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February 15, 2015




Peter Kalm was a Swedish botanist who came to America in 1748.


Peter Kalm was a Swedish botanist who came to America in 1748.

In the 18th century, several distinguished Europeans came to America to learn about this new country. They wanted to understand the geography, botany, economics, and politics here in America. One such visitor was Pehr (Peter or Petter) Kalm, a natural historian and member of the Swedish Royal Academy, who visited Lake George and travelled through the Adirondacks in 1749.

Kalm was born March 6, 1716 in Angermanland, Sweden, the son of Gabriel Kalm , a Finnish clergyman, and Catherine Ross, of Scots ancestry. The family was taking refuge in Sweden during the Great Northern War.

At age 5 or 6, Peter was taken back to his native Finland. Although raised in poverty he attended school in Vaasa and matriculated at the University of Abo in 1735. There he studied under the mineralogist Herman Sporling and two followers of the naturalist Carl Linnaeus. He tutored in parts of Finland in 1738 and 1739, noting the natural history of his country.

At age 24 he became a ward of Baron Sten Carl Bielke, a judge and member of the Royal Swedish Academy. He went to Bielke’s estate in Sweden to manage the judge’s experimental plantations. In 1741 he entered the University of Uppsala where he heard the lectures of the noted scientist, Anders Celsius. After that date, he was a friend and student of Carl Linneaus.

Kalm developed a strong interest in utilitarian botany as applied to problems of agriculture and industry. Linnaeus planned an expedition to North America to collect information on economically useful plants that might be viable in Scandinavia and to learn about the British colonies. Kalm was chosen to go on the trip to America just as he was appointed professor of economic natural history at Abo.

Kalm sailed for England in 1747 and remained there for some months, eventually leaving for America. Early in 1749, Kalm arrived in New York with authorization from the King of Sweden and a passport from Great Britain allowing him to travel to Canada. He came to examine the country looking for plants that he might transplant to Sweden.

By June he was in Albany negotiating for guides to assist him in his journey north. He left a very detailed account of his trip and observations, perhaps the first such that included what is now Warren and Washington Counties.

Kalm followed the Hudson to the site of Fort Nicholson and then continued down Wood Creek to Fort St. Frederic (Crown Point). He described not only the country through which he travelled, but also the people and their settlements. On his return in the fall, he came by way of Lake George and along the east side of Luzerne Mountain to the site of Fort Nicholson (Fort Edward area).

While on the lake, his guides got lost, taking him well up into what is now Van Wormer Bay and the creek that feeds it. Eventually they made their way back to the main part of the lake, around Long Island to the head of the lake where Fort William Henry would later be built. From there, they followed an old trail to the river that followed the base of Luzerne Mountain and spent the night at the south end of the range at the river. Curiously, while he described Baker’s Falls (Hudson Falls) on his way north, he made no mention of Glen’s Falls on his return.

He met leading naturalists and learned all he could about the natural history of the colonies. He then proceeded north to spend as much time as possible in Canada as requested by the Academy. He reached Quebec on August 5. Working with the French, he collected seeds of various plants in the area.

Quebec was colder than his Sweden, and he felt the plants would not survive in his home. He wanted to go to Fort Frontenac and Fort Niagara where he was told there were dye plants and wild rice. The governor denied his request due to tensions on the frontier. He had to go by way of Fort Saint-Frederic.

He was able to obtain permission to visit Niagara in August 1750. The fort officers received him well and helped with his seed collecting. His account of Niagara Falls was published by Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram. A full account of the diary of this trip is lost. His journeys of New France yielded much information and valuable seeds, such as, sugar maple, walnuts, and fast-ripening maize, which he hoped to domesticate in Scandinavia.

Kalm was a student of Carl Linnaeus, whose greatest contribution to science was the concept of identifying genus and species for flora and fauna. The collection of 400 American plants that Kalm carried with him on his return to Sweden were listed and classified by Linnaeus with due credit to Kalm. (Russell Bellico, in his book, Chronicles of Lake George: Journeys in War and Peace, notes that most of the plants Kalm brought from America died on the trip to Sweden).

On July 2, they were received at Crown Point. Peter Kalm noted that it was not only a military garrison, but also a thriving community. Every family had been granted a plot for a garden and contemporary observers believe that a number of foreign species now growing in our region escaped from the gardens and orchards of the French settlers. They include asparagus, a member of the orchid family, roses and thorn apple. Kalm does not identify these but describes other plants such as burdock, milkweed, a kind of parsley called chervil and dandelion, all of which have edible parts.

Journeying through the wilderness, guides told stories around campfires at night of atrocities committed during King George’s War, including scalpings of captives wile still alive. Kalm may have been frightened as he wrote, “The long autumn nights are rather terrifying in these vast wildernesses. May God be with us!”

Kalm’s travels formed the basis for a three volume book entitled Enresatil Norra America (Travels in North America).

The following is extrapolated from Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America

October 21st (1749) in the morning we continued our journey and after rowing one and a half French miles we turned to the right and took the course which led to Lac St. Sacrement (Lake George).

On both sides we were inclosed (sic) by rocky hills or mountains, steep on nearly all sides and fairly high.

The channel from Lac Sacrement became indeed narrow, hardly a gunshot across….After rowing for three miles we came to the portage where we had to carry the canoe and our goods overland for a distance of a mile and a half. Here is a waterfall over a cliff of eighteen to twenty-four feet sloping height, and furthermore, above this same fall, it is so rocky and narrow that no boat can proceed.

Bustards (cranes) and a few ducks lay in large flocks, swimming about at the entrance of the channel where it flows into Lac Sacrement. Hundreds of them rose into the air as we approached. At this time of year the natives travel along the rivers and inlets killing large numbers of these birds.

We travelled overland a mile and a half carrying our belongings and the canoe. A native and his wife, both Iroquois Indians, followed us with their canoe, which the native without any effort carried on his head the whole distance….The region was slightly elevated but yet fairly level and everywhere overgrown with woodland, largely of spruce and pine.

At 11 o’clock we came to the beginning of Lac St. Sacrement itself…there we put our belongings aboard, after we pushed our boat into the water.

Lac St. Sacrement is a long, narrow lake which extends mostly from northeast to southwest, but with few small bends. On both sides of the lake are high, quite steep mountains covered with forests which send up into the air one high peak after another. The forests consist partly of pine and partly of leaf-bearing trees. There are many small islands scattered about in the lake. Bulrushes grow in many places in the middle of the lake, also near the shore…The water was clear and had a pleasant taste. On some of the shallow places were pebble and sand….

The land on both sides between the mountains seemed to be of such a character that it would not be worth cultivating, since it would not yield much of an income. He who settled here would doubtless have to live very frugally so far as grain was concerned, but he could have plenty of game, since here is where the natives start their hunt for roe deer.

Juniper was found here and there on the stony islands and rocks of the lake…small rocky islands now overgrown with fir and sweet gale. Islets or cliffs sloped gently on all sides. Pines were the trees most frequently found on them…There chestnut trees here and there near the water’s edge….

Reindeer moss flourished on the rocks in the woods…

The neighboring forest consisted mostly of birches which still retained their leaves…Next number was the waterbeech and the mountain maple….

The lake had the same appearance as before mentioned with fairly high mountains on both sides, the one mountain piled upon the other so to speak. We followed along the northwest shore and in one place came upon a terribly high and steep mountain which at the top, on the side toward the lake, was almost perpendicular…It was awe-inspiring when we rowed at the foot of the mountain and looked up, for it seemed as if the mountain hung right over our heads as we proceeded. (This may have been the area of Deer Leap, south of Sabbath Day Point.)

At noon the wind came so strong…that we could no longer continue our rowing. We were forced to seek the shore…We landed in back of a peninsula formed by a mountain. This was a barren place as far as herbs were concerned…rarer kinds found: bayberry plants, sweet fern, tea bush, white pine, Andromeda, and Indian grass….

We now approached the end of the lake which divides into two branches…I have seen very few sugar maples.

The wolves were howling fearfully in the bay which we had just left.

October 24th we came to the end of Lake St. Sacrement…they had to carry my belongings fifteen miles if not more over land from the lake to an arm of the Hudson River.


During his work in America, two specific species of plant and animal life were of particular interest to Peter Kalm, the mountain laurel and the cicada. The following is some information of them.



While doing his study in America, Peter Kalm sent some 400 plant and animal species back to Sweden. Carl Linnaeus, the great scientist who is credited with assigning genus and species names to flora and fauna, named the Mountain Laurel in honor of Peter Kalm, Kalmia latifolia.

While doing his study in America, Peter Kalm sent some 400 plant and animal species back to Sweden. Carl Linnaeus, the great scientist who is credited with assigning genus and species names to flora and fauna, named the Mountain Laurel in honor of Peter Kalm, Kalmia latifolia.

During his study in North America, Kalm sent some 400-plant species to Linnaeus in Sweden. Linnaeus honored him while he was still on this continent by calling the mountain laurel plant Kalmia latifolia. This plant, commonly, called mountain laurel, calico-bush or spoonwood (Native Americans made spoons from it) was first described in 1624.

The mountain laurel is a species of a flowering plant in the blueberry family; it is native to eastern United States with a range from southern Maine south to northern Florida and west to Indiana and Louisiana. It is an evergreen shrub growing 3-9 meters tall. The leaves are 3-12 centimeters long and 1-4 centimeters wide. The flowers range from light pink to white and occur in clusters. It is the state flower of Connecticut and Pennsylvania

All parts of the plant are poisonous. It is especially poison for horses, goats, cattle, deer, monkeys and, of course, humans. Food products such as honey made from the plant are all toxic and to be avoided. The plant’s roots are fibrous and matted. It is naturally found on rocky slopes and mountainous forest areas where it thrives on acidic soil, growing in large thickets covering large areas of forest floor. In the Carolinas it will reach tree size.

During the 1700s, the mountain laurel was brought to Europe where it is grown today as an ornamental plant. Here in America, Dr. Richard Jaynes of Connecticut, a world authority on Kalmia latifolia, has created numerous named varieties.

The wood of the laurel is heavy and strong but brittle, never becoming a viable commercial crop since it does not grow large enough. However, it is suitable for wreaths, furniture, bowls and other household items. In the early 1800s it was used in wooden-works clocks. Burls from the plant were used for pipe bowls. It can also be used for handrails and guard rails.



While travelling in North America, Kalm identified the cicada and wrote a paper on the life cycle of the North American 17-year cicada (Magicicadaseptendecim). Kalm’s work was the first published scientific description of the insect species and its recurrent appearances.


Peter Kalm studied the American cicada while on his tour of North America.

Peter Kalm studied the American cicada while on his tour of North America.

The word cicada is from the Latin cicada meaning “tree cricket”. Cicadas are arranged in two families: Tettigarctidae and Cicadidae. They are found on all continents except Antarctica.

The Cicada adult insect is 2 to 5 centimetres in length (.79 to 1.97 inches) and its wingspan is 18 to 20 centimetres (7-8 inches). The wings are well developed with conspicuous veins. In some species, the wing membranes are wholly transparent while others are clouded or opaque. Cicada have large prominent eyes set wide apart on the sides of the head, short antennae protruding between or in front of the eyes, and membranous front wings. Often overlooked are the three small eyes or ocelli located on top of the head between the two large eyes that match the color of the large eyes.

About 2500 species of cicada have been described and many remain to be described. Cicadas live in temperate to tropical climates where they are the most widely recognized of all insects, mainly due to their large size and unique sound. They are often colloquially called locusts, although they are not related to true locusts (a swarming grasshopper), but rather they are related to leafhoppers and spittlebugs. Cicadas are benign to humans and do not bite or sting. They might mistake a person’s arm for a tree or plant limb and try to feed.

Cicadas have long proboscises under their heads that they insert into plant stems in order to feed on sap. They can damage cultivated crops, shrubs and trees, mainly in the form of scarring left on tree branches while the females lay their eggs deep in branches.

Cicadas were eaten in Ancient Greece and China, Malaysia, Burma, Latin America and the Congo. The female is meatier eating and the shells are used in traditional medicines of China.

The male cicadas have loud noisemakers called “tymbals” on the sides of the abdominal base. These tymbals are regions of the exoskeleton that form a complex membrane with thin, membranous portions and thickened ribs; contracting the internal tymbal muscles produces a clicking sound as the tymbals buckle inwards and the relaxing of the muscles causes the tymbals to return to their original position, producing another click. The interior of the male abdomen is mostly hollow, which amplifies the sound.

A cicada rapidly vibrates these membranes and enlarged chambers derived from the tracheae makes its body serve as a resonance chamber, further amplifying the sound. Each species has its own distinctive song. Cicadas sing most actively in hot weather and do their most spirited singing during the hotter hours of a summer day, in a roughly 24-hour cycle. In addition to its mating song, many species have a distinct distress call and a courtship song. Some cicadas produce the loudest of all insect-produced song, loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss in humans should the cicada sing just outside the listener’s ear.  



In 1750, Peter Kalm writes to Benjamin Franklin describing Niagara Falls.

At Niagara Falls – you can look up the river and see all the water flowing from lakes that appear more like great seas with many large rivers, the most blue magnificent part of which throws itself over the Falls.

And all the water comes dramatically to the brink-you can’t look at it without being stunned watching so vast an amount of desperate waters plunge to the bottom rock of the Falls and fly up to a great height in the air all in motion like a boiling cauldron.

And the water cascading down from that Olympic height foams in the ugliest way, as if lather or suds and makes an ominous thundering sound that’s louder at times and believed by Indians to warn of approaching bad weather.

And every day when the sun shines a rainbow appears below the Falls and under you, when you stand at the side of the Falls, a fine rainbow, and sometimes two rainbows, one on the outside of the other: the more vapors, the brighter and clearer it is: and when the wind blows the vapors away the rainbow disappears, then reappears as soon as the new vapors come.”


Peter Kalm wrote to Benjamin Franklin, describing his experience at seeing Niagara Falls.

Peter Kalm wrote to Benjamin Franklin, describing his experience at seeing Niagara Falls.

In addition to the many plants, Peter Kalm found his wife while visiting in America. In February of 1750, he married Anna Magaretha Sandin, nee Sjoman of Philadelphia, PA.

Article prepared by Dr. Marilyn Van Dyke for the Warren County Historical Society.

© February 12 2015, Warren County Historical Society.


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