Wright, Charles (1811–1885)

By: Lea Anne Morrell

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: April 4, 2019

Charles Wright, botanist, son of James and Mary (Goodrich) Wright, was born at Wethersfield, Connecticut, on October 29, 1811. Having completed study at the Wethersfield Grammar School in 1831 he entered Yale, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1835. Wright first tutored the children of a Natchez, Louisiana, sugar planter whose business failed in the Panic of 1837. Wright then moved to Zavalla, Texas, on the Neches River in what is now Angelina County. He surveyed present Jasper, Angelina, Tyler, and Newton counties, botanizing and hunting as he traveled. Wright also taught school in Zavalla until about 1840, when he moved to Town Bluff. There, he became surveyor of old Menard County, engaged in frequent hunting trips, and with his friend, Dr. John A. Veatch, collected numerous botanical specimens. In 1844 Wright began a forty-year botanical correspondence with Asa Gray, noted botanist of the Gray Herbarium of Harvard University, which ultimately led to the publication of Wright's botanical discoveries. In 1845 Wright secured a position as assistant principal at the first college to open in Texas, the Methodist Rutersville College, near La Grange in Fayette County, where he taught "everything from abecedarianism to the highest branches." Wright lectured on temperance, served as president of the college literary society, and was promoted to the principalship at Rutersville. In 1847 he moved to Austin, disenchanted with morale at the college, to teach and collect botanical specimens. He served as commissary to Captain Veatch's company near Eagle Pass in 1848, but was invited by Professor Gray to organize his collections at Cambridge. During 1848–49 Gray secured a botanical expedition for Wright to travel with troops moving across the Rio Grande valley to El Paso in the spring of 1849. Wright walked the 673 miles to El Paso, enduring frustrating circumstances; he wrote "sleep all night if you can in the rain and walk twelve to twenty-five miles next day in the mud and then overhall [sic] a huge package of soaked plants and dry them by the heat of the clouds." Despite the hardships, the collections Wright sent to Gray in 1849 included 1,400 species; he also sent numerous cacti to George Engelmann of St. Louis.

After spending most of 1850 as a tutor in the employ of Col. Claiborne Kyle in San Marcos, Wright conducted a school in New Braunfels during 1851, befriending Dr. Ferdinand I. Lindheimer. He joined Col. J. D. Graham's survey of the Mexico-United States boundary in 1851 as "botanist and assistant computer," returning in 1852 with extensive collections from Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Wright's findings were published in Asa Gray's "Plantae Wrightianae," Part 1 and 2, Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 3 and 5 (1850, 1852), and in the Report of the U.S.-Mexican Boundary Survey, 2 (1859) as "Botany of the Boundary," by John Torrey, and "Cactaceae of the Boundary," by George Engelmann. Wright joined Ringgold's North Pacific exploring expedition as botanist in 1853, and visited Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, Sydney, Australia, Hong Kong, the Japanese coast, the Bering Straits, and the California coast. He returned home to Wethersfield via Nicaragua, and after a break in Wethersfield and Cambridge, began eleven years of botanical exploration in Cuba in 1856. Wright collected extensively during his travels, becoming one of the United States's best-known botanists. In 1868 he served as acting director of the Grey Herbarium, and in the winter of 1875–76 he was acting librarian of the Bussey Institution of Harvard. Wright, who never married, spent his last days in Wethersfield with his brother and sisters, all unmarried, and died on August 11, 1885, of a heart ailment dating back to his years in Cuba. Because of his numerous contributions to botany, many plant species and cacti are named in his honor. Upon Wright's death Gray eulogized him by noting that he had accomplished "a great amount of useful and excellent work for botany in the pure and simple love of it."

Dictionary of American Biography. S. W. Geiser, "Men of Science in Texas, 1820–1880," Field and Laboratory 26–27 (July-October 1958-October 1959). S. W. Geiser, Naturalists of the Frontier (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1937; 2d ed. 1948). Elizabeth A. Shaw, Charles Wright on the Boundary, 1849–52 (Westport, Connecticut: Meckler, 1987).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Lea Anne Morrell, “Wright, Charles,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 09, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wright-charles.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 4, 2019