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Manasseh Cutler

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Manasseh Cutler (May 13, 1742–July 28, 1823) was a systematic botanist, horticulturist, and naturalist. He established an extensive network with other learned elite and developed an international reputation, producing notebooks, correspondence, and publications that reflected his pragmatic view of nature. Over the course of nearly six decades, Cutler maintained an almanac-type diary that provides vivid details of daily life and botanical observations. Descriptions of his garden visits—including those to Gray’s Garden, The Hills (later Lemon Hill), Mount Vernon, State House Yard, and The Woodlands—provide an unparalleled view of designed and natural landscape in early America.

History

Born in Killingly, Connecticut, to Hezekiah and Susanna Clark, Manasseh Cutler grew up on a prosperous farm whose boundaries extended into Rhode Island. The family’s ancestors were Puritans who had emigrated from Norfolkshire in 1634. From his father, Cutler developed a taste for learning, which led him to Yale University where he received—over time—undergraduate, master’s, and doctor of laws degrees.[1] He was admitted to the bar in 1767, and one of his many ventures included running a boarding school for boys.[2]

He was called in 1771 to the Congregational Church of Ipswich Hamlet (later known as Hamilton), Massachusetts, and served in that role for nearly fifty-two years. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he taught school for one year in Dedham, Massachusetts, and married Mary (Polly) Balch, before going into the mercantile and whaling business on Martha’s Vineyard.[3] Cutler later worked with General Rufus Putnam and others to form the Ohio Company of Associates, and he successfully lobbied to procure a contract from the Continental Congress for land in the West for Easterners who were impoverished by the Revolution.[4] The Company’s efforts also resulted in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which stipulated the laws for that land—including the prohibition of slavery in Ohio—and ultimately in establishing the first permanent settlement in that state at Marietta.[5] In 1800, he was elected to Congress and, as a Federalist, was opposed to the Louisiana Purchase. Within the next decade, he became a leader in the revival of religious orthodoxy in Massachusetts.[6] During the Revolutionary War, Cutler began to study medicine, learning from and aiding the town doctor in Ipswich. When that doctor left town to become a privateer, Cutler took over the practice. This foray into medicine, coupled with Cutler’s experience with farming, led him to delve rigorously into the study of botany.[7]

In this discipline, he focused on the practical, utilitarian, and economic uses of plants. His ideas about agricultural improvement spread through his promotion of early state and county agricultural societies in New England. Cutler’s publications and correspondence eventually connected him nationally and internationally through networks of other learned elite in America and Europe.[8] When Cutler’s botanical research was published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—where he had been inducted as a Fellow at its inaugural meeting—his work became known to members of the American Philosophical Society as well as Benjamin Franklin, Alexandre Frédéric, duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Charles Willson Peale, John Bartram, among other naturalists.[9]

From 1762 until the early 1820s, Cutler chronicled his daily life and horticultural observations in journal and diary form. This work reflects the scope and depth of his interests in vivid detail and was later published by his descendants. Cutler was influenced by both Hales, author of Vegetable Staticks (1780), and Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist whose work he read as a young college student.[10] In 1783, Cutler produced the first American account of indigenous vegetables arranged according to the Linnaean system and established the diversity of New England flora. This publication antedated by two years the Materia medica Americana potissimum regni vegetabilis by Johann David Schopf.[11] Over time, Cutler also urged his colleagues to develop botany courses at the college level and establish botanical gardens that would rival those found in Europe.[12] His own large collection of plants and herbaria sadly were destroyed by fire.[13]
  1. Peter S. Onuf, “Manasseh Cutler,” American National Biography (online); Robert Elliot Brown, Manasseh Cutler and the Settlement of Ohio, 1788 (Marietta, OH: Marietta College Press, 1938), 8; and William Darrach and Ernest G. Vietor, “Reverend Manasseh Cutler, LL.D., 1742–1825,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 90, no. 2 (April 1954): 111–22.
  2. Lee Nathaniel Newcomer, “The Big World of Manasseh Cutler,” New England Galaxy 4, no. 1 (Summer 1962): 29–37 and Darrach and Vietor 1954, 113. Some students were from the French West Indies and a few girls and at least two African-American male servants from his household also attended the school.
  3. Newcomer 1962, 30, and C. Burr Dawes, “Manasseh Cutler (1742–1823), Forefather of American Botany and American Botanical Gardens” (paper, Ohio Academy of Science and the Ohio Academy of Medical History, Ohio Historical Center, Columbus, April 8, 1972), 4.
  4. Darrach and Vietor 1954, 120.
  5. James Ellis Humphrey, “Manasseh Cutler,” American Naturalist 32, no. 374 (February 1898): 78.
  6. Newcomer 1962, 30–32. Cutler became the first president of the Bible Society of Salem and a leader in the local missionary society and the Female Cent Society.
  7. Newcomer 1962, 35, and George E. Gifford Jr., “Botanic Remedies in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620–1820,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts (website), 280.
  8. Anya Zilberstein, “Making and Unmaking Local Knowledge in Greater New England,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 36, no. 4 (2013): 559–69.
  9. Newcomer 1962, 34; Zilberstein 2013, 559; and Humphrey 1898, 120.
  10. Humphrey 1898, 76, and Dawes 1972, 3. According to his son Ephraim, Cutler came across a volume by Linnaeus in the Yale library when he was an undergraduate.
  11. Darrach and Vietor 1954, 113. See also “An Account of Some of the Vegetable Productions Growing in This Part of America, Botanically Arranged,” Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1785): 396–493.
  12. Dawes 1972, 1–3.
  13. Mary A. Day, “Manasseh Cutler,” entry in “The Herbaria of New England,” Rhodora 3, no. 32 (August 1901): 219.
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