A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design

Cadwallader Colden

[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]
Revision as of 17:01, November 13, 2018 by K-lee (talk | contribs) (→‎Images)

Cadwallader Colden (February 7, 1689–September 20, 1776), a Scottish physician and natural scientist, cultivated a garden at his country seat near the Catskill mountains of New York, where he conducted the first systematic, scientific documentation of plants native to that region. Through an extensive correspondence and botanical exchange with eminent European botanists, he disseminated information about hitherto unknown North American plants. He is considered the founder of the canal system in America.


Fig. 1, John Wollaston, Cadwallader Colden, 1749–52.

While studying for the ministry at the University of Edinburgh from 1703 to 1705, Colden [Fig. 1] learned the rudiments of botany from Professor Charles Preston (1660–1711), Keeper of the Town’s Garden and the College Garden.[1] He went on to study medicine in London, but finding little opportunity for employment in Great Britain, he decided to seek his fortune in America. Settling in Philadelphia in 1710, he supplemented the income from his medical practice through trade with the West Indies, traveling to Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, and Charleston.[2] He imported a variety of goods—including wine, rum, sugar, flour, and medicine—and also acquired a family of slaves from Barbados.[3] A chance encounter in 1718 with Robert Hunter (1664–1734), Governor of New York, resulted in Colden’s appointment as Surveyor of Lands in New York (1720–1762), a position that required pioneering exploration of the colony. Colden gathered botanical specimens during his travels, producing in 1725 “An Account of some plants the seeds of which were sent to Brigadier [Robert] Hunter at his desire for the Earl of Islay.”[4] He later reported to the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, that soon after arriving in America, he “became inquisitive into the American plants but they were then so little known & I had so little assistance from my books that I was soon discouraged in that study.”[5]

Fig. 2, Lewis Evans, A Map of Pensilvania, New-Jersey, New-York, and the Three Delaware Counties, 1749. Detail showing “Coldenham” inscribed near center.

In 1722 Colden acquired 3,000 acres of remote, uninhabited wilderness in the Hudson Highlands region of New York, about 70 miles north of New York City [Fig. 2], where he built a small stone house to accommodate his brief visits.[6] He also laid out a kitchen garden, established a nursery, and cultivated apples, cherries, pears, nectarines, and peaches in an orchard that also served as a burying ground.[7] He drained swampland into a pond and created a freshwater canal to facilitate transportation of materials across his extensive property.[8] By 1732 his household included four enslaved men and two enslaved women, and he also employed waged laborers, hiring the owners of neighboring small farms (many of them recent Irish immigrants) to assist, as needed, with the harvest and other work.[9] In a letter of c. 1731 to the British merchant Micajah Perry (1644–1721), Colden complained of “the dearness of Labour & want of hands,” noting that white settlers came to America in order to become landowners, not to work others’ farms, and slaves were time-consuming to train and make “fit for the labour of the Country which requires skill and dexterity . . . whereas in the West Indies & Virginea also little more is requisite but stren[g]th & a little [skill] in using a how [hoe].”[10]

Over time Colden transformed the original stone house into an elegant three-story mansion, where he expected to indulge his “humour in philosophical amusements,” botany among them.[11] Inspired by the taxonomic system originated by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in Genera Plantarum (1737), Colden undertook in 1742 to use Linnaeus’s methodology to describe plants growing in the vicinity of Coldengham, ultimately cataloguing 300 of them. Reflecting on all that he had achieved while living in the wilds of New York, Colden noted, “I have made a small spot of the World which when I first enter[ed] upon it was the habitation only of wolves & bears & other wild Animals now no unfit habitation for a civilized family.”[12]

Despite Colden’s remote location, his fame as a botanist and natural scientist attracted correspondents and visitors. Possibly as early as 1728 Colden began a correspondence spanning several decades with the English merchant and amateur naturalist Peter Collinson, with whom he exchanged botanical information as well as plants.[13] Congratulating Colden on his application of Linnaeus’s system of botanical classification to plants native to New York, Collinson remarked in 1744, “Where Ever you go, the Wasts[e]s & Wilds which to Others appear Dismal to one of your Tast[e] afford a Delightful Entertainm[en]t. You have a Secret to beguile a Lonesome Way and Shorten a Long Journey which only Botanists know.”[14] Colden initiated another lengthy botanical correspondence in 1742 when he sent his catalogue of New York plants to the Dutch botanist Johann Friedrich Gronovius (1686–1762), who forwarded them to Linnaeus; Linnaeus then oversaw their publication under the title “Plantae Coldenghamiae” in the Acta of the Royal Society of Sciences at Uppsala (1743–1751), and later named a plant in Colden’s honor.[15]

Visitors to Coldengham included the Philadelphia nurseryman John Bartram, who made the first of several visits in the summer of 1742, while exploring the flora of the Hudson Valley region.[16] The two men carried on an extensive correspondence, exchanging information as well as seeds and specimens. In 1748 the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm first visited Colden, bringing him letters from Linneaus, along with Linnaeus’s Flora Zeylanica and Fauna Suecica (1745).[17] The Scottish physician Alexander Garden journeyed from Charleston in 1754 to spend time at Colden’s estate, where he examined the unusual plants in the garden and discussed botany and other scientific topics with Colden and his daughter Jane, who became a distinguished botanist in her own right. Garden would later exchange seeds with the Coldens, and was the source of numerous South Carolina plants cultivated at Coldengham.[18]

Colden’s wife, Alice Chrystie Colden (1690–1762) of Kelso, Scotland, ran the estate during her husband’s frequent absences on government business. She took particular interest in managing the flower garden. In a letter of September 1743, Jane Colden mentioned collecting roots and seeds for her mother, adding, “I am very glad . . . that you have been imploy’d in improving your Garden, as I know the pleasure you take in it.”[19] Following a visit from Bartram the following year, the Coldens’ son David wrote his mother, “I suppose Mad[a]m, you will long to see how rich Mr. Bartram has made your Garden, but all’s now under ground, & we must wait next Spring to produce the fine Tulips Snow drops &c &c &c you will be oblidged to turn a good deal of the useful things away to make roome for the Gaudy shew, which I expect you will have next Summer.”[20]

In 1755 Cadwallader Colden resolved “to retire from business, & to indulge the remainder of life in more agreeable pursuits,”[21] but Coldengham’s vulnerability to attack by French and Indian forces at war with Britain convinced him to evacuate his family in 1756.[22] In 1761 he was appointed lieutenant governor of New York, and the following year he acquired a 120-acre estate in Flushing, Long Island, where he immediately laid out a garden and built a house, naming the estate Spring Hill.[23] As colonial opposition to British rule increased during the 1760s and 70s, Colden faced great hostility as an officer of the Crown. Burned in effigy during protests over the Stamp Act in 1765, he retreated to Spring Hill, which became a place of refuge in tumultuous times. He was buried there in 1776 in an old cemetery demarcated by “a few large boulders imbedded in the earth.”[24] Within a century, vegetation had entirely overtaken the burying ground, leaving no trace of Colden’s grave. In 1817 the New-York Historical Society reported its acquisition of an herbarium containing “many of the plants of this and the neighboring states, preserved and arranged by Cadwallader Colden.”[25]

Robyn Asleson


  • Colden, Cadwallader, c. December 1744, letter to Johann Frederic Gronovius (Colden 1920: 3:87–88)[26]
“This I have observ’d in all the Species that I have had an opportunity to examin[e] which are indeed so very few that I can rely no more upon them than to recommend it to your examination. . . . You who have the advantage of Botanical Gardens may soon be satisfied whether there be any real ground for my conjecture.”

  • Colden, Cadwallader, November 13, 1742, letter from Coldengham to Peter Collinson (Colden 1919: 2:281)[27]
“You have a great deal S[i]r in your power[,] that of being useful to allmost one half of the world[,] to all America. We are very poor in Knowledge & very needy of assistance. Few in America have any taste of Botany & still fewer if any of these have ability to form & keep a Botanical Garden without which it is impracticable to give compleat Characters of Plants. In short I may positively assert that not one in America has both the power & the will for such a performance.”

  • Colden, Cadwallader, 1745, letter from Coldengham, to Johann Frederic Gronovius (1920: 3:96–97)[26]
“As we are improving this Wilderness & have in some measure in some places given it the appearance of the Cultivated grounds in Europe so we make some small attempts for improvement in Learning.”

  • Colden, Cadwallader, n.d. (c. 1750), notes on a plant (1921: 4:233)[28]
“Is a Domestic plant for tho’ it be very commonly found almost in every plantation in North America from Virginia to New York both included & perhaps farther & propagates it self without any kind of Culture[,] yet I never observ’d it growing in the woods.”

  • Colden, Cadwallader, July 28, 1752 letter from Coldengham, to Peter Collinson (Colden 1937: 9: 118)[29]
“I know nothing of that plant which you mention as growing in the thickets called the Spice berry about 20 miles from New York other than what we call the all Spice which you say you have in your Garden & of which I think I once sent you some seeds. The seeds of the Sassafras when gathered green have a very spicy aromatic coat but this does not grow in thickets or what we call swamp but loves the high grounds & open fields.”

  • Garden, Alexander, November 4, 1754, letter from Charleston to Cadwallader Colden (quoted Colden 1921: 4:471–72)[28]
“I have met w[i]t[h] very Little new in the Botanic way unless Your acquaintance Bartram, who is what he is & whose acquaintance alone makes amends for other disappointments in that way. . . . One Day he Dragged me out of town & Entertain’d me so agreably with some Elevated Botanicall thoughts, on oaks, Firns, Rocks & c that I forgot I was hungry till we Landed in his house about four Miles from Town. . . .
“His garden is a perfect portraiture of himself, here you meet wt a row of rare plants almost covered over w[i]t weeds, here with a Beautiful Shrub, even Luxuriant Amongst Briars, and in another corner an Elegant & Lofty tree lost in common thicket—on our way from[h] town to his house he carried me to severall rocks & Dens where he shewed me some of his rare plants, which he had brought from the Mountains &c. In a word he disdains to have a garden less than Pensylvania [sic] & Every den is an Arbour, Every run of water, a Canal, & every small level Spot a Parterre, where he nurses up some of his Idol Flowers & cultivates his darling productions. He had many plants whose names he did not know, most or all of which I had seen & knew them—On the other hand he had several I had not seen & some I never heard of.”

  • Colden, Cadwallader, August 18, 1770, letter to the Earl of Hillsborough, describing a statue of George III erected at the Bowling Green in New York (Colden et al. 1878: 10:226[30]
“An Equestrian gilt Statue of the King made by the direction and purchased by this Colony came over in one of the last Ships from London.
“On Thursday last it was opened to view, erect on its proper pedestal in a square near the fort, and fronting the principal Street of the City. . . .
“The whole company walked in procession from the fort round the statue while the spectators expressed their Joy by loud acclamations.”

  • Deed, May 12, 1772, transferring property near Flushing, New York (later “Spring Hill”) from John and Thomas Willett to Cadwallader Colden (Purple 1873: 6)[31]
“a certain antient burying Place, fenced in with a stone fence or stone Ditch (where the family of the Willets [sic] have hitherto been interred) to and for the use of the family of said Willets to bury and deposit their dead from henceforth forever.”


Other Resources

Library of Congress Authority File

American National Biography Online

Cadwallader Colden's Treatise

Coldengham Preservation & Historical Society

Willett Family Burying Ground

Memoir, prepared at the request of a committee of the Common council of the city of New York, and presented to the mayor of the city, at the celebration of the completion of the New York canals


  1. Notes from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh (Edinburgh: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1921), 12:vii, view on Zotero, and Seymour Schwartz, Cadwallader Colden: A Biography (Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 2013), 15, view on Zotero.
  2. Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1917, 9 vols. (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1918), 3–40, view on Zotero; Anna Murray Vail, “Jane Colden, An Early New York Botanist,” Torreya 7 (1907): 21, view on Zotero; and Samuel W. Eager, An Outline History of Orange County  (Newburgh, NY: S. T. Callahan, 1846), 245, view on Zotero.
  3. Colden 1918, 1:39, view on Zotero.
  4. Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1918 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1919), 2:i, view on Zotero.
  5. Cadwallader Colden to Peter Kalm, n.d. [c. 1751], in Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1920 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1921), 4:259, view on Zotero; see also Colden 1919, 2:263, view on Zotero, and Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1934 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1937), 8:173, view on Zotero.
  6. In a letter to Mrs. John Hill, dated June 1, 1724, Colden wrote: “My Design in this is that I may with some comfort be able three or four times a year to stay there a fortnight or three weeks & look after the Work that is done or direct what I may think proper,” see Colden 1937, 8:173, 194, view on Zotero, and Eager 1846–47, 237, view on Zotero.
  7. According to his unpublished farm journal, Colden began farming the land in August 1727, sowing Indian corn and rye in the fields, and spinach in the kitchen garden. In October he “pail’d in the Garden. The Posts 6 rails of Chestnut made of trees that had been kill’d about 3 or 4 years & the Clapboards or pails of white oak from trees fell’d about ye 10th of this month. The rails of ye 5th & 7th panels from ye Garden door next ye brook were of red oak rails that had been cut 6 or 7 years.” See Edwin R. Purple, Genealogical Notes on the Colden Family in America (New York: Privately printed, 1873), 4, view on Zotero. Other projects detailed in Colden’s farm journal include enlarging his house, building a sawmill, and clearing fields; see Haley 1989, 4, 6, view on Zotero. For the orchard, see Cadwallader Colden to John Armitt, May 28, 1744, Colden 1937, 8:304, view on Zotero.
  8. Schwartz 2014, 50, view on Zotero, and Joseph E. Devine, “Cadwallader Colden: Father of the American Canal System,” Colden Preservation and Historical Society, November 21, 2010, 5–7, Pdf.
  9. Colden 1937, 8:174, 180, 202, view on Zotero, and Jacquetta M. Haley, “Farming on the Hudson Valley Frontier: Cadwallader Colden’s Farm Journal 1727–1736,” Hudson Valley Regional Review 6 (March 1989): 6–8, view on Zotero.
  10. Colden 1919, 2:32, view on Zotero.
  11. Cadwallader Colden to Peter Kalm, c. 1751, Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1919 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1921), 4:260, view on Zotero. For Colden’s house, see Schwartz 2014, 50, view on Zotero.
  12. Cadwallader Colden to Peter Collinson, May 1742, Colden 1919, 2:263, view on Zotero.
  13. Schwartz 2014, 44, view on Zotero; Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1919 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1920), 3:45, view on Zotero.
  14. Peter Collinson to Cadwallader Colden, August 23, 1744, in Peter Collinson, “Forget Not Mee & My Garden”: Selected Letters 1725–1768 of Peter Collinson, F.R.S., ed. Alan W. Armstrong (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2002), 64; see also pages 50, 110, 111, 113–14, 125, view on Zotero.
  15. In exchange for Colden’s catalogue of plants, Gronovius sent him a number of botanical texts, including Flora Virginica (1739–43) and Index Supellectilis Lapideae (1740), and Linnaeus’s Fundamenta Botanica (1736) and Oratio de Telluris habitabilis incrementato Celsi Oratio (1744). See Colden 1920, 3:31, 32, 55, 58, 84, 210, view on Zotero; Norman Taylor, Flora of the Vicinity of New York: A Contribution to Plant Geography, Memoirs of the New York Botanical Garden (Lancaster, PA: New Era Printing Company, 1915), 5:41, view on Zotero; and Colden 1919, 3:270–71, 428, view on Zotero.
  16. Collinson and Armstrong 2002, 91, 96, 109, 118, 189, view on Zotero; Colden 1919, 2:280, view on Zotero; and Colden 1920, 3:14, view on Zotero.
  17. Colden 1921, 4:77–78, 95–96, 98, view on Zotero; see also Collinson’s letter of June 20, 1748, introducing Kalm (Colden 1937, 8:353, view on Zotero).
  18. Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, Dr. Alexander Garden of Charles Town (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 40–43, and Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1921 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1923), 5:1–2, 4–5, 41, 70, 91, 115, 142, 232, view on Zotero.
  19. Jane Colden to Alice Colden, September 2, 1753, in Colden 1937, 8:126–27, view on Zotero.
  20. David Colden to Alice Colden, September 10, 1754, in Colden 1937, 8:141–42, view on Zotero.
  21. Cadwallader Colden to John Frederic Gronovius, October 1, 1755 in Colden 1923, 5:29, view on Zotero; see also Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1922 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1923), 6:193, view on Zotero.
  22. Schwartz 2013, 106–8, view on Zotero.
  23. Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1922 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1923), 7:374, view on Zotero; see also Colden 1923, 6:31, view on Zotero.
  24. Purple 1873, 8–10, view on Zotero; see also Vail 1907, 34, view on Zotero.
  25. The collection, donated by Colden’s grandson, was evidently destroyed in a fire of 1866 while in the possession of the Lyceum of Natural History in New York; see Christine Chapman Robbins, “David Hosack’s Herbarium and Its Linnaean Specimens,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 104 (June 1960): 302.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Colden 1920, view on Zotero.
  27. Colden 1919, view on Zotero.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Colden 1921, view on Zotero.
  29. Colden 1937, view on Zotero.
  30. Cadwallader Colden et al., The Colden Letter Books, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1877 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1878), view on Zotero.
  31. Purple 1873, view on Zotero

Retrieved from "https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Cadwallader_Colden&oldid=35708"

History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "Cadwallader Colden," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=Cadwallader_Colden&oldid=35708 (accessed December 8, 2023).

A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

National Gallery of Art, Washington