Library of the Gray Herbarium

Library of the Gray Herbarium

SERENO WATSON (1826-c.1886)



Sereno Watson was born on December 1, 1826, and was raised on a farm in Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1847 and pursued a variety of occupations -- teaching school, studying medicine, working in brother's insurance company, doing editorial work for Dr. Henry Barnard. He returned to Yale and studied chemistry and mineralogy at the Sheffield Scientific School from 1866 to 1867. He went to California and, after a while, joined Clarence King's Expedition, which was carrying out a geological survey of the 40th parallel. Watson started working without salary and eventually came to be appointed the expedition botanist, after William Whitman Bailey left due to illness. Although he had no prior botanical training, Watson wrote the Botany of the King Expedition (Vol. % for the Geological Survey, published 1871), working at New Haven under Daniel Cady Eaton and at Harvard under Asa Gray. Watson's botanical report is considered among the best of the survey expedition reports, owing in part to the careful notes on habitat made by Watson in the field. Asa Gray was much impressed with his work, and in 1873 appointed Watson an assistant in the Gray Herbarium. Watson's term as curator lasted until his death in 1892; he was also instructor in phytogeography from 1881 to 1884.

After getting settled at Harvard, Watson was invited by W. H Brewer to work on the Botany of California. The first volume, by Brewer, Gray and Watson, was published in 1876; the second volume, by Watson alone, was published in 1880. Watson spent much time preparing a Bibliographical Index to North American Botany: only the first part -- Polypetalae -- was published, in 1878. Watson took on the completion of the Manual of the Mosses of North America, begun by Thomas Potts James and Leo Lesqueriux, after James' death in 1882. The Manual appeared in 1884. With John M. Coulter, he published in 1889. At the time of his death, Watson was working on a continuation of Gray's Synoptical Flora of North America. Watson also wrote a number of contributions which were published in the proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Watson made three trips after the King Expedition. In 1880 he traveled to the Northwestern U.S. in connection with the Tenth Census forest survey. He began a botanical tour of Guatemala in 1885 but had to stop due to illness. In 1886 he traveled to Europe with George Goodale.

Watson was a shy person, known for his careful attention to detail. He is not considered a great botanical innovator.



see pamphlet material inn Biography 2 section of stacks (under "W" in pamphlet boxes).


Scope and Content:

There are two major types of material in Watson's papers -- notebooks and letters. The notebooks include notes from the King Expedition, from his 1880 trip to the Northwest and from his 1885 trip to Guatemala; notes for his bibliographical index; sections of manuscript and notes for other publications. There are around forty notebooks in all.

Letters to Sereno Watson during his tenure as curator of the Gray Herbarium (1874-1892) are found primarily in the Historic Letters File with a few in the Semi-Historic Letters as well. These letters are filed under sender; the total is unknown but is likely to be considerable. There are two small collections of letters to Watson separate from the main files: letters pertaining to the King Expedition plants and report, ca. 1869-1872 (roughly 100 items), and letters and receipts pertaining to Watson's 1880 trip to the Northwest (about 10 items).

Letters from Watson fall into two categories: personal and botanical. There is a group of typescript and manuscript copies of personal letters from Watson to members of his family, 1852-1870; these are the only materials in the collection which predate Watson's botanical career. Botanical letters from Watson (1869-1891) can be found in a folder bearing his name in the Semi-Historic files. Record books of Herbarium correspondence kept by Watson double as record of his own correspondence (see Institutional Records). The Semi-Historic files also include letters from his relatives after his death.

Other Watson-related materials include:

Account books of the Gray Herbarium maintained by Watson
Cloth map prepared by Watson to illustrate a lecture about his 1880 Northwest trip for the Census Bureau. [other maps used by Watson during his 1880 trip were given to the Gray Herbarium, but their current location is unknown.]

In general, the Sereno Watson papers at the Gray Herbarium focus on Watson's botanical career. Materials pertaining to Watson's personal life are limited, and there are no materials pertaining to Watson pre-botanical work.



Most of the Sereno Watson papers are presumed to have accumulated at the Gray Herbarium in the course of Watson's work here. The notebooks and cloth map of the 1880 trip and the two packets of letters pertaining to the King Expedition and the 1880 trip were found in the attic of the Watson home at Northampton and sent to the Gray Herbarium by Miss Julia Watson on April 28, 1924. On May 11, 1924, Miss Watson sent other 1880 maps (which have not been located). The copies of Watson family letters may have been given by Edith S. Watson in 1943.


Container Listing: BOX M-O


1. "Botany of United States Geological Exploration - 40th Parallel - William Whitman Bailey". Bailey's & Watson's field notes.
2. "Botanical Collection of 1869 - Utah Territory - Sereno Watson. USGS:
3. "U.S.G.E. 40th Parallel - Botanical Catalogues & Notes Sereno Watson."
4. "Catalogue of Botanical Collection made in Nevada and Utah, in 1867-9, by Sereno Watson, Bot. U.S. Geo. Expl. 40th Par, Clarence King in charge"

5.-8. "List of plants collected in Nevada and Utah, 1867-69; Numbered as Distributed. Sereno Watson, Collector".

The following are diaries of Watson's trip to the Northwest including notes on temperature, altitude and general character of land. They are not records of specimens.

9. "Sereno Watson. Notes I. July 13th-18th, 1880."
10. "Sereno Watson Notes II July 18-31, 1880. Shinbergiro to Missoula, Montana."
11. "Sereno Watson. Notes III. Aug. 1st to 14th, 1880. Missoula. Montana Terrty."
12. "Sereno Watson's Notes - No. IV. Lolo Trip - Aug. 16th to Sept. 10th, 1880."
13. "Sereno Watson's Notes - No. V. Missoula to Spokan Falls. Sept. 10th, 1880."
14. "Sereno Watson's Notes - No. 6. Spokan Falls to the Okanagan River and Cascade Mountains, Sept. 27th to Oct. 28th"
15. "Aneroid Readings. Sereno Watson - 1881" [actually 1880]

16. List of collections made in Guatamala, Feb. 25, 1885 - April 20, 1885.

Miscellaneous Notes:

17. Spine: "Watson. Distribution & Habitat" Notebook contains list of numbered specimens grouped by geography. Data on habitat follow specimen names. Numbers do not correspond with King Expedition numbers.
18. Cover: "bibliography" List of books, arranged alphabetically by author. Appears to be intended for personal use, not publication.
19. Cover: "Genera, etc." Alphabetical list of meanings of specific epithets. Loose pages, originally in cover labeled, "IV. Leguminosae".
20. Alphabetical list of derivations of names of genera.
21. Additional notes on generic name derivations which are not alphabetically arranged.

Distribution records for publications:

22. Cover: "Subscriptions to and distribution of Botany of California and Watson's Bibliographical Index"
23. Cover: "Distribution of Dr. Watson's Contributions"


24. "Lichenes" - fragment of letter, dated Amherst, April 30, 1880. Ms pages accompanying letter are in Watson's handwriting, contain a general description of lichens followed by a list and brief description of lichen of lichens followed by a list and brief description of lichen genera.
25. "IV. Leguminosae" - Contains manuscript drafts pertaining to California mosses and miscellaneous families.
26. "Endogens I" - Rough ms, miscellaneous monocots
27. "Index Rerum" - Rough ms, miscellaneous families-- flowering plants and some ferns
28. "Caprifoliaceae to Alphantochaeta" - Polished ms, Caprifoliaceae and beginning of Compositae
29. blank - Polished ms, Compositae
30. blank - Polished ms, compositae -- Vernoniaceae, Aster, etc.
31. "Compositae I" - Rough ms.
32. "II. Compositae. Aplopappus to Baeria" Polished ms
33. "III. Compositae. Bahia to Doelingeria" Polished ms
34. "III" - Rough ms; mostly Compositae, a few grasses and other families
35. "IV" - Rough ms; Compositae
36. "Gamopetalae after Compositae. II" - Polished ms and loose notes
37. "74. Goodeniaceae to 85. Styraceae" - Polished ms.
38. "Cryptogams" - Polished ms.
39 "Gramineae" - Rough ms. to index of gramineae; "Genera of the Gramineae alphabetically arranged with synonyms according to George Bentham" -- signed G.T. [George Thurber], 1882.


1. Watson family letters -- biography of Watson; handwritten notes of quotes from letters by Watson, possibly in Jane Gray's hand; copies of letters from Watson to his family, 1852-1870; original letters from Watson to his niece Minnie, 1867 and 1869. King Expedition letter:
2. Charles Christopher Frost (1805-1880) -- 1869-1871, re determination of Watson's fungi and hepaticum; letter from Watson to Frost, 1871.
3. Thomas Potts James (1803-1882) --1869-1871; list of mosses collected in Nevada and Utah, 1867-69 by Watson; catalog of determinations of Watson's mosses by James.
4. Stephen Thayer Olney (1812-1878) -- 1869-1872, re determination of Watson's Carices and Cyperaceae
5. James Watson Robbins (1821-1890) --1870, concerning determination of Potamogetons collected by Watson.
6. George Thurber (1821-1890) -- 1870-1871, re determination of Watson's grasses; Edward Tuckerman (1817-1886) --1869-1871, re collecting and determination of lichens; Horatio Charles Wood (1841-1920) --1869-1871, re determination of Watson's algae
7. Distribution of King Report -- list of army surgeons on duty west off the Mississippi, with those who subscribed to the King Report underlined; letters from these surgeons, arranged alphabetically by sender, 1871-1872; requests for Report and acknowledgements of receipt from others, 1871-1873.
8. 1880 Census -- letters from C.S. Sargent, 1880; letters of introduction and receipts


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