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COLLECTION Identifier: gra00056

Sereno Watson papers

Scope and Content

Watson’s papers consist primarily of notebooks, correspondence, and maps pertaining to Watson’s career as a botanist.


  • circa 1852-1885


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available by appointment for research. Researchers must register and provide valid photo identification. Please contact for additional information.


1.7 linear feet (4 document boxes, 1 oversize flat box, 1 oversize folder in shared map case)

Biographical note

Sereno Watson was born on December 1, 1826, in East Windsor Hill, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale University in 1847 and spent the next few years teaching and studying medicine. In 1854 he moved to Quincy, Massachusetts, to study and work at his brother Louis’s medical practice. It was around this time that he became interested in botany, likely through the medicinal uses of plants. In 1856 Watson moved to Greensboro, Alabama, to accept a clerk position at his brother, Henry’s, insurance and banking company. He remained there until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 when he returned to Massachusetts to work for Henry Barnard at the “Journal of Education.”

Watson returned to Yale to study chemistry and mineralogy at the Sheffield Scientific School from 1866 to 1867. He then moved to California and soon after joined the Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel under Clarence King. He assisted and eventually took over for expedition botanist William Whitman Bailey. In late 1869 he returned to New England to write a report on his findings with the help of Daniel Cady Eaton at Yale and Asa Gray at Harvard.

The report was published in 1871 and Watson remained at Harvard as Asa Gray’s assistant. The following year he received an official appointment as curator of the Gray Herbarium, a position he held until his death. Watson’s work at Harvard was interrupted by only three trips. In 1880 he traveled to the northwestern United States with the forestry division of the 10th Census. He traveled to Guatemala in 1885 and to Europe with George Lincoln Goodale in 1886. Watson was a member of several scientific societies and was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Iowa University. He died of complications from influenza on March 9, 1892.


Brewer WH. 1903. Biographical memoir of Sereno Watson, 1820-1892.

Biogr. Mem. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 5(13):267-290.

Goodale GL. 1892. Sereno Watson. Proc. Amer. Acad. Arts. 27:403-416.

Series Description

This collection is arranged in three series: Series I. Notebooks and manuscripts, 1867-1885; Series II. Correspondence, 1852-1880; Series III. Maps, 1879, undated.

Series I. Notebooks and manuscripts, 1867-1885.

There are approximately 40 field notebooks and diaries pertaining to the King expedition, the 10th Census, and 1885 trip to Guatemala, as well as to Watson’s botanical work and publications. Much of Watson’s correspondence is filed in the Asa Gray correspondence files. Additional correspondence to Watson, dated 1869-1891, as well as correspondence from Watson relatives following his death is filed with the Administrative correspondence of the Gray Herbarium and Harvard University Herbaria. Record books of Herbarium correspondence kept by Watson contain an inventory of his own correspondence and are stored with Institutional records.

Series II. Correspondence, 1852-1880.

This collection contains approximately 100 letters pertaining to King expedition plants and Watson’s report, dated ca. 1869-1872, and approximately 10 letters and receipts pertaining to Watson's 1880 trip to the northwestern United States. There are also typescript and manuscript copies of personal correspondence from Watson to members of his family, dated 1852-1870.

Series III. Maps, 1879, undated.

This collection includes three maps. There are two copies of the published map “State of Oregon and territories of Washington and Idaho prepared in the Office of the Chief of Engineers, 1879”. One map is mounted on cloth. Sereno Watson's collecting route is traced in purple ink on the other copy. These two maps have a separate catalog record with call number: Map Case Archives Watson and Hollis number: 013846242. The collection also contains a hand drawn cloth map apparently prepared by Watson to illustrate a lecture about his journey to the northwest in 1880 from the Census Bureau. This map is undated. There is a red line that seems to indicate his route. The map is approximately 96"x60."


The notebooks and map of Watson’s 1880 northwest trip and the two packages of correspondence (one pertaining to this trip and one to the King expedition) were found in the attic of the Watson home at Northampton, Massachusetts, and sent by Julia Watson to the Gray Herbarium on April 28, 1924. Julia Watson sent additional maps on May 11, 1924, but these maps have not been definitively identified and located in the collection. There is a series of annotated maps of the American West in the Botany Libraries general map collection that may be the additional Watson maps. Those maps are located in Map Cases 78.1-79.7. Copies of Watson family correspondence may have been donated by Edith S. Watson in 1943. The rest of the materials in this collection were likely accumulated at the Gray Herbarium during the course of Watson’s work and remained there after his death.

Existence and Location of Copies

Notebooks 9-16: The Northwest trip diaries and collections have been microfilmed. Harvard reproduction order: 97-907.

Related Materials

Other related material at the Botany Libraries, Harvard University Herbaria: Asa Gray correspondence files, 1832-1892; Administrative correspondence of the Gray Herbarium and Harvard University Herbaria, 1890-1965; Botany Libraries photograph collection.

There is a series of annotated maps of the American West that may be part of the Sereno Watson collection, although there is no documentation proving this. The maps all have the state and year written in pencil in the same handwriting in their top corners. They also frequently feature red pen marking a route. These may be the second donation of maps by Julia Watson. The maps are in folders in Map Case classification number: 78.1-78.4; 78.6 Montana; 78.65 Idaho; 78.7-78.8 Wyoming/Colorado; 79.2 Utah; 79.3 Nevada; 79.4 California; 79.5 Oregon; 79.7 Washington.

Processing Information

Processed by Lynn Mcwhood

Watson, Sereno, 1826-1892. Sereno Watson papers, circa 1852-1885: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Gray Herbarium Library specializes in the identification and classification of New World plants with emphasis on North American plants. The Archives of the Gray Herbarium houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Gray Herbarium.

Harvard University Herbaria
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