From early childhood the well-born Catesby was exposed to many
of England's "new intelligentsia" who were ushering in the Age of
1 His uncle, a minor local historian by the name of Nicholas
Jekyll, introduced him to the prominent naturalist John Ray. Ray
nurtured the young Casteby's interest in botany and introduced him
to others who shared it, notably Samuel Dale, an amateur botanist
who would help finance Catesby's later American collecting expeditions.
Catesby's first opportunity to travel to America came through a family
connection. His sister, Elizabeth, had married Dr. William Cocke and
the two lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. Cocke had become involved
in Colonial politics and provided Catesby with introductions to the
many of the ruling class in Virginia, including William Byrd, who
would also provide support for Catesby's second trip to the Colonies.
Catesby arrived in Virginia on April 23, 1712. It was seven years
before he would return to England. Except for a visit to Jamaica
in 1714, he spent his time in Virginia, traveling through the Tidewater
and up the James River towards the Appalachians. He observed and
sketched local flora and fauna. He also collected botanical specimens
for Samuel Dale and for Thomas Fairchild, whose nursery at Hoxton
Catesby often mentions in the Natural History.
In his preface to the first volume of the Natural History
Catesby expressed regret that he had not approached his study with
I thought then so little of prosecuting a Design of the Nature
of this Work, that in the Seven Years I resided in that Country,
(I am ashamed to own it) I chiefly gratified my Inclination in
observing and admiring the various Productions of those Countries,
-- only sending from thence some dried Specimens of Plants and
some of the most Specious of them in Tubs of Earth, at the Request
of some curious Friends.
Yet his time in Virginia proved to have been well spent, for his
observations, sketches and specimens collected during that time, with
the help of a few well-placed friends, secured him funding for a second
trip. Samuel Dale provided him with an introduction to England's premiere
botanist, William Sherard, writing to him:
Mr. Catesby is come from Virginia...He intends againe to return
, and will take an oppertunity to waite upon you with some paintings
of Birds &c. which he hath drawn. Its [a] pitty some incouragement
can't be found for him, he may be very usefull for the perfecting
of Natural History.
Happily for Catesby, Sherard had just begun plans to send a naturalist
to America. He lobbied several of his influential friends and colleagues
to select Catesby for this role.
Sherard's affiliation with The Royal Society of London for the
Advancement of Science (known simply as the Royal Society) a group
sponsored by the British government to support scientific investigation
since 1662. In October of 1720 Colonel Francis Nicholson, about
to depart for America as the first Royal Governor of South Carolina,
told the Royal Society that throughout his reign he would provide
Catesby with a pension of twenty pounds per year "to Observe the
Rarities of the Country for the uses and purposes of the Society."
5 While the Royal Society itself did not fund Catesby, their
endorsement of him was instrumental in securing funding. Catesby
soon received the support of Sir Hans Sloane, then President of
of the Royal College of Physicians and later President of the Royal
Catesby's backers were not only men of science and politics, but
also business men, who clearly stood to gain from the as yet unknown
natural resources of America. Among such men was Charles Dubois,
merchant and former treasurer of the East India Company.
7 Catesby included a list of sponsors on page vi of the preface
to Volume I.
8 Without such support, Catesby could not have made this second
trip to America, yet this support would come at a price.