Charles Sprague Sargent

Historical Biographies

Charles Sprague Sargent

Charles Sprague Sargent inspecting Arnold Arboretum grounds, 1904. Photograph by J.H. McFarland.

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841 -1927)

Sargent, the Arboretum’s first director, served the institution for over 54 years. He was the child of Henrietta Gray and Ignatius Sargent, a successful Boston merchant, banker, and railroad financier. He graduated from Harvard College in 1862. During the American Civil War, he served in the Union Army, and was brevetted major by the end of the conflict. From 1865-1868, he toured the gardens of Europe and then returned to Boston to manage his father’s estate Holm Lea in Brookline, Massachusetts.

In 1872 he was appointed Director of the Harvard Botanic Garden, becoming in effect an apprentice to Asa Gray. This position included the administration of the Bussey Institution as Professor of Horticulture, thus becoming Francis Parkman’s successor. On November 24, 1873, Sargent received his ultimate charge as the Director of the Arnold Arboretum. He held all three positions concurrently for several years but divested himself of them to concentrate on the planning of the landscape and plantings of the Arnold Arboretum with Frederick Law Olmsted and his management of the census of American trees in 1880.

In spite of James Arnold’s generous bequest to fund an arboretum, Sargent knew that he did not have the financial resources to do everything he would like with the plants and grounds. He therefore devised a plan for Harvard University to give the lands on which the Arnold Arboretum was located, to the City of Boston to be part of the Boston park system, and then lease them back on a 1000-year lease. The City would build and maintain all the infrastructure and Harvard would take care of the trees and natural landscape. After much wrangling, the plan was accepted in 1883 and the City began the long process of building the hardscape. 
When Sargent assumed the directorship of the Arnold Arboretum there were no buildings on the site except for Benjamin Bussey’s mansion which was still occupied by his heirs. Dwight House on Sargent’s estate headquartered his library, herbarium, and first administrative offices of the Arnold Arboretum until 1892 when the Hunnewell Building was constructed on the Arboretum’s grounds. Sargent’s gave his personal library to the institution to be housed on the third floor of the new building.
During this period Sargent was also working on his Silva of North America. The first volume was published in 1891 and thirteen more volumes would follow over the coming years. He also conducted the publication of the weekly periodical Garden and Forest. This groundbreaking publication was an intersection of current thought and opinion on gardens, landscape design, horticulture, and forestry, as well as being an unofficial organ for the Arnold Arboretum.
In 1892, Sargent visited Japan and saw so himself the richness of the Asian flora. A trip around the world in 1903 that included a stop in China, cemented in his mind the need for a collector to spend several seasons in China gathering plant specimens, seeds, and cuttings for shipment to the Arboretum. He hired Ernest Henry Wilson for that position in 1906. Wilson was an experienced collector having spent the better part of 1899-1905 collecting in western China for the Veitch Nursery Company. He made two sucessful trips to China for the Arboretum from 1907-1911, and returned to explore Japan, Korea, and Taiwan between 1914 and 1919. The plants Wilson and other collectors gathered in Asia swelled the collections and were shared with other botanic gardens and arboreta worldwide.        
Sargent was actively involved with running the Arboretum until the end of his long life. Well into his eighties he could still be found in his office in the Hunnewell Building, in the library examining plant specimens, or out on the grounds directing the planting of a tree. He guided the institution with a firm hand until his death in 1927.

Garden and Forest; A Journal of Horticulture, Landscape Art and Forestry, conducted by Charles Sprague Sargent, 1888-97.

Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) papers, 1868- [pdf].

Sargent’s published writings in Arnoldia.

Sargent’s published writings in Arboretum Publications.

Sutton, S.B. Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum. Harvard University Press, 1970.

Rehder, Alfred. “Charles Sprague Sargent.” Journal of the Arnold Arboretum. 17(2), April 1927 [pdf].

The One-hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Sprague Sargent, published in Arnoldia (1941) [pdf].