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University Libraries - Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887

Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887

from the South Carolinana Library

This collection of one hundred ten manuscripts, thirteen manuscript volumes, and thirty-nine photographs documents the family life, business pursuits, and natural history interests of South Carolina planter, botanist, and agricultural writer Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887). See also Plants & Planter to view his plant specimens as well from the AC Moore Herbarium.

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About the Collection

Born on 19 May 1814 at Pooshee plantation in St. John's, Berkeley, Henry William Ravenel first attended Pineville Academy and later graduated in the class of 1832 from South Carolina College. While in college he was especially interested in chemistry and natural philosophy. After first establishing himself as a planter at Northampton plantation, Ravenel turned to botany as an avocation. His studies in natural history brought him into contact with some of the most eminent men in the field, among them Charles Hyde Olmstead, John Bachman, Moses Ashley Curtis, and Asa Gray. Between 1853 and 1860 he published five volumes of The Fungi Caroliniani Exsiccati, the first published series of named specimens of American fungi. In collaboration with English botanist M.C. Cooke, Ravenel later published a second series, Fungi Americani Exsiccati. These publications established the South Carolinian as the leading authority on American fungus and led to extensive scientific correspondence.

The Civil War brought financial ruin to Ravenel, and subsequently he made various attempts to earn a living for his family by operating a nursery and seed business, by publishing a newspaper, and by writing for agricultural journals. He was offered professorships of botany at the University of California and at Washington College, Lexington, Va., but declined both due to ill health and deafness. In 1882 he accepted work as agricultural editor for the weekly News & Courier.

Ravenel was elected to membership in a number of learned societies, and in 1886 the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill, conferred the degree of LL.D. upon him. He collected and classified an extensive herbarium of fungi, mosses, and lichens. By 1881 his summary of specimens indicated a total of some eleven thousand species. Parts of the herbarium were later sold to the British Museum and to Converse College. In 1853 Ravenel removed from Northampton plantation and settled at Aiken. He died there on 17 July 1887. Ravenel was survived by four children from his first marriage and five children from his second.

The earliest items among the Henry William Ravenel Papers are two eighteenth-century documents dated 18 June 1760, both of which relate to the business dealings of an ancestor, Henry Ravenel. Following a gap of three-quarters of a century, the collection picks up again in January 1838 with a deed of gift signed by H.W. Ravenel's aunt Susan M. Stevens conveying to him a Negro slave named Elic. A legal instrument recording the assignment of half interest, 2 April 1857, signed by J.M. Legare, of Aiken, grants to Ravenel "one half the right, title, and interest" in any profits gained from the sale of "certain new and useful improvements in the mode of hanging window shades" which Legare planned to patent. A second legal instrument, 16 January 1858, assigns to Ravenel "one fourth part of the right, title and interest" in Legare's patented "plastic cotton for roofing houses and other purposes." A third document from Legare, 16 June 1858, promises to pay Ravenel twenty-five hundred dollars for his interest "in my Patent for Plastic Cotton & Lignin."