Historical Biographies

Charles S. Sargent and Ernest H. Wilson standing in front of a Higan Cherry tree (Prunus subhirtella)

From left: Alfred Rehder, Ernest Henry Wilson, Charles Sprague Sargent, Charles Faxon, Camillo Schneider. August 1916. Contact repository for permissions and fees. Copyright © 2003, President and Fellows of Harvard College; all rights reserved.

Historical Biographies

Personalities Associated with the Early History of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University 1872-1927

Boston, Harvard, and the 1000-Year Lease

In order to serve the dual purpose he believed the Arboretum would have, Charles Sprague Sargent had to persuade the City of Boston and Harvard College to undertake a joint financial venture. His motives were not entirely altruistic; he needed additional money to build and maintain the Arboretum.

The negotiations lasted four years. The Arboretum’s nurseries were bursting at the seams but Sargent could not begin work on Frederick Law Olmsted’s design without commitment from the City. The proposition finally came to a City Council vote in October 1882, but failed to pass. Proponents of the Arboretum quickly moved to set up an Arboretum Committee, and Sargent and Olmsted stepped up their efforts to rally support. A public relations drive was launched that had the “Arboretum Question” debated in the city’s newspapers. Headlines read: “THE ARBORETUM’S VALUE TO BOSTON,” and “AN EDUCATIONAL PARK AT A BARGAIN.” Sargent circulated a petition signed by 1,305 of the most powerful people in Boston. It had a potent effect. A newspaper story from December 1, 1882, read in part:

“The petition … is probably the most influential ever received by that body. It includes almost all of the large taxpayers of Boston. … Nearly all of the prominent citizens are there … The petition would be a prize to a collector of autographs.”

The campaign worked. On December 27, 1882, terms similar to those Sargent had proposed years before were agreed upon. It took a year to work out the details, but on December 20, 1883, a thousand-year lease was signed, and an unprecedented agreement between the City of Boston and Harvard College began.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Arboretum became part of the City of Boston’s park system. The city was to be responsible for the construction and ongoing maintenance of the driveways and boundary fences throughout the Arboretum. Harvard University was to collect the plants, design the Arboretum, and maintain the collections and programs. [Connor, Sheila. “The Arnold Arboretum: An Historic Park Partnership.” Arnoldia 48:4, Fall 1988 [pdf].

In addition to this list of resources, you will also find a wealth of information in Ida Hay’s book, Science in the Pleasure Ground : a history of the Arnold Arboretum, and in our quarterly journal, Arnoldia.

PLEASE NOTE: You may also be interested meeting our early plant explorers: Botanical and Cultural Images of Eastern Asia, 1907-1927.

Joseph Weld Joseph Weld, an aide to Governor John Winthrop and a deputy to the Massachusetts General Court, was granted 278 acres for his participation in the Pequot War of 1637. This acreage would later constitute Jamaica Plain. Weld applied his subsequent wealth to philanthropic endeavors, and became one of the first donors to Harvard.
Benjamin Bussey Benjamin Bussey bequeathed his estate–Woodland Hill–to Harvard an undergraduate school of agriculture and horticulture to be called the Bussey Institution for the “instruction in practical agriculture, in useful and ornamental gardening, in botany, and in such other branches of natural science as may tend to promote a knowledge of practical agriculture, and the various arts subservient thereto and connected therewith.”
James Arnold James Arnold was a successful whaling merchant whose generous endowment, combined with the land grant of Benjamin Bussey, helped create the Arnold Arboretum.
Asa Gray Asa Gray, impassioned defender of Charles Darwin, is frequently cited as the father of American botany.
Francis Parkman Francis Parkman, in addition to being recognized as an outstanding historian, is widely considered one of the first professors of horticulture in the United States.
Charles Sargent Charles Sprague Sargent, Boston Brahmin and veteran of the American Civil War, was the first director of the Arnold Arboretum who published widely, arranged an extraordinary partnership between Harvard University and the City of Boston, and ushered in a new era of botanical exploration in Asia.
Horatio Hollis Hunnewell Horatio Hollis Hunnewell was a wealthy banker, railroad financier, philanthropist, amateur botanist, and one of the most prominent horticulturists in 19th century America. He also funded the construction of the Arboretum’s administration building at 125 Arborway.
Frederick Law Olmsted Frederick Law Olmsted, widely recognized as the father of landscape architecture, collaborated with Charles Sprague Sargent to design Arnold Arboretum grounds based on a botanical sequence devised by George Bentham and Joseph Hooker. The Arnold Arboretum is the only extant arboretum designed by Olmsted.
Jackson Thornton Dawson Jackson Thornton Dawson was the first plant propagator and superintendent of the Arnold Arboretum. He played a significant role in the growth of the
Arboretum as a world-class institution. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society established the Jackson Dawson Memorial Medal in his honor.
Charles Edward Faxon Charles Edward Faxon, in addition to acting as Assistant Director to Charles Sprague Sargent, also ran the library and herbarium. He was also an accomplished botanical artist, providing over 700 illustrations for Sargent’s Silva of North America, in addition to hundreds more for other horticultural reference works.
Alfred Rehder Alfred Rehder was the Arboretum’s star pupil of denrdology and the taxonomy of woody plants. In addition to compiling the seminal Bradley Bibliography of horticultural reference works published before 1900, he also wrote the Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs Hardy in North America, which is still in use to this day.
George Russell Shaw George Russell Shaw was an architect by trade whose interest in pines led to widespread travel in Mexico, Cuba, and Europe. His research led to numerous publications and a better understanding of the genus Pinus. In addition to his conifer research, Shaw was a significant contributor to the Arnold Arboretum and made financial contributions to a number of Arboretum projects.