Who was Marcus E. Jones?

 “To understand Marcus Jones it is necessary to recognize certain facts: he abhorred pretension, deception and pomposity, and was strictly truthful as he understood the matter.”  - Lee W. Lenz, in Marcus E. Jones: Western Geologist, Mining Engineer & Botanist

Marcus E. Jones was among the most prominent botanists of the American West working from the late 19th century through the early 20th century. Often working in regions with no prior botanical study, Jones’ exploration of the western states and parts of Mexico contributed to a much more complete documentation of the flora of the West. He also earned himself quite a reputation among botanical circles for his colorful and oftentimes disagreeable temperament.

Though Jones was born in Jefferson, Ohio in 1852, his family moved to Grinnell, Iowa in 1865, which was then an active depot for transcontinental transport and a town of strong Christian values. Throughout his childhood, Jones learned to appreciate the local flora from his mother and also learned about the various types of woods from his father, who owned a sawmill.  However, he received very little formal education in botany, and graduated from Iowa College (now Grinnell College) in 1875 with a degree in Latin. After completing an A.M. (now more commonly referred to as an M.A.) degree at Iowa College in 1878, Jones moved to Colorado Springs due to its accessibility via newly constructed railroad lines, as well as the appeal of the rich and largely unexplored Rocky Mountain flora. He returned sporadically to Grinnell, and eventually moved to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1880, shortly after his marriage to Anna Richardson.

Jones dedicated most of his time to the collection and study of his specimens, but freelance botany provided him with only the meager income made through the sale of specimens. Jones began teaching at the Salt Lake Academy, and later taught part-time at a school opened by Anna, but spent the majority of his time botanizing in Utah as well as California. He worked for mining interests as an engineer and geologist, but later testified against several smelting companies in cases of ecological contamination; Jones was a man completely willing to sacrifice relationships and riches for what he believed was right. In fact, his wholehearted dedication to botany led in large part to the disintegration of his marriage to Anna.

Jones continued his botanical work and accumulated an impressive private herbarium of hundreds of thousands of specimens, estimated to be the largest in the country at the time. However, after a fire nearly engulfed his life’s work, he was compelled to sell the majority of his private herbarium to Pomona College in 1923 for $25,000. He relocated from Salt Lake City to Claremont, CA, where he continued to botanize and work to complete his Flora of the Great Plateau. He died in an automobile accident in 1934 while returning from an expedition to Lake Arrowhead.

Lisa Gluckstein,
Jan 11, 2013, 4:51 PM