It’s great when you do something for the first time. And I’m thrilled to make my first appearance in Smithsonian Magazine with this strange but true yarn from the 18th Century.

It arose out of a novel I wrote about Thomas Jefferson — one that may or may not see the light of day — and the naturalist Andre Michaux.

Michaux was a pioneering explorer of the early America, and his hundreds of discoveries are an ur-text for Southern botany. As the piece notes:  

“France’s King Louis XVI had personally appointed Michaux to be his royal botanist, with a blank check to travel the world. He had survived being robbed by Bedouins in the Middle East and nearly froze with his native guides during an expedition in the Canadian wilderness. Upon moving to the United States and purchasing a large plantation in South Carolina, where he collected specimens before shipping them to France, he also became something of an expert on American Indians. His knack for getting into places unreachable by others led him to make hundreds of discoveries, a catalog of New World plant and animal life that would fill libraries..”

But Michaux also became a spy. And therein lay his downfall. Had he not agreed to cross George Washington, and instead accepted a mission to find a path to the Pacific, school children would be studying him instead of Lewis & Clark.

This piece was three years in the making. And the heroic work of Charlie Williams made it possible. Charlie’s efforts at translating Michaux’s French-language journals (Andre Michaux in North America: 1785-1797) is a wonder. You can order Charlie’s book on Amazon here.

Enjoy this remarkable tale.