Texas Botanist Mary Sophie Young

For my celebration of Women’s History Month, I am officially appointing myself Founder of the Mary Sophie Young Fan Club.

I first heard of Dr. Mary Sophie Young back in 2006, when I was working as a seasonal park ranger at Big Bend National Park, and I was putting together a presentation on Women of the Big Bend. In a book on women naturalists*, one short excerpt was from a journal Young kept on a plant collecting trip to West Texas in the summer of 1914.  People back at home thought I was brave just to drive in the desert in summer, and live without television for 8 weeks, so Young’s account of exploring West Texas on foot for six weeks really impressed me.  I loved her self-sufficiency, adaptability, and sense of humor.

It has now been 100 years since her first camping trip, and I have never been able to find much more information on her, but even the little I know is worth sharing.

Young was an instructor in botany and taxonomy at the University of Texas, starting in 1910.  She was also put in charge of the herbarium, and spent much of her time hiking around Austin, looking for samples of local flora to add to the University’s collection.  Since this was the era before cars, getting to all the varied regions of the Austin area was a challenge for her, but having been raised with brothers, she was used to tramping around without rest.

She was 41 when she headed to the Davis Mountains in West Texas to collect plants.  Since it was not considered proper for a woman to travel alone, she went accompanied by 17-year-old Carey Tharp, the younger brother of a colleague. This colleague, B. C. Tharp, later fact-checked and edited the journal of the trip, and published it in its entirety in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 1961 and 1962.

The journal opens on August 2, 1914, the day of arrival in Marfa,Texas, by train.  Mary had spent $8.00 for a suit and $6.00 for a pair of shoes, and that seems to be what she wore for the whole trip.  She took a day and a half in Marfa scouting out the best arrangements for travel.  It seems like this is something you would do long before arriving at your jump-off point, but I think that Mary Young was so adaptable, that specific arrangements just didn’t matter to her that much.

Marfa courthouse

The Marfa courthouse was built in 1886, so Mary Sophie Young would have seen it.

view from cupola

If she had gone up in the cupola, she would have seen her destination on the horizon.

They ended up buying some burros and then agreed to buy a wagon, sight unseen.  I love her description of the buggy:

When the carriage arrives, it strikes us dumb with admiration…The lines are rope, and there are a few scraps of strap and wire about the harness here and there to add variety. The buggy is without a top, though it had one once, and there is just enough paint to show that it once was painted black.  There were once rubber tires, but now only the places where they used to be remain as evidence of former splendor.  However, money was never better spent than the ten dollars on that precious buggy.

The journal doesn’t talk much about which plant she collected when; it is about the day-to-day logistics of the trip – catching burros, setting up a base camp in an abandoned ranch house, finding the way home after taking a wrong turn in a canyon.  It is also about the beauty of West Texas – the silver-blue bark of alligator juniper trees, the white boulders that look like small solitary houses.

It is about five o’clock now.  The “lonely” time is beginning.  The air is very transparent and very still and everything glistens.  There is something of that uncanny feeling of the consciousness of inanimate things.

And this link will take you to the Google Earth Tour of the place that inspired that description –

Mount Livermore

From time to time, Mary would send Carey to various ranch headquarters to try to buy more food, so they would be able to stay out camping longer.  Most of the ranchers were generous but didn’t have much to spare, so our scientists also tried to supplement their stores by hunting:

Well, we had jack rabbit for supper!  It is good exercise to eat jack rabbit – it gives you an appetite.  Jack rabbit should always be served with tooth picks.  Jack rabbit is economical, one piece two inches in diameter and half an inch thick will last an average man all day if he chews constantly and his jaws can stand the strain… I am going to try stewing some of what is left.  (We have had four meals already and it isn’t half cooked yet and we threw away some.)  Maybe if we soak it all night and boil it all day we shall be able to chew the juice, but I don’t know.

She knew how to make the best of a situation!

Young took camping/collecting trips during summer vacation each of the next four years – one trip was in the Panhandle but the others were all in West Texas. In early 1919, she died of cancer at the age of 46.

I can find four of her plant samples in the University of Texas digital database, two from Austin and two from West Texas.  She collected hundreds, and was known for giving every one to the university, never keeping any for herself, so I would love to know where the others are.  Here is a link to one of her samples from that trip: Styrax platafolius.

(note from 1/1/2016: I used to have the image embedded here, from the University of Texas Herbarium, but they have a notice up now that they had server problems, and the images are only available on JSTOR.  But if you are not associated with a research facility, all you can see is the thumbnail.)

Mary wasn’t perfect – if you do read the journal, be aware that there are a few casual remarks that we would judge as bigoted today.

But I think she should be remembered and celebrated for the way she went beyond what women were thought capable of, and for her exploring spirit.

* I read the journal excerpt in a collection of women’s nature writings called American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneer Women Naturalists, by Marcia Myers Bonta, 1995, Texas A&M University Press.  That was only 9 pages long.  The full journal at the Southwestern Historical Quarterly site is about 60 pages long.