Dr. Edward Palmer

Pioneer plant collector and archaeologist in the Verde Valley

Credit for being the first person to record the ancient mansions and middens of the Verde Valley goes a frail and malaria ridden plant collector by the name of Edward Palmer.

His road to the Verde Valley and eventual recognition for his contributions to science is one of persistence, followed by set back, followed by persistence and capped with someone else's serendipitous discovery.

An English immigrant who came to the United States in 1849, Palmer was an avid naturalist and botanist.

His curiosity in the natural world brought him in contact with learned and influential men of his time and eventually landed him a job as a hospital steward and collector of specimens for a U.S. government sponsored trip to Paraguay in 1852.

On the trip, Palmer found himself a participant in America's one-day war with the despot-ruled country, contracted malaria and discovered there was nothing else in the world he would rather do than collect specimens of plant and animal life.

Finding upon his return that such jobs were in short supply, Palmer went west, where in spite of a minimal amount of training declared himself a medical doctor and began a practice in the gold rush hub of Denver, Colo.

When the Civil War broke out he joined the Army as an assistant surgeon. By the time hostilities ended he realized that he could see what he always wanted to see, do what he always wanted to do and collect all he wanted to collect as a member of the U.S. Army.

In 1865 Palmer was one of several ornithologists, botanists and "doctors," recruited by the Army to scour the American West and report back on all the natural wonders the land had to offer.

Palmer was assigned to Camp Lincoln (later Fort Verde) in the winter of 1865, ostensibly to serve as the surgeon for the First Arizona Volunteers.

When he arrived he found the military fort to be little more than a cluster of mud huts adjacent to a malarial swamp. The good part was that every few days he had the opportunity to go collecting as a member of an attachment sent to subdue the native population.

While gathering snakes, lizards, big game, a wide variety of plant specimens and an occasional native, Palmer found numerous ruins of a previously unrecorded civilization. His curious nature led him to investigate them and ponder the nature of their former inhabitants.

He is the first person to record the presence of Montezuma Castle, and later, on a second trip to the valley in 1869, the first person to record Montezuma Well.

Palmer's notes from his 1866 excavations of ruins along Beaver Creek and Clear Creek demonstrate that he was a natural-born scientist.

He compared the preserved foodstuffs found in the ruins to modern varieties and was able to draw conclusions about the former inhabitant's land use, cultivation practices and population.

His work has been described as the forerunner to two modern day sciences -- ethnobotany and archaeobotany.

In addition he has been described as the "greatest botanical and natural history field collector" of his day for his collecting expeditions across the United States, Mexico and South America.

He collected more than 100,000 plant specimens in his lifetime for museums and universities all over the world. He is credited with the discovery of more than 2,000 plants More than 200 plants have his Latin name "Palmeri' attached to their Latin genus-species name.

Those figures do not take into account his thousands of animal specimens and prehistoric artifacts.

The unfortunate thing about his stay at Fort Verde is that he was injured in a horse accident. While he was recuperating at Fort Whipple in Prescott, his fellow officers and enlisted men made off with his collection of artifacts and specimens.

Archaeologist Marvin Jeter, a man who has studied Palmer's life, believes that Palmer's investigations of the ruins in the Verde Valley should be given their rightful place in history as the fist scientific work in the archaeology of the Southwest.

Ironically, most of what we know about Palmer was discovered almost by accident. When he died in 1911 the contents of his life's work, all his notes and papers, nine boxes and two trunks, were sold at auction and virtually disappeared.

Fortunately his plant specimens survived.

In 1940 a botanists by the name of Rogers McVaugh came across some of Palmer's preserved fern specimens. Finding no other information attached to the specimens other than Palmer's name, McVaugh went looking.

After 16 years, following Palmer's trail around South America, Mexico and the United States, McVaugh published Palmer's biography, re-establishing his scientific work and establishing Dr. Edward Palmer's rightful place in history.

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