him to follow, Muhlenberg would have received credit for even a larger number of the plants he discovered. G. H. E. Muhlenberg was but one of a number of famous clergymen-naturalist of the period (i.e., Gilbert White, John Bachman) who's contributions to the science of natural history were not fully appreciated until long after their death.
Muhlenberg's herbarium, his collection of pressed plants, was purchased three years after his death by his friends and given to the American Philosophical Society. It now resides in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia where its curators regard it as one of the scientific treasures of America. Muhlenberg had begun to assemble the collection in the 1770s and it contains not just his collections, but many valuable specimens that he had exchanged with prominent botanists of the period both in America and Europe. For the curators who inherited the collection the information contained within was a gold mine of historic systematic riddles, numerous type specimens which needed designation, and other unresolved botanical issues. Recovering the information required considerable detective work. Specimen labels were cross-referenced with Muhlenberg's notes and complete and incomplete manuscripts. Muhlenberg's daily entries are in combinations of colloquial German, Latin and English and are intermixed with faithfully recorded details of the weather, household and church business, the state of the garden, the contents of his mail, and the comings and goings of friends and colleagues.
Muhlenberg is responsible for the names of a minimum of two genera and 143 species of vascular plants. Both genera and 68 of the species are still regarded as valid. The remainder have been reduced to synonyms and named varieties. One hundred and twenty nine ( 90 %) of the vascular taxa are from Pennsylvania, while 111 ( 78 %) represent wetland species. The number of mosses and lichens discovered by Muhlenberg are unknown, the published synonyms are outdated and the information has become generally unavailable. He was involved in numerous exchanges of notes, manuscripts and specimens. The botanists of the day were governed by a gentlemen's recognition of name priority which was difficult to maintain because publications with descriptions were often serendipitous. Furthermore, a good number of Muhlenberg's notes and reference specimens were unavailable to many European botanists because of revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, the actual number of plants which Muhlenberg personally discovered is unclear and will probably never be known.
Table 1: Currently accepted vascular plant names with Muhlenberg (Muhl.) as author or as part author. Another 75 plants named by Muhlenberg are considered synonyms of other species. "*" indicates wetland Pennsylvania species. Modified from Biota of North America Program.
Table 2: Accepted plant taxa named in honor of Muhlenberg. Another 57 taxa also named in honor of Muhlenberg are considered to be synonyms of other species. Modified from Biota of North America Program.
Approximately one half of the vascular plants named by Muhlenberg are sedges, rushes and grasses. We know Lancaster County was his primary collecting area, but it is difficult to envision how far afield Muhlenberg's botanical interest may have taken him. He thought nothing of walking from Lancaster to Philadelphia. One of his sons would later write that he considered that walk " a trifling feat."
Henry Muhlenberg, G. H. E. Muhlenberg's Americanized name, founded Franklin College and became its first president. He was also the co-author of a German-English and English-German dictionary. Ministerial duties did not suffer as a result of his political convictions, academic pursuits, or his interest in natural history. His career as a clergyman was as outstanding as his father's.
After only four years of serving as his father's assistant he was appointed third minister at Philadelphia. In 1780 he became pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, whose congregation he served until his death. Church archives tell of extensive repairs and additions to the church under his pastorate. Henry Muhlenberg was elected Secretary of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania six times and was its President for eleven terms.
Numerous honors were awarded to the minister-naturalists. In 1780 the University of Pennsylvania conferred upon him a degree in the Master of Arts and seven years later Princeton College awarded him a Doctor of Divinity. The most lasting honors, however, were from colleagues and friends. For example, F. L. Schreber, when naming a genus of grasses in Muhlenberg's honor, wrote that he had "...rendered immortal service to the natural history of North America, and especially to the knowledge of the plants of Pennsylvania and the other United States." Among the 87 currently recognized taxa named in honor of G. H. E. Muhlenberg are a genus of grass comprised of 72 species (Muhlenbergia), a sedge, a knotweed, a gentian, a willow, two lichens, two mosses, a fungus and a turtle. Another 57 species of vascular plants named for Muhlenberg are now considered as synonyms of other taxa. Muhlenberg College, founded in 1848, however, was named in honor of G. H. E. Muhlenberg's father. The college's first president Dr. F. A. Muhlenberg was the botanists' grandson.
It was Muhlenberg's interest in grasses and sedges that probably lead him to the discovery of the small undescribed turtle he gave to Schoepf. We know today that wet sedge meadows are the preferred habitat of Clemmys muhlenbergii. I can envision a muddy Muhlenberg on his hands and knees studying the lesser plants in these communities, recording the flowering phonology of known species, and collecting the ones which were new to him. Since he spent so much time in these habitats it was inevitable that he would encounter the rare, habitat-restricted, turtle. Schoepf did not include the locality of the turtle in his description of Testudo muhlenbergii, but based on Muhlenberg's plant collections, the type locality was later designated as "Lancaster County, Pennsylvania."
At the time Muhlenberg was collecting plants, the open sedge meadows of Lancaster County, and those elsewhere in the Susquehana basin, were more extensive than they are today. They had been kept open by grazing and browsing deer, bison and elk, and in post-Pleistoceen times other large mammals which were killed-off by early Native Americans. John Donelson in his 1780 journal noted that in Pennsylvania "The open space around and near the sulfur or salt springs, instead of being an 'old field' as had been supposed by Mansker, at his visit here in 1769, was thus free from trees and underbrush by the innumerable herds of buffalo and deer and elk that came to these waters." These clearings are responsible for place names such as Clearfield, Pennsylvania. We know from Thomas Seton that large numbers of bison and a few elk were still present in the mid-1700s in nearby Snyder County Pennsylvania. Historically natural salt licks along the Susquehana River were known to be heavily used by elk. Elk were once so numerous in this area that one naturalist reported that " leading to the licks the paths of these animals were so large as many of the great public roads of our country." These historical observations would suggest that wet meadows, their plant associates, and bog turtles were more common and widely distributed in the region in Muhlenberg's time than they are today.
It seems odd that an amateur botanist working two hundred years ago, and writing in German, would have such an impact on modern-day American plant systematics, and that a turtle he first found would end up on the US Fish and Wildlife Service's list of threatened species, becoming the key subject of numerous court cases on illegal wildlife trafficking. And it is ironic that Muhlenberg's chance encounter with the turtle, one resulting from his need for sanctuary during British occupation, has probably given his family name more modern-day recognition than did the collective prestigious careers of H. M. Muhlenberg and his three sons. The turtle Muhlenberg found, because of its modern-day rarity, has become the center of major land conservation efforts by The Nature Conservancy and others. It is interesting that many of the "lesser" wetland plants Muhlenberg discovered and named are now indirectly protected because of their close association with this very species of turtle. Even though the concept of specific habitat associations was undeveloped in Muhlenberg's time, in modern times they eventually united plant and animal protection strategies with land acquisition, just as they had brought the botanists to discover the turtle two centuries ago.
Years back, on a field trip to the Eastern Shore of Maryland with Elmer Worthley's botany class, we all found shade under a large oak growing on the bank of the Pocomoke River at Milbourne Landing State Park. It was a typical class, we sat and listened as Elmer spent the better part of an hour looking through his hand lens at lichens, mosses and grasses lecturing us with the type of botanical trivia concerning inconspicuous plants which would have enthralled Muhlenberg. Eventually,after he finished with all the sundry mosses growing about its base Professor Worthely got to the tree, pointing out that the tree itself was a chestnut oak, an uncommon species of yellow oak named in honor of Henry Muhlenberg-- Quercus muhlenbergii. Elmer's attention to the most insignificant of the most lowly plants and pointing out this tree brought both Muhlenberg and turtles to mind, and as the afternoon wore on, and the lecture droned on, my thoughts wandered to pre-teenage days when my interest in reptiles was first developing. A time when the rarest of the four species of Clemmys was still referred to as the Muhlenberg's Turtle. Back then the turtle's name, while distinctive, had no meaning to me, and was only regarded as a word that seemed quite weighty for so small and secretive a creature.
Acknowledgements: I thank Dan Klem, Jr., Muhlenberg College, for locating several of the references cited below. (Strange is the fact that I can communicate with a colleague in Pennsylvania by just typing his name and "@muhlenberg.edu" on a keyboard.) John Kartez and Amy Farstad, University of North Carolina, helped prepared a current list of plant names associated with G. H. E. Muhlenberg from which the plant totals provided here were derived.
Barnhart, J. H. 1909. Some American botanists of former days. Jour. N. Y. Bot. Gard. 10: 177-190.
Beck, H. 1928. Henry E. Muhlenberg, botanist. Papers Read Before the Lancaster County Historical Society (6 January 1928) 32 (1): 99-107.
Harshberger, J. W. 1899. The botanists of Philadelphia and their work. Philadelphia.
Hitchcock, A. S. 1932. The grasses of the Muhlenberg herbarium. Bartonia 14: 27-52.
Lee, D. S. 1992. Elmer G. Worthley-- a Maryland Naturalist. The Maryland Naturalist 35 (1-4): 3-10.
Lee, D. S and A. W. Norton. 1995. The distribution, ecology and conservation needs of bog turtles, with special emphasis on Maryland. Maryland Naturalists 40 (1-4): 7-46.
Maisch, J. M. 1886. Gotthilf Henrich Ernst Muhlenberg als Botaniker. Pharm. Rundschan 4: 119-129.
Merrill, E. D. and S. Y. Hu. 1949. Work and publications of Henry Muhlenberg, with special attention to unrecorded or incorrectly recorded binomials. Bartonia 25: 1-66.
Muhlenberg, G. H. E. 1801. Kurze benerkungen uber die in der gegend van Lancaster in Nordamerila wachsen arten der gattungen Juglans, Fraxinus und Quercus. Neue Schrift. Ges. Naturf. Freunde Berlin 4: 233-242, pl. 1-6.
Muhlenberg, G. H. E. 1803. Uber die nordamerikanischen weiden. Neue Schrift. Ges. Naturf. Freunde Berlin 4: 233-242.
Muhlenberg, G. H. E. 1813. Catalogus plantarum Americae septentrionalis, etc. Lancaster.
Muhlenberg, G. H. E. 1817. Descriptio uberior graminum et plantarum calmariarum americae sepentrionalis indigenarum et cicurum. Philadelphia.
Rhoads, S. N. 1903. The Mammals of Pennsylvania and New Jersey: A Biographic, Historic and Descriptive Account of the Furred Animals of Lnad and Sea, Both Living and Extinct, Known to Have Existed in these States. Philadelphia.
Roe, F. G. 1951. The North American Buffalo- a Critical Study of the Species in its Wild State. University of Toronto Press. 991 pp.
Schoepff, J. D. 1801. Historia Testudinum Iconibus, Illustrata. Ioannis Lacobe Palm., Erlange. 136 pp.
Scribner F. L. and E. D. Merrill. 1900. The grasses in the herbarium of Dr. H. Muhlenberg. U.S.D. A., Div. of Agrost. Circ. 27.
Smith, C. E. 1962. Henry Muhlenberg- Botanical Pioneer. American Philosophical Society. 106 (5): 443-460.
Trainer, J. E. 1942. G. H. E. Muhlenberg: Botanist. Muhlenberg College Alumni Magazine 10(4): 7-8.
David S. Lee. 1999. Bull. Chicago Herp. Soc. 34(2):25-31.