Image of a now extinct parrot from the Carolinas. The parrot has a yellow head, green body and wings, and is perched on a branch.

Catesby’s Natural Histories

Irvin Department of Special Collections, South Caroliniana Library

In February 1722, Mark Catesby, a 40-year-old Englishman with an enigmatic past and an insatiable curiosity for the wonders of nature, set sail from London on a three-month voyage to South Carolina. His sojourn in the New World was taken under the auspices of a group of Fellows of London’s Royal Society. Catesby was to spend the next four years exploring the natural habitat of Carolina and the Bahamas. After returning to England in 1726, Catesby spent the subsequent two decades laboring over his magnum opus, the two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.

Published by subscription in installments from 1729-1747, Catesby’s Natural History is a scientific account of the flora and fauna of North America and contains 220 illustrations of the plants and animals Catesby encountered in his travels. In addition to the illustrations, which were of a revolutionary style and quality for the time, Catesby wrote extensive descriptions of what he saw along with reports and folk information that he learned from Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and British Settler Colonists, making his natural history one of the most thorough accounts of the total ecology of region. Much of the first volume of his Natural History is devoted to avian life, making Catesby among the earliest British colonial explorers to systematically identify North American birds, and many of the names we use to describe American birds were first coined by Catesby.

The 1836 South Carolina College Library Catalog lists Catesby’s Natural History among its holdings, and the 1848 catalog lists the Natural History and Catesby’s Hortus Europæ Americanus. This tells us that the Library acquired a copy of Catesby at an early date and that at some point between 1836 and 1848 the College acquired a copy of the Hortus, illustrating an increased interest in Catesby and his work. The South Caroliniana Library has two copies of Catesby’s Natural History (a second and third edition) as well as a copy of his Hortus. The Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has three copies of the Natural History (first, second, and third edition), a copy of the Hortus, as well as numerous loose prints from various editions including some gifted by Herbert Fitzgerald

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