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COLLECTION Identifier: gra00080

Drawings for the United States Naval Expedition to Japan and United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of 64 black and white drawings created by Isaac Sprague depicting new species of Japanese plants. Asa Gray hired Sprague to create the drawings with the intention of publishing them; however, they were never published. Most of the drawings measure 28 x 37 cm with the exception of two drawings that measure 38 x 55 cm.

Asa Gray identified 29 of the drawings by scientific name in pencil on the front. He also wrote “paid” in pencil on the reverse of some plates. Eight drawings have been identified as species described in Gray’s account of Perry expedition plants; 18 drawings have been identified as species described in Gray’s account of Japanese plants of the North Pacific Exploring Expedition; and 2 drawings were identified as species described in Eaton’s account of the ferns of the North Pacific Exploring Expedition. Many of the plates have pencil notes on the back including scientific name and publication page. Those notes are by Mary Day, former librarian at the Gray Herbarium.

Six drawings include partial identifications by Asa Gray and Mary Day. They have not been correlated to any publication.

Twenty-nine drawings were unidentified by Asa Gray. Those illustrations were later identified by Harvard University Herbaria staff David Boufford in 2008 and Walter Kittredge in 2018. Plant identifications that were supplied by Boufford and Kittredge appear in square brackets in pencil on the reverse of each illustration.


  • 1852-1856


Conditions Governing Access

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


0.2 linear feet (1 flat box, 1 oversize folder) : 64 drawings

Biographical note

Isaac Sprague was an American illustrator who was born in Hingham, Massachusetts on September 5, 1811. His father was Isaac Sprague III, and his mother was Mary Burr Sprague. Little is known of his early life or training, but Sprague was an apprentice to his uncle Blossom Sprague who was a carriage painter. In August 1840, John James Audubon was in Hingham selling subscriptions for his books. He met with Sprague because of Sprague’s reputation as a talented artist. After that meeting, Audubon invited Sprague on his trip up the Mississippi River where Sprague was to draw birds, mammals, and scenery. In July 1844 Sprague was introduced to Asa Gray by Harvard Professor Cornelius Conway Felton. Gray hired Sprague to illustrate his Lowell Lectures and thus began a collaboration that lasted until 1865. Sprague also worked with prominent New York botanist John Torrey.

Some publications featuring Sprauge’s illustrations:
  1. 1848-1849 Genera Florae Americae Boreali-Orientalis by Asa Gray
  2. 1856 Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States by Asa Gray, ed. 2
  3. 1857 United States Exploring Expedition during the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Botany. Phanerogamia. volume 1. By Asa Gray.
  4. 1876-1882 Wild Flowers of America by George Goodale
  5. 1883 Flowers of Field and Forest by Alpheus Baker Hervey

Sprague married Hannah Colbath of New Hampshire in 1845 and they had one daughter. Hannah passed away on January 12, 1849. Sprague then married Sarah Eaton from Roxbury, Massachusetts on December 21, 1854 and they had two sons. In 1865 Sprague moved from Cambridge to Grantville, Massachusetts for his family's health. Sarah died of tuberculosis in 1870. Sprague continued to paint and draw plants and animals for his own enjoyment for the rest of his life. He died March 13, 1895.


Rudolph, Emanuel D. “Isaac Sprague, ‘Delineator and Naturalist.’” Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 23, no. 1, 1990, pp. 91–126. JSTOR.

Stafleu, Frans A., and Richard S. Cowan. Taxonomic Literature : a Selective Guide to Botanical Publications and Collections with Dates, Commentaries and Types. 2d ed., Bohn, Scheltema and Holkema, 1976.

Historical note

United States Naval Expedition to Japan, 1852-1854.

The United States Naval Expedition to Japan, directed by Commodore Matthew Perry, sailed in November 1852 for the purpose of opening Japan to foreign trade. Perry delivered U.S. demands to the Japanese in July, 1853, then sailed for China. He returned in March, 1854, to sign a treaty which opened the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda to U.S. ships.

Plants were collected in Japan by S. Wells Williams of the American Mission at Macao and Dr. James Morro, the expedition physician. A description of new species found was prepared by Asa Gray, with contributions by Francis Boott (Carex), Daniel C. Eaton (Ferns), William Sullivant (Mosses), and W.H. Harvey (Algae) and was published in the Narrative of the expedition of an American squadron to the China seas and Japan : performed in the years 1852, 1853 and 1854, under the command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy, by order of the government of the United States, volume 2, 1856.

Historical note

United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856.

The United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, directed by Captain Ringgold, who was succeeded by Captain Rodgers, also explored the China Seas and Japan. Asa Gray described new species of phanogamous plants collected by the expedition botanist Charles Wright in "Characters of some new Filices, from Japan and Adjacent Regions, collected by Charles Wright in the North Pacific Exploring Expedition under Captain John Rodgers. Communicated by permission of the Commander of the Expedition, by Daniel C. Eaton." This was published in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume 4, pages 110-111, 1857-1860.

Biographical note

Asa Gray

Often called the “Father of American Botany,” Asa Gray was instrumental in establishing systematic botany as a field of study at Harvard University and, to some extent, in the United States. His relationships with European and North American botanists and collectors enabled him to serve as a central clearing house for the identification of plants from newly explored areas of North America. He also served as a link between American and European botanical sciences. Gray regularly reviewed new European scientific works and was an early proponent of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Asa Gray was born in Sauquoit, New York, on November 18, 1810, to Roxana Howard Gray and Moses Wiley Gray. He attended grammar school in Clinton and continued his education at Fairfield Academy, enrolling in Fairfield’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1829. Gray’s interest in botany developed during this time and he began corresponding with botanists Lewis Caleb Beck and John Torrey.

Gray completed his M.D. in 1831 and accepted a teaching position at a boys’ school in Utica, New York. For the next few years he divided his time between teaching, collecting, and working as Torrey’s assistant. His first publications appeared in the winter of 1834-1835. In 1836 he became curator at the New York Lyceum of Natural History. He also began work on a North American flora with Torrey. The first volume of “Flora of North America”was published in two parts in 1838.

Gray was appointed botanist of the United States Exploring Expedition under Charles Wilkes in 1836 but withdrew after the expedition was delayed. In 1838 he accepted an appointment as Professor of Botany at the University of Michigan on condition that he first be allowed a year of study in Europe. He departed in November 1838 and spent the next 12 months visiting herbaria and meeting prominent botanists in Great Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria. Complications at Michigan prevented Gray from starting the professorship there. Instead he returned to New York to work on the second volume of “Flora.”

In 1842 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to accept the newly endowed Fisher Professorship at Harvard. He remained in that position for the rest of his life. In addition to teaching Gray assumed responsibility for the Harvard Botanical Garden and built a herbarium and library. He was a prolific correspondent and writer. His 1848 Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States became the standard field manual for botanists in the Northeast and his textbooks were used in classes across the U.S.

In 1848 Gray married Jane Lathrop Loring. She assisted him in his work and accompanied him on trips to Europe, the Allegheny Mountains, and to the American West.

Gray died in Cambridge on January 30, 1888.


Deane W. 1888. Asa Gray. Bull. Torrey Bot. Club. 15(3):59-72.

Farlow WG. 1895. Memoir of Asa Gray. 1810-1888. Biogr. Mem. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 3:161-175.

Gray A. 1894. Autobiography. In: Gray JL. Letters of Asa Gray. Boston (MA): Houghton, Mifflin and Company.


Drawings were given to the Gray Herbarium by Jane Gray.

Digitization note

Digitized by Harvard College Library Digital Imaging Group as part of the Original Botanical Illustrations in the Combined Collections of the Botany Libraries.

Sprague, Isaac, 1811-1895. Drawings for the United States Naval Expedition to Japan and United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1852-1856: 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.

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