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George Edward Davenport (1833-1907)



George Edward Davenport was born in Boston on August 3, 1833, and was educated in Boston Public Schools. He had no formal education beyond high school (although his daughter claimed that ill health was all that prevented him from going to Harvard) and made his living in business until two years before he died. From his correspondence it can be deduced that he had some kind of store. More information than that is hard to find, since none of the standard biographical references say anything about Davenport's commercial activities. It seems that Davenport wanted to be known mainly by his botanical avocations, especially for his work on ferns.

It is not clear just when or how Davenport came to be interested in botany in general, but there is some information as to when he took up the study of ferns. He joined the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1872, and he stated that he first acquired an interest in ferns when looking for wildflowers for an 1873 exhibition of the Society. (Fern Bulletin 10:97) His fern interest developed quickly. By 1875 he had compiled a herbarium of North American ferns, with specimens "carefully selected, . . ., to show the characteristics and range of variation of each species. . . ." (Rhodora 26:49) Shortly afterwards Davenport began publishing articles on ferns and continued to do so for the rest of his life. His earlier articles appeared in the Torrey Bulletin and the Botanical Gazette, and his later articles were published in Rhodora and the Fern Bulletin. In 1900 he was reported to be at work on a series of photographs of New England ferns with descriptive texts, intended for use in schools. (Fern Bulletin 8:70) The photographs were made, but the texts appear not to have been published. In 1901 he was reported to be working on a Manual of the Ferns of North America and "a less technical work for schools" (probably the New England fern series). (Fern Bulletin 9:44) He continued to work on the manual for several years, but he did not finish it before his death, and the manuscript was lost after he died. He carried on an extensive correspondence with other students of ferns, amateur and professional, and was an active member of the Linnaean Fern Chapter (formed in 1893, later the American Fern Society).

In addition to his fern work, Davenport published articles relating to forestry and horticulture, and he was a member of the New England Botanical Club and a corresponding member of the Torrey Botanical Club. Some time before 1880 he helped found the Middlesex Scientific Field Club, which later became the Middlesex Institute, an organization whose interests included the study of the flora of Malden and Medford, Mass.

Davenport also participated in civic affairs. He was active in promoting the conservation of the Middlesex Fells, was a long-time member of the Medford School Committee (starting in 1892), had been involved in the anti-slavery movement, and was interested in labor reform.

Davenport was married at the age of twenty to Mary Francis; they had ten children, eight of whom survived him. From the time of his marriage until 1875, he lived in South Boston. In 1875 he moved to Medford, where he spent the rest of his life. He died on November 29, 1907, while taking a walk in the Middlesex Fells.


Cattell, J. McKeen. American Men of Science: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. 1. New York, Science Press, 1906.
Clute, Willard N. "In Memorium." Fern Bulletin 15(3): 65, 68-70.
Collins, F.S. "George Edward Davenport." Rhodora 10(109): 1-9.
Davenport, George E. "Early Fern Study in America." Fern Bulletin 10(4): 97-101.
Elliott, Clark. Biographical Dictionary of American Science: The Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries. Westport, Connecticut : Greenwood Press, 1979.
[unsigned]. "Book News." Fern Bulletin 8(3): 70.
[unsigned]. "Editorial." Fern Bulletin 9(2): 44.
Weatherby, C.A. "Another Davenport Fern Herbarium." Rhodora 26(303): 49-55.
Who Was Who in America Vol. I, 1897-1942. Chicago, A. N. Marquis Co., 1942.

Scope and Content:

The great bulk of the Davenport papers consist of letters; there are also a few short manuscripts, some photographs, and a few extraneous items. In the following, each type of material will be discussed separately.


The main group of Davenport letters consists of well over 2000 letters to Davenport from about 340 correspondents, covering the years 1872-1907. The correspondents are mostly amateur and professional botanists especially those interested in ferns, and the subject matter of the letters is almost entirely botanical. Many of the letters appear to have been cut out of letterbooks, and some postcards are still pasted together (see "Provenance" below for more details on the original groupings of the letters and possible gaps). Major correspondents (of whom we have 40 or more letters) include:

  • Daniel Cady Eaton--professor of botany at Yale, fern specialist
  • Benjamin Davis Gilbert--botanical amateur interested in ferns
  • Clarence Lown--amateur collector of plants, especially ferns, who lived in Poughkeepsie, NY
  • Florence J. Myers--botanical amateur, active in Syracuse Botanical Club
  • Cyrus Guernsey Pringle--professional plant collector, did some collecting of ferns
  • John Robinson--amateur botanist of Salem, MA, published on ferns
  • Mary Olivia Rust--botanical amateur, active in Syracuse Botanical Club
  • Margaret Slosson--student of ferns, active in Linnaean Fern Chapter
  • William Stout--amateur botanist interested in ferns
  • Emily Hitchcock Terry--matron of Hubbard House, Smith College; amateur botanist interested in ferns
  • Lucien Marcus Underwood--professor of botany at Columbia, published extensively on ferns
  • John Williamson--brass founder of botany at Kentucky who turned to art metal work using designed from nature; amateur botanist, interested in ferns; published Flora of Kentucky and Fern Etchings

Roughly one quarter of Davenport's correspondents were women, so these collections may be of use to those studying the role of women in American botany in this period. The collections should also be useful in the study of the role of amateurs in botany, as Davenport and many of his correspondents were amateurs. There are also small groups of letters written by Davenport:

    Letters to Frances L. Myers
  • 25 letters, 1878, 1880 and typescripts of 2 additional letters, 1879, filed next to Myers' letters to Davenport
  • Typescript of letter to May Olivia Rust, 1884 filed with Rust's letters to Davenport
  • Letters to Gray Herbarium staff filed under Davenport in Historic and Semi-Historic letters files
  • A miscellaneous folder contains 1 letter from Davenport to "Mr. Emerton"; 2 letters from Davenport to unnamed correspondents, 1897; 2 clippings of letters from Davenport to the Boston Evening Transcript, 1905.

In addition, seven letters to Davenport from Asa Gray are filed in the Historic Letters under Gray. There are some letters (about 20?) to Davenport in the Semi-Historic letters filed under name of sender.


There are seven small manuscripts pertaining to ferns, roughly 1879-1899. Mostly they appear to be drafts for short articles which were not published. Also in the archives is the index of shelf locations to Davenport's North American fern herbarium, originally given to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, with a few samples of the original herbarium sheets.


Photographs consist of pictures of ferns and portraits of Davenport. There is a photograph album of "Ferns of New England" containing photographs of Davenport's herbarium specimens made by Davenport. The album contains 38 pairs of photographs (brown glossy and blue matte prints of each subject) and 3 incomplete pairs. Some of the pairs seem to duplicate each other. There is a printed sheet offering the Ferns of New England series for sale. There are also loose photographs from the Ferns of New England series - 18 brown glossy and 15 blue matte prints.

One portrait photograph of Davenport (the same as the one which appeared in Fern Bulletin 15:69) was found with the Davenport letters. Four other portrait photos, all labeled in Mary Elizabeth Davenport's handwriting are in the Gray Herbarium portrait collection (nos. 0091, 0092, 0093, and 0094).


Letters from Mary Elizabeth Davenport in the Semi-Historic files provide some background on the Davenport papers, and there is a page of information about Davenport and his family tree prepared by her in the miscellaneous folder mentioned under "Letters."

John Williamson (Ferns of Kentucky) prepared an unbound set of etchings for George Davenport; these etchings are currently in the manuscript case. BOX BC

A number of separates were found filed with some of the Davenport letters, but they appear not to be connected with Davenport - some are labeled "M.L. Fernals," most were published after Davenport's death, and most pertain to topics that are more closely related to Fernald's than to Davenport's botanical interests.



The Davenport letters were found split up into several groups/locations in the archives which did not accurately reflect their provenance. As far as possible they have been combined into one sequence to make them easier to use. The following is an attempt to reconstruct the ways in which the letters reached the Gray Herbarium and the paths they followed here.

George Edward Davenport put together a herbarium of North American ferns which he gave to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1875. He also maintained a collection of fern specimens at his home which included ferns from all over the world. In November 1922, fifteen years after Davenport's death, Mary Elizabeth Davenport, daughter of George Edward, gave the herbarium which had remained in Davenport's home to the Gray Herbarium. C.A. Weatherby (see Rhodora 26: 49-55) estimated that there were about 100 letters kept with the specimens. These letters were apparently removed from the specimens and filed in two places in the Gray Herbarium. About 80 letters were found in the archived wrapped in brown papers with the label: "Letters given with the Davenport Herbarium. With a few exceptions these letters bear dates earlier than the regular Gray Herbarium file; Davenport letters of later dates having been put in the regular file." It appears that letters dating after roughly 1900 were filed in the Semi-Historic Letters collection, and is also appears that some letters may have been lost or discarded. In his article, Weatherby quoted parts of 2 letters from C.G. Pringle (1901, 1906), and a letter from D.C. Eaton (1892) and referred to a series of letters from William Stout (1879-1880): the Pringle letters were found in the Semi-Historic file, the Stout letters were found in the brown package, and the Eaton letter was not found.

After her gift of the fern herbarium, Mary Davenport continued to correspond with B.L. Robinson about possessions of her father that might be of interest to the Gray Herbarium. In a letter dated April 14, 1923, she inquired if the Gray Herbarium would be interested in any of her father's letters. In a letter dated July 26, 1924, she indicated that she planned to send to the Gray Herbarium a box of letters "in disorder," two bound volumes of letters labeled "Selected letters from my Botanical Correspondence 1872-1876 inclusive" and "Selections from my Botanical Correspondence 1877 and 1878," and a package of ferns. It appears that she did not send these to the herbarium until October, 1924, and that her shipment also included spore slides, some "writings" of Davenport, and one or more portraits.

There were three groups of letters to Davenport in the archives which appear to me to be part of the gift described above. There was an envelope labeled "Davenport letters - 64 [?] thrown away. CAW Mch 6, 1925"; it contained about 110 letters from correspondents whose last names began with A or B and included some letters which appeared to have been cut out from the letter books described above. There was a series of folders labeled "Kennedy (Davenport 1928 A-F, G-L, M-R, S-V, W-Z," which included letters mainly from correspondents whose last names began with letters in the ranges F-H and R-Y, including letters which appeared to have been cut from the correspondence books. The folder labels for this group appear to have been inaccurate: as far as I can tell, there was no basis for connecting these letters with Kennedy, and they were not arranged alphabetically. There was a third set of letters in folders labeled "Davenport Letters"; like the previous sets, this set included letters which appeared to have been cut of the letter books, and most letters came from correspondents, whose last names began with a few letters: mostly C-E, H-L and M-R. Found with this set was a collection of postcards which had not been dismounted from letter book pages-about 130 all told, ranging from 1873-1878. Some postcards were assigned serial numbers and others were not. Their arrangement was very loosely chronological.

In addition to these three groups, many letters from Davenport's second gift were filed in the Historic Letters file. An article by C.A. Weatherby provides evidence to back up his point. In American Fern Journal 18: 37-45, Weatherby discusses letters from William Stout that came with Miss Davenport's 1924 gift. These letters were found in the Historic Letters File, and not, as one might have expected, with the earlier gift of Stout letters described in the Rhodora article cited previously. All letters which appeared to have originally been part of Davenport's letters (either addressed clearly to Davenport or marked with a blue pencil slash on top of the first page) have been removed from the Historic Letters file and combined with the other Davenport letters. It is possible that some unaddressed letters remaining in the Historic Letters may also belong with the Davenport collection.

The botanical correspondence of George Davenport given by Mary Davenport contains some gaps to which her letter gives clues. In a letter dated February 23, 1923, Miss Davenport said that she had "found letters regarding a controversy between Professor L.M. Underwood and my father upon the question of nomenclature." She went on to ask if they would be useful to science, mentioned letters from Gilbert, Waters and Clute apparently pertaining to this controversy, then reconsidered and thought that perhaps they out to be destroyed out of respect to the dead, apparently Underwood's letters were nasty). It is not clear whether she gave these letters to the Gray Herbarium or not. In other letters Miss Davenport spoke of her desire to save certain letters as mementos for the family, and she apparently sent out groups of letters to a number of Davenport's descendants. She noted that she was fond of B.L. Robinson's letters and wanted to hang on to them, and it does appear that only a small portion of Robinson's letters to Davenport found their way to the Gray Herbarium.

There were a few smaller gifts of Davenport letters to the Gray Herbarium made by other people. There was a packet labeled "Davenport letters (from Mr. Geo. Yantis) checked by Mr.W 1939-40 to be filed with the historic letters." Presumably, this was a gift of George Edward Davenport Yantis, one of Davenport's grandsons. In September 1966, Dr. Mildred Faust of Syracuse University gave the Gray Herbarium 25 letters written by Davenport of Mrs. Frances Myers, 1878-1880, along with typescripts of these letters. Typescripts of three letters from Davenport (two to Mrs. Myers, 1879, and one to Mrs. Rust, 1884) were given by Nettie M. Sadler of Syracuse, NY. B.L. Robinson gave at least one and possibly two clippings of letters written by Davenport to the Boston Evening Transcript on preservation of the Middlesex Fells.


The seven short manuscripts may have come to the Gray Herbarium with Mary Elizabeth Davenport's 1924 gift of letters. The index to the North American fern herbarium was originally given by G.E. Davenport to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society along with his herbarium; the Horticultural Society deposited the herbarium and the index in the Gray Herbarium in September, 1931, and gave them to the Gray Herbarium about 1945.


The loose photographs of ferns were given by Mary Elizabeth Davenport in 1924, and the album may have been given at the same time. The portrait photographs were probably all given by Mary E. Davenport; one is labeled as having been given by her on October 20, 1928. Mary Davenport's letters speak of giving a portrait of William Stout; there is a photograph of Stout in the Gray Herbarium portrait collection which is labeled as having belonged to G.E. Davenport, but it is not clear if it is the portrait given by Mary Davenport.


Mary E. Davenport's 1924 gift apparently also included spore slides. What became of them is unknown.

Container Listing:

File "P1" in archives corridor


The Davenport letters are filed alphabetically by name of sender, and chronologically within folders. There are three folders at the end of the file which do not fit into the name sequence: a miscellaneous folder (labeled "Miscellaneous") and two folders of plasted-together postcards (labeled "Postcards"). The letters have codes, written in pencil on the upper left-hand corner of the first page, which indicate where they were located before being merged into the alphabetical file. The codes are:

A -- Found in envelope labeled "Letters given the Gray Herbarium with the Davenport Herbarium." With a few exceptions these letters bear dates earlier than the regular Gray Herbarium file; Davenport letters of later dates having been put in the regular file.
B -- Found in envelope labeled "Davenport letters (from Mr. Geo. Yantis) checked by Mr. W. 1939-40 to be filed with historic letters."
C -- Found in envelope labeled "Davenport letters - 64[?] thrown away. CAW March 6, 1925.
H -- Found in Historic letters file.
K -- Found in folders labeled "Davenport letters" unless otherwise noted.


notes on Davenport's family tree by Mary Elizabeth Davenport, Oct. 12, 1924; 1 fragmentary letter to Davenport from unidentified sender; 1 letter from Davenport to "Mr. Emerton"; 2 letters from Davenport to unnamed correspondents, 1897; 2 clippings of letter from Davenport to the Boston Evening Transcript regarding preservation of Middlesex Fells, 1905.

Mounted postcards:

2 folders


Box AG

"The Underwood Botrychiums in the Gray Herbarium"--2. ms., intended as correction for article by Underwood

"A New Hybrid Fern"--4 p. ms., Jan. 20, 1896; with draft of cover letter to Barnes, Jan. 26, 1896

"Some Observations on Mrs. Britton's and Prantl's Revisions of the North American Species of Ophioglossum, with special reference to O. arenarium Britton. (EG)"--14 1/2 p.ms., read before New England Botanical Club, April 1898

Found in envelope labeled "George E. Davenport: Cheilanthes myriophyllum and C. Fendleri, unfinished letters of Wm Stout on same subject 1879-80", appears more like notes and unfinished letters of Davenport

6 sheets rough ms., pencil

letter dated Medford, Mass., Feb. 18, 1880 to D.C. Eaton, expressing diagreement with Eaton's disposition of Cheilanthes; rough draft and more finished draft

copy of letter to Faxon from D.C. Eaton, Dec. 30, 1879, regarding Eaton's opinion of Cheilanthes
copy of schema of Cheilanthes

"Notes on the specimens of 'Cheilanthes Fendleri' in the Cambridge (Mass.) Herbarium"--10 p. ms., Dec. 1879

"Variation and Hybridity in Ferns"--5 p. ts; note says "Full paper as read at Waterville, Me."

"A Protest [criticism of Underwood's article on Botrychium ternatum]"--4 p. ms., dated Jan. 1899

Handwritten index to the Davenport Herbarium of North American Ferns-3 p. on large boards; printed catalog of ferns in the Davenport Herbarium, of annotated; sample covers and sheets from the Davenport Herbarium. Located on the 4th shelf, file 9 on top of Thoreau herbarium.


Photo cabinet

Ferns of New England photo album, with typed and printed sheets describing "Ferns of New England" photo series and fragment of a note by John Williamson
loose photographs from Ferns of New England series
portrait photo of Davenport

List of Senders for the Davenport Letters

Letters to Davenport have been found in
the following folders in the Semi-Historic Letters, SH 1-6:

Baker, John Gilbert3
Conant, Woodbury Page3
Farlow, William Gilson (7)1
Hall, Franklin Wilson1
Horner, Charlotte Nichols (née Saunders)5
Hosmer, Jane2
Leggett, William Henry1
Terry, Emily (née Hitchcock) (2)2
Tilton, George Henry2
Woolson, Grace A.5

See Also:

Historic Letter Collection
Semi-Historic Letter Collection
Gray Archives Photograph Collection: #0091-0094, #1060. #1285 Map Case
Jane Gray Autograph Collection


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