Sunday, May 14, 2017

Early South Carolina - Gardeners, Plant Dealers, & Botanists John Fraser & Sons

John Fraser & his brother James were gardeners, botanists, & seed dealers active in Charleston from the 1780s, until James’ death in 1819. James remained in South Carolina during his brother's travels.
John Fraser, lithograph of an 18C portrait

Fraser made his 1st trip to the American south, specifically to Charleston, South Carolina in 1783 or 1784, sending home consignments of plants to a Frank Thorburn of Old Brompton. Returning to England in 1785, with the expectation of recompense for his labor and risk, he was astonished to learn that all the valuable plants he had forwarded were dead. Vexed, Fraser sailed again for South Carolina in the autumn nonetheless.

Magnolia fraseri-Curtis

On his return trip that autumn he made his way north through Berkeley County to the Santee River, befriending Thomas Walter along the way. He continued on to the Piedmont region of the Appalachians, discovering Phlox stolonifera (Creeping Phlox) in Georgia along the southeastern edge of the southern Blue Ridge, and in 1787 arrived in Pickens County near Chickamaua Cherokee land during the Cherokee–American wars. There he collected what became known later as Magnolia fraseri. Fraser gave his contemporary William Bartram his original specimen of Magnolia fraseri; the specimen is housed in the Walter Herbarium in the British Museum of Natural History collection. The Hortus Kewensis recorded 16 new plants as having been introduced by Fraser in 1786, and 5 more in 1787.

Fraser trekked the Allegheny Mountains in 1789, when trans-Allegheny travel was limited to indigenous peoples' trails and one military trail, Braddock Road, built in 1751 and too far north of his journeys to be of help. He traveled with François André Michaux, and on the summit of the Great Roan was the first European to discover rhododendrons now cultivated in many varieties. Of the rhododendrons he wrote, "We supplied ourselves with living plants, which were transmitted to England, all of which grew, and were sold for five guineas each."

Rhododendron catawbiense

John's brother James was actively involved with the American side of Fraser's plant export-import business; & from at least 1791, they jointly leased some land in Charleston until May 1800. In 1796, the brothers additionally mortgaged 406 acres on Johns Island along the marshy edge of Stono River, originally a part of the Fenwick Hall estate. The brothers had difficulties with their land deals though; and in 1798, they fell behind in their payment obligations to the extent that their creditors instituted litigation to collect past due sums. Despite their problems with lawsuits, leases, mortgages, & land too marshy to be perfectly suited to their enterprise, in 1810, the year prior to Fraser's death, large numbers of rhododendrons, magnolias, & other native plants were still being shipped from the Fraser brothers' Charleston nursery by their agents there.

In the Columbian Herald of December 17, 1795, James placed the following advertisement. "GARDEN Seeds, JAMES FRASER, UP THE PATH. Has received 21 John Praiser, Nursery and Seedsman of Sloan Square, Chelsea, near London, per the ship Roebuck, A GENERAL ASSORTMENT OF CULINARY SEEDS."

In the December 6, 1808, Charleston Times, the following notice appeared, “FRASER & SON HAVE received by the schooner Blazing-Star from New-York, several hundred handsome PEACH, NECTARINE and APRICOT TREES a few handsome FLOWERS, SHRUBS, AND PLANTS.”

The June 1, 1809, issue of the Times carried a notice that, “Fraser & Son, Have imported from London, A GENERAL assortment of GARDEN and FLOWER SEEDS, which will be warranted as genuine, and all of the crop of 1808."

In 1810, they advertised, "A variety of English Garden & Flower Seeds; Flowers; Flower Pots; and a few rare Plants, the proper of Mr. John Fraser, botanist, having finished his collection of American plants. The seeds will be put up in convenient lots, for the accommodation of the purchaser. Any Ladies or Gentlemen who wish to be supplied annually with warranted Garden, Agricultural or Flower Seeds, and Roots, or choice Fruit Trees, will please send their orders to the said office, or address them to Messrs. MASERS & SONS Sloan Square, Chelsea, London."

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