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History of Early American Landscape Design

Cadwallader Colden

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Cadwallader Colden (February 7, 1789 – 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.


While studying for the ministry at the University of Edinburgh from 1703 to 1705, Colden 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 try 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, Barbadoes, 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 Barbadoes.[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 province. 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. 1, 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. 1]. He had already taken steps to acquire slaves to work the farm he established there, having requested the previous year that his agent “buy mee two negro men about eighteen years of age,” and adding “I designe them for Labour & would have them strong & well made.”[6] By 1732 his household included four enslaved men and two women.[7] He also employed waged laborers, hiring the owners of neighboring small farms (many of them recent Irish immigrants) to assist with the harvest and perform other work as needed.[8] 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 on others' farms, and slaves were expensive to purchase and maintain in the north, partly because it took time to make them “fit for the labour of the Country which requires skill and dexterity as well as stren[g]th whereas in the West Indies & Virginea also little more is requisite but strenth & a little [skill] in using a how [hoe].”[9]

Colden named his estate Coldengham, and built a small stone house to accommodate his brief visits.[10] In addition to laying out a kitchen garden, he established a nursery and cultivated apples, cherries, pears, nectarines, and peaches in an orchard that also served as a burying ground.[11] He drained swampland into a pond and created a freshwater canal— the first constructed in America—to facilitate transportation of materials across his extensive property.[12] Scottish stone masons gradually transformed Colden's original house into an elegant three-story mansion, where he settled his family in 1739 with the expectation of indulging his “humour in philosophical amusements more than I could do while [we] lived in town."[13] Botany figured foremost among these amusements. 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 in 1742, “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.”[14]

Possibly as early as 1728 Colden began a correspondence spanning several decades with the English Quaker merchant and botanist Peter Collinson, with whom he exchanged botanical information as well as seeds and specimens.[15] 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.” [16] Colden initated another lengthy botanical correspondence in 1742 when he sent his Linnaean catalogue to the Dutch botanist Johann Friedrich Gronovius (1686-1762).[17] In exchange, Gronovius sent Colden 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).[18] Gronovius also forwarded Colden’s descriptions of New York plants to Linnaeus, who oversaw their publication under the title "Plantae Coldenghamiae" in the Acta of the Royal Society of Science at Uppsala (1743-1751).[19] At Collinson’s urging, Colden sent seeds and dried specimens to Linnaeus, who honored his American correspondent with a plant named Coldenia, published in Linneaus's Flora Zeylaniuca (1747).[20]

Colden corresponded with many other scientists and intellectuals, including Benjamin Franklin and the physician and botanist John Mitchell (1711-1768).[21] One visitor to Coldengham remarked with surprise, "From the middle of the woods, this family corresponds with all of the learned societies of the world."[22] Colden explained his voluminous letter-writing to Collinson in 1742: “I have often wished...to communicat[e] some thoughts in natural philosophy which have remain[e]d many years with me undigested[,] for we scarcely have a man in this country that takes any pleasure in such kind of Speculations.”[23] Collinson orchestrated Colden’s introduction to the Philadelphia nursery man and explorer John Bartram, who made the first of several visits to Coldengham in the summer of 1742 while exploring the Hudson Valley region.[24] The two men carried on an extensive correspondence, exchanging information as well as seeds and specimens, and in 1744 Colden encouraged Bartram to “communicate your knowledge of our American plants to the publick” by publishing a monthly series of papers modeled on Gronovius’s Flora Virginica.[25]

Despite Colden’s remote location, his fame as a botanist and natural scientist attracted important visitors. The Swedish botanist Peter Kalm first met Colden in 1748, bringing him letters from Linneaus, along with Linnaeus’s Flora Zeylanica and Fauna Svecica (1745).[26] The Scottish physician Alexander Garden journeyed from Charleston in 1754 and stayed several days at Coldengham, where he examined the unusual plants in the garden and discussed botany and other scientific topics with Colden and his daughter Jane, a distinguished botanist in her own right, as well as John Bartram, stopping at Coldengham on his return from an expedition to the Blue Mountains. Garden would later exchange seeds with the Coldens, and was the source of numerous South Carolina plants cultivated at Coldengham.[27]

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.” [28] 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."[29]

Pressing official responsibilities interfered with Cadwallader Colden's indulgence in “botanical amusements,” as he frequently complained.[30] In 1755 he resolved “to retire from business, & to indulge the remainder of life in more agreeable pursuits,”[31] but Coldengham's vulnerability to attack by French and Indian forces at war with Britain convinced him to evacuate his family in 1756.[32] In 1761 he was appointed lieutenant governor of New York, and the following year he acquired a 120-acre estate a short distance from the city of New York in Flushing, Long Island, where he immediately laid out a garden and built a house, naming the estate Spring Hill.[33] As colonial opposition to British rule increased during the 1860s and '70s, Colden faced great hostilility 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."[34] 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."[35]

--Robyn Asleson


  • Colden, Cadwallader, c. December 1744, letter to Johannes Frederic Gronovius (Colden, 1920: 3: 87-88) [36]
"This I have obser’vd 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) [37]

"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 Johannes Frederic Gronovius (1920: 3: 96-97) [36]
"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) [38]
"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) [39]
”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) [38]

"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 [40]

"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)[41]
"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."



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; 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: The New York Historical Society, 1918), 3-40, view on Zotero; 1Anna Murray Vail, "Jane Colden, An Early New York Botanist," Torreya, 7 (1907): 21, view on Zotero; 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: The 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: The New York Historical Society, 1921), 4: 259,view on Zotero; see also Colden, 1919, 2: 263, view on Zotero; Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1934 (New York: The New York Historical Society, 1937), 8: 173, view on Zotero.
  6. Cadwallader Colden to Dr. Home, December 7, 1721 in Colden, 1918, 51, view on Zotero.
  7. Colden, 1937, 8: 174, 180, 202, view on Zotero.
  8. Jacquetta M. Haley, "Farming on the Hudson Valley Frontier: Cadwallader Colden’s Farm Journal 1727-1736," The Hudson Valley Regional Review, 6 (March 1989): 6-8 view on Zotero.
  9. Colden, 1919, 2: 32, view on Zotero.
  10. “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" (Cadwallader Colden to Mrs. John Hill, June 1, 1724), Colden, 1937, 8: 173; see also 8: 194, view on Zotero; Eager, 1846-47, 237, view on Zotero.
  11. 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, March 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.
  12. Schwartz, 2014, 50, view on Zotero; Joseph E. Devine, "Cadwallader Colden: Father of the American Canal System," Colden Preservation and Historical Society, November 21, 2010, 5-7, http://www.coldenpreservation.org/ColdensCanal112508.pdf [Accessed 6/9/2015].
  13. 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: The New York Historical Society, 1921), 4: 260, view on Zotero. For Colden's house, see Schwartz, 2014, 50, view on Zotero.
  14. Cadwallader Colden to Peter Collinson, May 1742, Colden, 1919, 2: 263, view on Zotero.
  15. Schwartz, 2014, 44view on Zotero; Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1919 (New York: The New York Historical Society, 1920), 3: 45, view on Zotero.
  16. 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 50, 110, 111, 113-14, 125, view on Zotero.
  17. Colden, 1920, 3: 32, view on Zotero.
  18. Colden, 1920, 3: 31, 55, 84, 210, view on Zotero.
  19. Colden, 1920, 58, 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.: The New Era Printing Company, 1915), 5: 41, view on Zotero.
  20. Colden, 1919, 3: 270-71, 428, view on Zotero.
  21. Schwartz, 2014, 66-71, 113-15, [view on Zotero.
  22. Quoted in Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997), 1: 117, view on Zotero.
  23. Cadwallader Colden to Peter Collinson, May 1742, Colden, 1919, 2: 261, view on Zotero. For Colden's efforts to form a learned society in America and his involvement in the American Philosophical Society, see Bell, 1997, 1: 113-14, view on Zotero.
  24. Collinson and Armstrong, 2002, 91, 96, 109, 118, 189, view on Zotero; Colden, 1919, 2: 280, view on Zotero; Colden, 1920, 3: 14, view on Zotero.
  25. Cadwallader Colden to John Bartram, December 1744, in Colden, 1920, 3: 94-95, see also, 3: 78, view on Zotero.
  26. 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).
  27. Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, Dr. Alexander Garden of Charles Town (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), 40-43; Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1921 (New York: The New York Historical Society, 1923), 5: 1-2, 4-5, 41, 70, 91, 115, 142, 232, view on Zotero.
  28. Jane Colden to Alice Colden, September 2, 1753, in Colden, 1937, 8: 126-27, view on Zotero.
  29. David Colden to Alice Colden, September l0, 1754, Colden, 1937, 8: 141-42, view on Zotero.
  30. Gregory Afinogenov, "Otium Cum Dignitate: Economy, Politics, and Pastoral in Eighteenth-Century New York," Eighteenth-Century Studies, 42 (Summer 2009): 585, view on Zotero.
  31. 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: The New York Historical Society, 1923), 6: 193, view on Zotero.
  32. Schwartz, 2013, 106-08, view on Zotero.
  33. Cadwallader Colden, The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1922 (New York: The New York Historical Society, 1923), 7: 374 view on Zotero; see also Colden, 1923, 6: 31, view on Zotero.
  34. Purple, 1873, 8-10, view on Zotero. See also Vail, 1907, 34, view on Zotero.
  35. The collection 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.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Colden, 1920, view on Zotero.
  37. Colden, 1919, view on Zotero.
  38. 38.0 38.1 Colden, 1921, view on Zotero.
  39. Colden, 1937, view on Zotero.
  40. Cadwallader Colden, et al., The Colden Letter Books, Collections of the New-York Historical Society for the Year 1877 (New York: The New York Historical Society, 1878), view on Zotero.
  41. Purple, 1873, view on Zotero

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