Henry Ernest Muhlenberg papers

Collection 0443

(0.4 Linear feet ; 1 box [15 folders])

Summary Information

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Creator - Compiler
Muhlenberg, Gotthilf Henrich Ernst, 1753-1815.
Henry Ernest Muhlenberg papers
Date [inclusive]
0.4 Linear feet ; 1 box [15 folders]
Finding aid prepared by Anna Baechtold Georgi and Sarah Newhouse
This collection was processed during the Digital Center for Americana Project Phase II, which was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.
Language of Materials note
Material in this collection are mainly in German and English, with some items in French.
Mixed materials [Box]
This collection contains scientific letters written to Henry Ernest Muhlenberg (1753-1815). Muhlenberg, a Lutheran pastor and biologist, is considered the first botanist born in America who researched the flora and fauna of his homeland systematically. His work contributed considerably to the advancement of natural science around 1800. Some new descriptions and assignations of North American plants based on the system of Carl von Linné (also known as Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778) go back to Muhlenberg. He discovered a type of grass of the subfamily of Chloridoideae common in Mexico and the south west of the United States, which after his discovery was named “the Muhlenbergia.” Various types of plants bear the type-epitheton “Muhlenbergii” to honor Henry Ernest Muhlenberg. He also discovered and identified the bog turtle, which got the epitheton “glyptemys muhlenbergii.” The German botanist Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812) honored Muhlenberg by naming a genus of grasses “Muhlenbergia.” Also, an American botanical magazine published between 1900 and 1915 was entitled “Muhlenbergia.” His correspondence with various distinguished European and American naturalists was an important aspect of his botanical research. This collection contains only letters addressed to Muhlenberg.

Preferred Citation note

Cite as: Henry Muhlenberg papers (collection 0443), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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Biographical/Historical note

Henry Ernest Muhlenberg (also known as Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Mühlenberg), a famous naturalist, was born in 1753 in New Providence (Trappe), Pennsylvania and died 1815 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Muhlenberg was the youngest son of Anna Maria Weiser and the Lutheran pastor Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, who founded the first Lutheran church body in North America. Henry Ernest Muhlenberg was educated in New Providence (Trappe) and later in Philadelphia. In 1763, Henry and two of his ten siblings, Johann Peter Gabriel and Friedrich August, were sent to Germany for their education. In Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Henry attended the “Franckesche Stiftung” (the Francke Foundation) from 1763 till 1769 followed by a study of theology at the University of Halle. He returned to Pennsylvania in 1770 and shortly after was ordained by the Lutheran synod and appointed assistant to his father. In 1774 he was elected pastor in Philadelphia. In the same year he married Mary Catharine Hall with whom he had two sons, Henry August and Frederick August. In 1780 the family moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Muhlenberg became pastor at the Holy Trinity Church.

Already in the 1770s Muhlenberg had become interested in botany. His interest was influenced by the works of the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl von Linné, also known as Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). While living in Lancaster, Muhlenberg intensified his interest and began to collect and describe plants and seeds he found in the region. In the following years, he made some notable discoveries and identifications. Muhlenberg became a well-known botanist, developing a correspondence with the most distinguished European and American naturalists, botanists and zoologists. Among his correspondents were the famous German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who visited him in his home in Lancaster. In the large scientific correspondence which he kept throughout his life, he discussed various botanical issues, including biological taxonomy, a system which Carl von Linné created. In 1787, Muhlenberg co-founded a school, the Franklin College in Lancaster (now Franklin and Marshall), and became its first president. In 1791 he became a member of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina. Muhlenberg's publications included (among other works) Catalogus Plantarum Americae Septentrionalis […] or a Catalogue of the Hitherto Known Native and Naturalized Plants of North America (1813) and  Descriptio uberior plantarum graminum et plantarum calamarum Americae Septentrionalis (1817, 1818). The latter was published after his death by his son Friedrich August. Muhlenberg contributed a number of new descriptions and assignations of North American plants using Linné’s system. He discovered a type of grass of the subfamily of Chloridoideae common in Mexico and the south west of the United States, which after his discovery was named “the Muhlenbergia.” Various types of plants bear the type-epitheton “Muhlenbergii” to honor Henry Ernest Muhlenberg. He also discovered and identified the bog turtle, which got the epitheton “glyptemys muhlenbergii.” In 1780 Muhlenberg was given a master of the arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania and in 1787, he received a doctorate of divinity degree from Princeton University. Henry Ernest Muhlenberg died in 1815 in Lancaster, where he had remained for the last twenty-five years of his life. Besides botanical publications he also wrote theological works, as well as a German lexicon and grammar book, which was published in Lancaster in 1788.

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Scope and Contents note

The Henry Muhlenberg (1753-1815) papers, which are housed in one box and arranged chronologically from 1781 to 1816, contain the scientific letters to Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg from various distinguished European and American naturalists. The letters represent important aspects of Muhlenberg’s botanical work. They discuss botanical and zoological questions, review books, describe plants, suggest names and extend and develop the Linnaean taxonomy. The first folder also contains an 1878 letter written by Muhlenberg's grandson, physician Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, presenting the collection to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The letters’ contents show in general a vibrant exchange between Europe and North America not only of knowledge but also of plant samples, seeds and minerals.The letters often contain lists of plants with numerals referring to their biological taxonomy. Some letters originally were sent with a samples of plants which were later removed. Several letters contain lists of plants European scientists requested to have sent from Pennsylvania for their studies. The letters’ main focus is on Muhlenberg’s chief interest in his taxonomical work: the description and verification of newly discovered plants, especially grasses. The correspondence also reflects Muhlenberg’s work on his Catalogus Plantarum Americae Septentrionalis […] or a Catalogue of the Hitherto Known Native and Naturalized Plants of North America (1813) for which he had catalogues of plants sent to him from various regions in America.

Aside from discussing grass, lichen, and seeds, some letters address questions about North American fauna such as opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and deer. Johann Christian von Schreber, for example, asks Muhlenberg to send him a living opossum. Apparently, Muhlenberg had already sent him a female opossum, but it had died before he could complete his observations. Schreber in return was collecting seeds around Erlangen in Germany to send to Muhlenberg. Schreber also asked questions about the behavior of certain animals native to Pennsylvania. The contents of the papers also show discussions about recent publications and Muhlenberg apparently asked for certain books to be sent to him. According to a letter, even copper plates for the press were sent between Germany and Pennsylvania. A book dealer, among others, helped with the transfer of mail and animals. A few letters hold notes by Muhlenberg, which are drafts for his responses.

The letters come from Germany, Sweden, England, France and North America, and are mostly in German and English, with a few written in French. In general, the collection offers an extensive look into the scholarly exchange between scientists in Europe and North America around 1800 and more specifically, a view into the work of botanists in the wake of Carl von Linné’s achievements in the foundations of biological taxonomy and the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature.

Among the correspondents in this collection are: Johann Christian von Schreber (1739-1810), Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815), Sir James Edward Smith (1759-1828), Georg Franz Hoffmann (1761-1826), William Bartram (1739-1823), Johann David Schoepf (1752-1800), Johannes Hedwig (1730-1799), Jakob Sturm (1771-1848), Kurt Polycarp Joachim Sprengel (1766-1833), Karl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812), John Brickell (1749-1809), Stephen Elliott (1771-1830), Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840), Christiaan Hendrik Persoon (1761-1836), Heinrich Adolf Schrader (1767-1836), Olof Peter Swartz (1760-1818), William Baldwin (1779-1819), Frederick Traugott Pursh (1774-1820), François André Michaux (1770-1855), and Erik Acharius (1757-1819).

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

 The Historical Society of Pennsylvania September 2011

1300 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA, 19107

Conditions Governing Access note

The collection is open for research.

Immediate Source of Acquisition note

Donated by Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, 1878.

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Related Materials

Related Archival Materials note

At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania:

Johann Friedrich Ernst papers (Am .0625)

Frank M. Etting collection (Collection 0193)

Daybook of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (LCP6)

Benjamin Smith Barton papers (Collection 0034)

Benjamin Smith Barton lecture notes (Collection 1623)

Bartram family papers (Collection 0036)

Ferdinand Julius Dreer collection (Collection 0175)

Descriptio uberior graminum et plantarum calamariarum Americæ septentrionalis indigenarum et cicurum. By Henry Muhlenberg. (Api.99 4686)

At other institutions:

Catalogus plantarum Americae Septentrionalis, huc usque cognitarum indigenarum et cicurum : or, A catalogue of the hitherto known native and naturalized plants of North America, arranged according to the sexual system of Linnaeus. By Henry Muhlenberg. At the Library Company in Philadelphia, Pa. (LCP Api.99 433)

Muhlenberg family papers, 1769-1866 at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Pa.

Papers of Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Mühlenberg at the archives of the Francke Foundations in Halle, Germany.

Henry Ernest Muhlenberg letter at the Library of the Gray Herbarium in Cambridge, Mass.

Henry Ernest Muhlenberg papers at the Archives and Special Collections Department of the Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

Online publication project at the University of Bamberg: “Transatlantische Briefe” [Transatlantic letters], edited by Matthias Schönhofer.

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Controlled Access Headings


  • Letters.

Personal Name(s)

  • Acharius, Erik, 1757-1819.
  • Baldwin, William, 1779-1819.
  • Barton, Benjamin Smith, 1766-1815.
  • Bartram, William, 1739-1823.
  • Brickell, John, 1749-1809.
  • Elliott, Stephen, 1771-1830.
  • Hedwig, Johannes, 1730-1799.
  • Hoffman, Georg Franz, 1761-1826.
  • Michaux, François André, 1770-1855.
  • Persoon, C. H. (Christiaan Hendrik), 1755-1837.
  • Pursh, Frederick, 1774-1820.
  • Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel, 1783-1840.
  • Schoepf, Johann David, 1752-1800.
  • Schrader, Heinrich Adolph, 1767-1836.
  • Schreber, Johann Christian Daniel, 1739-1810.
  • Smith, James Edward, Sir, 1759-1828.
  • Sprengel, Kurt Polycarp Joachim, 1766-1833.
  • Sturm, Jakob, 1771-1848.
  • Swartz, Olof, 1760-1818.
  • Willdenow, Karl Ludwig, 1765-1812.


  • Botany--Eighteenth Century.
  • Botany--Nomenclature.
  • Naturalists--United States--Correspondence.
  • Numerical taxonomy.

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Müller-Jahncke, Wolf-Dieter, “Mühlenberg, Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst,“ Neue Deutsche Biographie 18, 1997, pp. 282-283. Web. Sept. 20, 2011. http://www.deutsche-biographie.de/pnd11716240X.html

Youmans, William Jay, “Sketch of Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg,” The Popular Science Monthly 45, (1894): 689-698. Web. Sept. 20, 2011. http://books.google.de/books?id=9ptJAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA689&dq=Gotthilf+Heinrich+Ernst+M%C3%BChlenberg&hl=de&ei=W5FzTsuFL8PW0QG2q-3QDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CEYQ6AEwBjgU#v=onepage&q&f=false

Wallace, Paul A. W., “Henry Ernest Muhlenberg,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 92:2, Studies of Historical Documents in the Library of the American Philosophical Society (1948): 107-110. Web. Published by: American Philosophical Society. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3143408

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Collection Inventory

Box Folder


1 1

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1 2

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1 3

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1 4

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1 5

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1 6

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1 7

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1 8

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1 9

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1 10

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1 11

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1 12

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1 13

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1 14

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1 15

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