The New York Botanical Garden International Plant Science Center
Mertz Library
Science Home ... Mertz Library ... Archives and Manuscripts

John Torrey

Library Collections & Resources

Finding Guide

Archives and Manuscripts

Books and Journals

NonBook Collection

Circulating Collection

Searchable Databases and Electronic Resources

Archives and Manuscript Collections

Personal Papers
 1788-1871 (bulk 1806-1871)
5.5 linear feet (11 boxes)


John Torrey was born in New York on August 15, 1796. As a youth, he collected and observed the plants of the vicinity of New York. When he was 15 years old, his father was appointed Fiscal Agent of the State Prison of New York. It was there that he met Amos Eaton, a pioneer in natural science education, who was said to be in prison for his debt. Eaton encouraged Torrey's interest in mineralogy and chemistry. In 1815 Torrey began his study at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. By 1817 he was appointed by the Lyceum of Natural History to prepare A Catalogue of the Plants Growing Within Thirty Miles of New York. He received his medical degree in 1818 and opened a medical practice in New York, continuing to spend his leisure time with other scientific pursuits, particularly botany.

In 1824, Torrey accepted a position as Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology at the Military Academy at West Point, where he was also Assistant-Surgeon. Three years later, he accepted the position as Chair of Chemistry and Botany at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York.

Eventually growing dissatisfied with the Linnean system, Torrey wrote a compendium using John Lindley's newer natural system in which plants were arranged by families. He became one of the first botanists to apply this concept to a large work: his A Compendium of the flora of the northern and middle states. In 1831, Torrey supervised the publication of an American reprint of the first edition of Lindley's Introduction to the Natural System of Botany, and appended a catalogue of the North American genera arranged according to it.

As his reputation grew, renowned botanists entrusted specimens to Torrey for identification. His own investigations extended to the Great Plains and the western Rocky Mountains, after he had been furnished with the collections of Dr. Edwin James, botanist of Major Stephen Long's expedition in 1820. As early as 1823, Torrey reported descriptions to the Lyceum of Natural History of some new species from Long's expedition. He took an early interest in the genus Carex and was asked by von Schweinitz to edit his monograph of North American Carices.

Because of his reputation and his early interest in the flora of New York State, in 1836, upon the organization of a geological survey of the state of New York, Torrey was appointed State Botanist, requiring him to prepare a flora of the state. A Flora of the State of New York was published in 1843 and was the largest single work of its kind published at the time. In addition to his posts as State Botanist and Chair in the Medical College, Dr. Torrey felt obliged to accept a similar position at Princeton College.

Despite his professional engagements, his contributions to the Flora of North America held a prominent role in his life, including identifying and preparing descriptions for the plants collected during the surveys for the Pacific Railroad routes (Botany of the Pacific Railroad Survey) and the Mexican boundary survey, as well as the expeditions of Stephen Long, Joseph Nicollet, John Fremont, William Emory, L. Sitgreaves, Howard Stansbury, and Randolph Marcy and Charles Wilkes.

When the Government Assay Office in New York was established, Torrey was selected by the Secretary of the Treasury to become Superintendent, a position he declined, accepting a less prominent post within the same office. He held this position until his death on March 10, 1873.

Dr. John Torrey was a member of a number of scientific societies in America and Europe. He was a corporate member of the National Academy at Washington, presided over the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was twice elected president of the New York Lyceum of Natural History. Long considered the chief of American botanists, he was a gifted teacher, an indefatigable investigator, and a genial and unselfish individual who won the affection of all who knew him.


The collection consists of correspondence, both incoming and outgoing, from 1818 to 1873, and pertains to Torrey's work as a botanist and professor. Much of the scientific correspondence is in regard to the identification of plants from the vast interior of the continent through government sponsored expeditions, primarily John Fremont's second and third expeditions to the Rocky Mountains in 1842 and to Oregon and northern California in 1843. The collection contains plant lists and collecting localities as well as botanical notes and plant descriptions from Asa Gray and John Torrey.

A collection of letters to and from individuals other than John Torrey, (some of which pre-date Torrey's birth) are also contained in the collection.  It is not clear how Torrey came to possess these letters.

Manuscripts of Torrey's Florula Princetoniana and Calendarium florae for the vicinity of New York have been cataloged and reside in the Rare Book Room. The collection also contains some artwork drawn by John Torrey himself, and other drawings he used as a reference for his identification work. The artwork from Torrey's Plants of New York for the Cabinet at Albany and Genera of Fungi were drawn by John Torrey. Other drawings include "'Figures of Hepaticae' copied from Hooker's great work", Musci exotici.   The artwork has been removed to the New York Botanical Garden Art and Illustration collection - Collection #60.  John Torrey's vasculum is also contained within the collection.


Series 1: Correspondence - Incoming, 1819-1872
                                        - Outgoing, 1818-1873
Series 2: Unrelated Letters(to and from others) 1768-1859
Series 3: Botanical Miscellany, notes and varia, 1784-1853
Series 4: Fremont Expeditions, 1843-1853
Series 5: Manuscripts and Artwork
Series 6: Artifacts,  n.d.

Series 1: Correspondence

                Incoming correspondence, 1819-1872
                3.5 lin. ft.  Arranged alphabetically.

This section of the series contains correspondence of botanical interest from over 350 correspondents, including students and colleagues. Notable correspondents include: George Bentham, Jacob Bigelow, John Carey, Alvan Wentworth Chapman, William Cooper, Moses Curtis Ashley, William Darlington, Chester Dewey, Andrew Jackson Downing, Elie Durand, Amos Eaton, William Emory, George Englemann, Asa Gray,  Joseph Henry, William Hooker, Peter Knieskern, Charles Parry, John Riddell, Lewis David von Schweinitz, Benjamin Silliman, and Edward Tuckerman.

               Outgoing correspondence, 1818-1873
               2 lin. in. Arranged by recipient.

The second section consists of correspondence from John Torrey to friends and colleagues on botanical topics, including publications and plant identifications, particularly from botanical explorations of the southwestern and western United States.

Series 2: Unrelated Letters, 1768-1859
               Arranged alphabetically.

This series contains letters to and from individuals other than John Torrey, found within or deposited in the Torrey collection. There are 38 folders with letters to 18 recipients.  These letters are neither to nor from Torrey.

Series 3: Botanical Miscellany, 1784-1853.
                8 folders

Notes, resolutions, obituaries, and some subject files on botanical subjects make up Series 3. Of particular interest is a note "on the origin of Herbaria" by Ernest Meyer, and "Notes on the Darlingtonia californica."

Series 4: Fremont Expeditions, 1843-1853.
                9 folders
Plant lists, notes, and some letters between Asa Gray and John Torrey relating to the second and third Fremont expeditionscan be found here.

Series 5: Manuscripts and Artwork, ca. 1818-1873

In this series are manuscripts of Torrey's Florula Princetoniana and Calendarium florae for the vicinity of New York. The artwork includes the drawings from Torrey's Plants of New York, drawn by Torrey for the Cabinet at Albany. Other drawings include "'Figures of Hepaticae' copied from Hooker's great work," and Genera of Fungi by John Torrey, and other small, miscellaneous drawings. Of particular note is the original drawing of the Darlingtonia californica (pitcher plant) by Isaac Sprague.

Series 6: Artifact, n. d.

The only item  in this series is John Torrey's vasculum.


The bulk of the Torrey collection was transferred to The New York Botanical Garden from Columbia University when the Torrey herbarium and library were transferred. Additions were incorporated over the years by purchases of N. L. Britton and J. H. Barnhart and donations from the collection of J. J. Crooke. A few items were donated by Raymond Torrey, and some letters were removed from New York Botanical Garden Herbarium specimens and incorporated into the collection.


The New York Botanical Garden
PP    Papers of William Baldwin
PP    Papers of Lewis David von Schweinitz
PP    Papers of William Leggett
RA   Torrey Botanical Club Records
ART  Drawings from the Pacific R.R. Reports

Missouri Botanical Garden
George Engelmann Papers

Harvard University
Asa Gray Papers

Smithsonian Institution
Joseph Henry Papers

Yale University
Silliman Family Papers. 1819-1864
William Hemsley Emory Papers, 1811-1887
Daniel Cady Eaton Papers

American Philosophical Society
John Torrey Papers, 1819-1864
Charles Witkins Short, Correspondence, 1813-1867
C.S. Rafinesque, Correspondence and Writings, 1808-1840
Asa Gray Papers

University of Rochester. Rush Rhees Library
Chester Dewey Papers

Processed by Susan Fraser, November  2000, under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) PA-23141-98 and a grant from the Harriet Ford Dickenson Foundation.

For more information and a complete description contact:
Susan Fraser, NYBG Archivist
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, New York 10458-5126
(718) 817-8879

  Back to Top

NYBG Home  |  Science Home  |  About Us  |  Site Map  |  Participate  |  Contact Us
© 2003 The New York Botanical Garden  |  Photo Credits
Terms of Use  |  We welcome your feedback and suggestions.