André Michaux letters and papers, 1783-1890


Date: 1783-1890 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet, 11 items


Includes three letters to his son, Francois André (1783-1801); an act of New Jersey authorizing Michaux to purchase land in the state to establish a botanical garden (1786); five letters to John Wakefield Francis concerning publishing projects and acquisitions of books and journals (1817); a letter from James MacPherson Le Moine to Henry Phillips, Jr. (1890); and, an undated letter from Alexander von Humboldt to Michaux.

Background note

André Michaux (1749-1802) was a French botanist. He conducted extensive botanical expeditions through Europe, the Middle East, and North America. Michaux, who served as King's Botanist for a time, is best known for his studies of American plants. He and his son François André Michaux (1770-1855, APS 1809), a botanist who accompanied his father on several expeditions, made the acquaintance of many prominent Europeans and North Americans of their time.

Michaux was born in 1749 on a royal farm near Versailles, France, of which his father André was manager. His mother was Marie-Charlotte Barbet (Barbée) Michaux. In addition to four years of formal education, young André received instruction in agricultural practices from his father. After his father's death in 1763, Michaux managed the farm alongside his brother. His aptitude for growing difficult plants soon attracted the attention of influential members of the court of Louis XVI. Upon the recommendation of the king's physician, Michaux decided to study botany. The death of his wife Cecil Claye after giving birth to their only child in 1770, just one year after their marriage, plunged Michaux into a deep depression. The naturalist Louis-Guillaume Le Monnier (1717-1799) recommended a sustained study how foreign plants could be grown in France as a way to occupy the heartbroken Michaux. Michaux followed the advice. He conducted experiments on his farm and later became a student of the French naturalist Bernard de Jussieu (1699-1777) at Trianon.

Michaux subsequently studied at the Jardin du Roi, now known as Jardin des Plantes in Paris. During this period, he made the acquaintance of many eminent scientists of the day, including the Garden's long-time director Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte du Buffon (1707-1788, APS 1768), whose assertion of American degeneracy provoked an extensive rebuttal by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes. Michaux also met the Garden's superintendent André Thouin (1746-1824), a friend and correspondent of Jefferson.

During his tenure at the Jardin du Roi, Michaux conducted extensive botanizing expedition throughout England, France and Spain. In 1782 he embarked on what would be a three-year journey through the Middle East to collect seeds and plants. His subsequent plan to explore the regions of Kashmir and Tibet was thwarted when the French government instead chose him to lead a scientific mission to the United States. The primary goal of the expedition was to search for plants that could be used in France, including new species of trees with which to replenish French forests. Prior to the journey Michaux was appointed King's Botanist.

In 1785 Michaux departed for North America with a gardener and his fifteen-year old son François André. Michaux founded a nursery at Hackensack, New Jersey, and the next year established a base in Charleston, South Carolina, from which he launched expeditions through various parts of Canada and the United States, from Nova Scotia to Spanish Florida, into the Ohio River Valley, Kentucky, and the prairies of Illinois. While his main objective was the collection of plants, he also introduced several plants into North America, including the mimosa or silk tree, the crape myrtle, the tea plant, and the camellia. Michaux kept journals in which he recorded in great detail the conditions of travel, the day's progress, and the plants he observed.

Michaux made contact with many leading Americans, including several prominent members of the American Philosophical Society. He met, for example, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington (1731-1799, APS 1780), John Bartram (1699-1777, APS 1768), and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, APS 1780). In 1792, Jefferson enlisted the Society to sponsor Michaux to "find the shortest & most convenient route of communication between the U.S. & the Pacific Ocean." However, political complications prematurely ended the mission when Jefferson learned that Michaux apparently intended to aid the French Foreign Minister Edmond-Charles Genet (1763-1834) in his efforts to arouse support for France. The nature of the secret political mission that Michaux supposedly agreed to undertake is still largely unclear; in any event, the controversy left Michaux without support to complete the expedition.

Despite these difficulties and France's diminishing ability to finance his work, Michaux continued with his botanical studies and travels in the United States for three more years. He was not only an astute observer of plants but he also was particularly skilled in questioning local people about their produce and agricultural practices. Indeed, a contemporary noted that Michaux "was not a Frenchman, an Englishman, or a Canadian, but everywhere one found him closer to the natives than any other foreigner would have been."

In 1796 Michaux embarked from North America for France. Four weeks after his departure, his ship was wrecked off the coast of Holland. His herbarium was damaged, and he lost some of his manuscripts, but he arrived safely in Paris in December 1796. To his disappointment, he learned that most of the thousands of trees he had sent from North America had not survived the turmoil of the revolution. Furthermore, he was unable to secure funding that would have allowed him to return to the United States, as he had hoped.

Instead, for the next four years, Michaux focused on the cultivation of his collected plants and on preparing for publication his studies Oaks of North America (1801) and Flora of North America (1803). Finally, in 1800 Michaux set out for another expedition, this time to Australia. In 1801 he left ship at the island of Mauritius to study plant life there. In 1802 he went on to Madagascar where he died of a fever.

Scope and content

The three letters by André Michaux to his son Francois André shed light on the close relationship between father and son. They are friendly and paternal. There is also an act by the state of New Jersey "to enable Andre Michaux to purchase lands in the State" so that he can establish "a botanical garden…in order to make useful experiments…" (1786). The undated letter by Alexander von Humboldt refers to trees. In 1824, some of André Michaux's papers were donated to the American Philosophical Society. In a letter (1890) J. M. Le Moine asks Henry Phillips to use Michaux's journal for it describes regions that he himself had also visited.

The five letters from 1817 are written by André Michaux to an American friend, "Doct. Francis at Dr. Dd. Hosack." This is almost certainly Dr. John Wakefield Francis (1789-1861), who was the student and then the partner of Dr. David Hosack in New York. The varied subjects in the letters include: listings of books and journals sent by Michaux to Francis and others in the U.S.; progress on the publication of an English edition of a Michaux work (possibly his North American Sylva); Michaux's arrangement to supply Philadelphia bookseller Thomas Dobson with scientific journals and other periodicals issued in Paris; Dr. John Francis' own proposal to publish a work on American medicinal plants - a project that he apparently abandoned; a plan by A. R. Delile to update Michaux's Flora borealli-americana; and, the founding of a new society in New York and an honor bestowed upon Michaux, by the same society.

Digital objects note

This collection contains digital materials that are available in the APS Digital Library. Links to these materials are provided with context in the inventory of this finding aid. A general listing of digital objects may also be found here.

Collection Information

Physical description

11 items


Presented by Francois André Michaux, 1824; accessioned, 1956 (1956 1103ms). See in-house shelf list for additional accession information. Letters to John W. Francis purchased; accessioned 12/13/2013 (M2013-08).

Processing information

Finding aid prepared by Anne Harney. Revised by Friederike Baer (NEH 2010) and Michael Miller (2014).

Related material

For the papers of Michaux's son, François André Michaux, see B M58.1.

Early American History Note

The Andre Michaux collection includes some correspondence that Michaux, a prominent French visitor to America who undertook various exploring expeditions in the early 19th century, wrote to his son. The collection is not large, but does provide insight into the relationship between father and son. There are also various government documents from New Jersey that contain information on land Michaux owned there.

Indexing Terms


  • Family Correspondence

Geographic Name(s)

  • New Jersey -- Politics and government -- 1775-1865.

Personal Name(s)

  • Francis, John Wakefield, 1789-1861
  • Le Moine, J. M., Sir (James MacPherson), 1825-1912
  • Michaux, André, 1746-1802
  • Michaux, Francois André, 1770-1855
  • Phillips, Henry, Jr.


  • Botanical gardens -- New Jersey.
  • Botany -- 18th century
  • Marriage and Family Life
  • Printing and Publishing

Detailed Inventory

 Michaux, André, 1746-1802.
Letter to [Francois André] Michaux, Paris
May 15, 17838.75 x 8 inchesBox 1

A.L.S. 1 p. and add. In French. Paternal letter.

General physical description: 8.75 x 8 inches

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 Michaux, André, 1746-1802.
Letter to [Francois André] Michaux, Paris
March 21, 17847 x 5 inchesBox 1

A.L.S. 2 p. and add. In French. Paternal letter.

General physical description: 7 x 5 inches

Access digital object:

 New Jersey. Legislature. General Assembly.
An act to enable Andrè Michaux to purchase lands in the state of New Jersey under certain restrictions
March 2, 178612.5 x 8 inchesBox 1

Read in House and passed; March 3, 1786, read in Council and passed. Document signed: Wil. Livingston, Presidt; Benja. Van Cleve; Maskell Ewing; B. Reed. 3 leaves and end.

General physical description: 12.5 x 8 inches

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 Michaux, André, 1746-1802.
Letter to [Francois André] Michaux, Paris
October 11, 18018.5 x 6.5 inchesBox 1

Isle de France; Vendémiaine 19, X A.L.S. 2 p. and add. In French. Friendly letter. Business.

General physical description: 8.5 x 6.5 inches

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 Michaux, André, 1746-1802.
Letter to [John Wakefield] Francis, New York
January 29, 1817 1 page(s) ; 7.25 x 9.5 inchesBox 1

Paris, ALS. After expressing the hope that Francis has arrived home safely, Michaux explains he shipped two boxes of books to John Vaughan at Philadelphia, and from that, he wants Vaughan to send Francis some numbers of the Journal general. "I require of your friendship," he continues, "to have an article inserted in some of your periodical j[ourn]als with respect to the English edition of my work that I send to America." This may be a reference to his North American Sylva, which appeared in 1817-1819 and was a translation of his Histoire des arbes forestiers de l'Amerique septentrionale.

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 Michaux, André, 1746-1802.
Letter to [John Wakefield] Francis, New York
February 26, 1817 3 page(s) ; 7.25 x 9.5 inchesBox 1

Paris, ALS. Michaux is again concerned to know whether Francis has arrived in New York. He also wants to know if Francis has received a book and journal that he has sent him. "Since your departure at Paris, a new edition of Dictionaire d'Histoire Naturelle in 30 Vol. has been published," Michaux remarks. "This work is highly esteemed." He asks Francis to forward his own publication to another individual. "I hope always my dear sir that you have not lost sight the publication with colored engraving of the medical plants of North America."

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 Michaux, André, 1746-1802.
Letter to [John Wakefield] Francis, New York
April 21, 1817 2 page(s) ; 7.25 x 9.5 inchesBox 1

Paris, ALS. Michaux remains anxious to hear whether Francis has arrived home. He reports that he has learned through some acquiantances "that a historical society has been formed at New York the object of which is to collect all publications respecting North America...I think you will learn with pleasure that since some time I buy all the ____ books which were published formerly and relate to that part of America." He asks if Francis has received the books he has sent, and adds, "The 2th half volume of my English edition will soon appear, and I hope will be better translated than the first. I claim warmly your assistance and patronisation in this enterprise."

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 Michaux, André, 1746-1802.
Letter to [John Wakefield] Francis, New York
August 22, 1817 3 page(s) ; 7.5 x 10 inchesBox 1

Paris, ALS. Michaux explains that he has previously sent, under cover of another letter to Francis, "letters to the President of the Literary and Historical Society; I expressed my most sincere acknowledgement, for the marks of esteem and of distinction those societys were so good to confer on me." He asks Francis to: "at the first occasion be again toward those gentlemen, the interpreter of my gratitude and confirm them of my wishes to cooperate to their ____ labours. I believe you did very well to abandon the idea of publishing an American fl[ora]." Michaux lists the publications for Francis that are enclosed in a box of books just shipped to Dobson.

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 Michaux, André, 1746-1802.
Letter to [John Wakefield] Francis, New York
September 17, 1817 1 page(s) ; 7 x 9.5 inchesBox 1

Paris, ALS. Michaux lists more items for Francis that are in a box of books going to John Vaughan via the Comet. He also notes that "the English edition of my works is going on."

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 Le Moine, J. M. (James MacPherson), Sir, 1825-1912.
Letter to H[enr]y Phillips, Jr., Philadelphia
January 29, 18908 x 5 inchesBox 1

Quebec, A.L.S. 2 p . Reference to André Michaux.

General physical description: 8 x 5 inches

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 Humboldt, Alexander von, 1769-1859.
Letter to [André] Michaux
undated7 x 4.5 inchesBox 1

A.L.S. 2 p. and add., end. In French. Concerning American trees.

General physical description: 7 x 4.5 inches

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