Cyrus Guernsey Pringle, botanist

Cyrus Prindle was born in Charlotte on May 6, 1838, son of George and Louisa (Harris) Prindle. His father died on Cyrus’s fifth birthday May 6, 1843, aged 34 years. Louisa remarried to widower Joseph Pratt, who brought seven children of his own. Stressors within the hybrid family eventually ended in separation.

Cyrus was a sensitive, quiet, studious youth who loved plant science, developing a natural flair for horticulture. According to family lore, Cyrus wandered alone through the woods of East Charlotte, writing poetry and collecting plants—very much a Thoreau-like figure. He decided to alter his last name to “Pringle,” the ancient Scottish spelling,

He became a Quaker to marry Quaker teacher and speaker Almira Greene on February 25, 1863, then was drafted into the army in July. Several area Quakers pleaded the case for his exemption, many writing to Abraham Lincoln requesting Pringle—and all drafted Quakers—be paroled as conscientious objectors. Pringle’s uncle Pitt Hewitt stepped forward with an offer to pay the $300 commutation fee for him, believing it was the right thing to do; but Cyrus refused. Pringle decided that conforming to any request by military authorities would violate his anti-war principles. He determined to resist, was jailed and punished.

To understand Cyrus Pringle, it is necessary to understand Henry David Thoreau, who had died of tuberculosis in 1862. Pringle had so thoroughly embraced Thoreau’s philosophy and attitudes that he became the personification of Thoreau:

“One would think, that a deliberate and practical denial of its authority was the only offence never contemplated by government; . . . Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau also wrote, “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion . . . If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.”

Faced with a moral dilemma, President Lincoln belatedly paroled Pringle.

Returning home, he and Almira welcomed their only child, Anne L., born on October 30, 1864; but his marriage to Almira ended in divorce. He never remarried, instead devoting his life to his beloved plants. According to biographer Kathleen McKinley Harris, he created hybrids of various wheat, oat, grape and potato seeds and grew over one hundred species of iris, as well as most of the known species of lily.

He was intensely interested in collecting and cataloguing plants. Harris writes: “During his lifetime Pringle collected over 500,000 specimens from some 20,000 species. Twelve percent of the species he gathered were new. His collecting trips ranged over northeastern United States, into Canada, northwestern and southwestern United States, and Mexico. He made annual and occasionally more frequent trips to the Southwest from 1881-1909, gathering specimens for Harvard, the Smithsonian, other major herbaria throughout the world, and for his own collection.”

Cyrus was so often absent on his expeditions, few were surprised when he lost his farm to pay accumulating debts. According to Harris, “he was given living quarters and space for his herbarium at the University of Vermont” in the Williams Science Hall, with Pringle given rooms on the fourth floor.

In 1911, Cyrus became ill and was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. The renowned botanist died on May 25, 1911, age 73 years, 19 days, and was buried in Morningside Cemetery. The University of Vermont often relocated the herbarium, and much of the collection was lost due to neglect. Yet the herbarium on campus today bears Pringle’s name—a mark of respect to this unique individual.

Most residents did not bear Cyrus any ill will following his experiences with the army, his failure in interpersonal relationships, or his inability to pay his bills and keep his homestead intact. Despite all, he was not unlovable. Most had come to appreciate the eccentric genius, the humble homegrown botanist who had become increasingly well known. In 1897, William Wallace Higbee began an essay with a tribute to Pringle: “Gideon Prindle built a house on the old road leading eastward, but after it was changed to the present line it was torn down and some of it went into the house now owned by Cyrus G. Pringle, the famous botanist and explorer of the Mexican wilds. Perhaps few men bear their heaped-up honors with the modesty of this citizen of ours who had rather discover a new plant than rule a kingdom.”

You can learn more about Gideon Prindle and other Charlotte history by visiting the Charlotte Museum located on Museum Road in Charlotte. The museum is open through Labor Day on Sundays from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. Admission is free; the museum is accessible to the disabled.