Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) papers, 1868- : Guide.
General Physical Description note
(13 boxes and 16 volumes)
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Extent8 linear feet
Sargent was born April 24, 1841, the third child of Henrietta Gray and Ignatius Sargent, a successful Boston merchant, banker, and railroad financier. The family moved to the “Holm Lea” (inner pasture) estate in Brookline, Massachusetts when Charles was six years old. He became interested in horticulture through his relatives Henry Winthrop Sargent (1810-1882) and Horatio Hollis Hunnewell (1810-1902), whose organic approach to cultivating landscapes had been influenced by Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852). The neighboring landscape gardens and estates of Brookline reflected this influence, and shaped how Sargent would approach his life’s work at Arnold Arboretum.
After graduation from Harvard College in 1862, Sargent joined the United States Army and served during the remainder of the Civil War. His duty was mostly in Louisiana, where he was brevetted the rank of major. With the conclusion of the war, he did not seem overly eager to follow his father’s career path in finance. His life, took a profound turn when he was encouraged by family to tour Europe’s botanical gardens. Documentation about his journey is scarce; however it is known that Sargent returned after three years in Europe with a renewed determination and keen interest in plant life which he applied to the care of the grounds at Holm Lea. He nurtured good relations with his neighbors, which later would prove beneficial, as most were families of means and influence, while continuing to broaden his knowledge of landscape architecture and taxonomy, and amassing an impressive store of botanical knowledge.
In 1869, Harvard professor of botany Asa Gray (1810-1888) learned of a provision in the will of New Bedford merchant James Arnold (1781-1868) for the “promotion of Agricultural, or Horticultural improvements” (SBS 30-31). With the help of George Barrell Emerson (1797-1881) he set in motion the formation of the Arnold Arboretum and Bussey Institution by the combination of Arnold’s monetary bequest and the earlier bequest of land in Jamaica Plain by Benjamin Bussey (1757-1842). Sargent was appointed by Gray as a professor of horticulture at the Bussey Institution in 1872, and Director of the Arnold Arboretum in 1873.
The Arboretum began to take shape in the decade following Sargent’s appointment. He nurtured his fundraising connections, and effectively restored what he at first had assessed to be worn out farmland. Starting in 1878, Sargent worked with renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted on a path and roadway system with designated areas for specific plant families and genera based on the Bentham and Hooker botanical classification system.
In 1880, Sargent engineered an extraordinary arrangement between Harvard University and the City of Boston: the City would purchase the Arboretum land to make it part of the Boston Park Department, Harvard would then lease back the land at the rate of one dollar a year for a thousand years. Arboretum staff would retain autonomy over the living collections, facilities, and administration. Under the terms of the 1882 agreement, the City agreed to maintain the perimeter walls, gates, and roadway system and provide police surveillance, while the Arboretum would keep the grounds open to the general public, free of charge, from sunrise to sunset every day of the year. With the public and journalistic opinion largely in his favor, Sargent then set to work on enhancing not only the facilities of the institution but also the living collections.
By this time, the Arboretum staff already included talented propagator Jackson Thornton Dawson (1841-1916) and herbarium manager, librarian, and botanical artist Charles Edward Faxon (1846-1918). Of Sargent’s ability to encourage results from staff, Asa Gray remarked, “ [he] has developed not only the power of doing work, but of getting work done for him by other people, and so can accomplish something.” (SBS 66) Indeed, he encouraged his staff to conduct and share research with the public at large (SBS 299).
As the nation’s population continued to push westward, deforestation was problem that could no longer be ignored. Sargent’s growing expertise was called upon in 1880 by the Department of Forestry, United States Department of Agriculture to conduct a census of the nation’s trees by region, later published as Report on the Forests of North America (exclusive of Mexico) (1884). In 1883, Sargent participated in the Northern Transcontinental Survey, which examined forests of the Northwestern United States. In an article for The Nation, he emphasized the importance of forests in regulating snow and river flow. His influence contributed to the establishment of Glacier National Park (SBS 94, 95).
Sargent actively published throughout this period. The 1888 inaugural publication of the journal Garden and Forest, which he “conducted” during its decade-long run, presented a sweeping botanical vision for scientist and layperson alike. It proved an effective platform for increasing public awareness of horticulture and conservation. When Asa Gray died of a stroke in 1888, Sargent determined to memorialize his mentor with the compilation and publication the next year of Scientific Papers of Asa Gray (SBS 130). By 1885, the United States had acquired so much territory west of the Mississippi River that Sargent realized there was ripe time for an update of continental taxa. He conceived The Silva of North America, a collaboration between Sargent as writer and Charles Edward Faxon as illustrator, to fill in the gaps in the knowledge of seventy years since publication of Michaux’s seminal North American Sylva (SBS 144). Subsequent botanizing trips brought Sargent all over the country, and the Silva was published in 14 volumes from 1891 to 1902. It was praised by naturalist John Muir (1838-1914) in the Atlantic Monthly: “I have read through [the Silva] twice, as if it were a novel, and wished it were longer.” (SBS 151)
Muir had become fast friends with Sargent, although their personalities stood as polar opposites: Muir fanciful and extroverted, Sargent taciturn or even gruff at times. Muir tells this anecdote, about a trip with Sargent to Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, when Muir became enraptured by the view from the top of the mountain:
"I couldn't hold in, and began to jump about and sing and glory in it all. Then I happened to look around and catch sight of Sargent, standing there as cool as a rock, with a half-amused look on his face at me, but never saying a word. "Why don't you let yourself out at a sight like that" I asked. "I don't wear my heart upon my sleeve," he retorted. "Who cares where you wear your little heart, mon?" I cried. "There you stand in the face of all Heaven come down to earth, like a critic of the universe, as if to say, 'Come, Nature, bring on the best you have. I'm from BOSTON!'" (SBS 157)
Sargent’s devotion to the Arboretum usually took precedence over other matters. Ever determined to improve the grounds and research facilities, he raised necessary funds from H.H. Hunnewell and others, and by 1892 the Administration Building bearing Hunnewell’s name was complete. Sargent was now able to effectively house his library, herbarium, and offices on the Arboretum grounds. The library was a special passion for him; he donated over six thousand volumes, many of them rare and valuable, and thus formed the nucleus of a collection that today exceeds 100,000 books and journals.
In the meantime, the Arnold Arboretum’s reputation grew exponentially by bridging the gaps between recreation, practical horticulture, and plant science (SBS 187). Sargent spent most of his waking hours working in the Hunnewell Building or walking the grounds. Indeed, his own staff considered their employer a “‘one man’ institution” (SBS 189). The next phase would prove a crucial step in the enrichment of the Arboretum: botanical exploration of Eastern Asia.
At the beginning of the 20th century, American naturalists considered the Orient a relatively untapped botanical resource (SBS 200). Certain areas of Asia and Eastern China, in particular, had a climate similar to New England. Sargent visited Japan in 1892 and soon after published a compilation of articles which had appeared in Garden and Forest during his voyage entitled, Forest Flora of Japan. His association with James Veitch of Britain’s Veitch Nurseries led to his hiring of Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), who made numerous important botanical expeditions to China, Japan and Korea. Other plant explorations in Eastern Asia were made for the Arboretum by Joseph Hers (1884-1965), John George Jack (1861-1949), Frank Nicholas Meyer (1875-1918), William Purdom (1880-1921), and Joseph Francis Charles Rock (1884-1962). Photographs taken by each explorer are available to view on the Arnold Arboretum website: Botanical and Cultural Images of Eastern Asia, 1907-1927. By 1922, Sargent estimated the hardy trees and shrubs on the grounds to number between five and six thousand, over a thousand of which had been newly brought into American cultivation from Asia (SEM 361-2).
When Sargent died in 1927, he left twenty thousand dollars in support of the library, along with ten thousand to accumulate at compound interest for a hundred years. The same year, Oakes Ames became Supervisor of the Arnold Arboretum, and realized that Sargent’s bequests would not be sufficient to provide a lasting endowment. He instituted a campaign to raise $1,000,000 for the institution in the form of the Charles Sprague Sargent Memorial Fund (SEM 365).
Many of Sargent’s publications are available online, courtesy of Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), a consortium of 12 natural history and botanical libraries. These and publications by other Arboretum staff members are available on the web page, Arboretum Publications. Sargent’s voluminous correspondence regarding the Arnold Arboretum is available at the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum. Many more detailed accounts of Sargent’s life and work are available in the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library: Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum by S. B. Sutton, “The One-hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Sprague Sargent” published in Arnoldia (the quarterly journal of the Arnold Arboretum), Biographical memoir of Charles Sprague Sargent by William Trelease, and Science in the Pleasure Ground : a history of the Arnold Arboretum by Ida Hay.
CITED SOURCES: SBS: Sutton, S. B. (Silvia Barry). Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1970. SEM: Morison, Samuel Eliot (editor). The Development of Harvard University since the inauguration of President Eliot, 1869-1929. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1930.
- Series I: Biographical Material
- Series II: 'Holm Lea' Sargent Estate
- Series III: Correspondence
- Series IV: Living Collection Notes
- Series V: Collected Works
- Series VI: Books
- Series VII: Ephemera
- Series VIII: Microfilm
In 1990 Ignatius Sargent generously donated 22 letters written by Andrew Robeson Sargent to his mother in 1903 during his trip around the world exploring plants with his father Charles Sprague Sargent and John Muir. Also included with this donation was one letter from John Muir to Mary Robeson Sargent written during the trip. The Archives continues to collect articles to supplement Series I: Biographical Material.
Processing Information note
- Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) papers, 1868- : Guide.
- Finding aid prepared by Liz Francis
- EAD ID
Part of the Arnold Arboretum Archives Repository
The Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library is a specialized collection devoted to the study of temperate woody plants. We collect works on botany, horticulture, floras, urban forestry and taxonomy. The library contains more than 25,000 volumes and 40,000 photographs, and includes an archive that both documents the Arboretum's history and is a repository for 19th, 20th, and 21st century horticultural and botanical collections.
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