Banister, John

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Banister, John

(b. Twighworth, Gloucestershire, England, 1650; d. on Roanoke River, Virginia, May 1692)

botany, entomology, malacology, anthropology.

The first resident, university-educated naturalist of what is now the eastern United States, Banister contributed to English horticulture, to Linnaeus’ understanding of the American flora, to Martin Lister’s iconography of mollusks, and to James Petiver’s catalog of insects. He would have influenced the course of colonial natural history even more but for his early death. Approximately 340 plant descriptions, specimens, and at least eighty plant drawings by Banister are behind the citations in John Ray’s Historia, Robert Morison’s Historia, and Leonard Plukenet’s Phytographia and texts cited in Linnaeus’ Species plantarum (1753). Jan Gronovius, working with Linnaeus on Flora Virginica (1739–1743), compared John Clayton’s specimens with Plukenet’s—and thus Banister’s—illusrations and the descriptions in Ray and Morison.

Lister reproduced, without acknowledgment, at least fourteen of Banister’s drawings of Virginia shells in his Historia conchyliorum, and published material from four of Banister’s letters in Philosophical Transactions. Banister’s “Collectio insectorum [et arachnidorum],” dealing with about a hundred specimens, and sent probably to Lister in 1680, was published by Petiver in Philosophical Transactions in 1701. Banister was one of the first to describe the internal anatomy of a snail, and the first to explain the function of balancers of Diptara. He spent the last several years of his life composing his significant “Natural History of Virginia.” His “Of the Natives,” and undoubtedly some geographical and economic materials, were used by Robert Beverley in History and Present State of virginia (1708); indeed Beverley lifted paragraphs and sentences intact from Banister. Banister’s citations are a comprehensive bibliography of the natural history of the New World.

With James Blair as the other minister, Banister was appointed to the committee to establish the College of William and Mary and was named a trustee. He had assembled at least twenty–eight natural history and travel books, which were later acquired by William Byrd I, thus adding immeasurably to the luster of the library at Westover in the time of William Byrd II and III.

Banister’s matriculation record at Magdalen College, Oxford, dated 21 June 1667, states that he was the son of John Bannister, “pleb.” He was a chorister, receiving the B.A. in 1671 and the M.A. in 1674; was “clerk” (and/or librarian, fide his grandson) for two years; and chaplain from 1676 to 1678. That he was well acquainted with American plants growing at Oxford is attested by his carefully labeled hortus siccus with author citations. He probably took this with him to Virginia, leaving its catalog at Oxford.

Although Banister arrived as an Anglican minister in Virginia in 1678, after a pause probably in Barbados and Grenada, his ambition from the beginning was his “Natural History,” modeled on Robert Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677). Banister’s name is absent from the Bristol Parish register of ministers for 1680. Virginians were reluctant to assume the financial burden imposed by induction: thus Banister was financially insecure. He received at least encouragement and hospitality from William Byrd I, trader at the falls of the James River, and from Theodorick Bland, then of Westover. He probably received some assistance from the Temple Coffee House Botany Club in London: Bishop Compton, Lister, Plukenet, and Samuel Doody, to all of whom, and to John Ray, who called him “eruditissimus,” he sent specimens.

Banister finally realized that in order to maintain his status in the colony, to have sufficient income, and to have time to complete his “Natural History”,: he must become a planter. In 1690 he was able to patent 1,735 acres near the Appomattox River in return for importing thirty-five persons, including two Nagroes. He married a young widow named Martha sometime before 16 April 1688, and had one son, John.

A fall from a horse and least one “fit of sickness” impeded Banister’s field excursions. One longer trip of several days, probably up the James River, took his party well toward the Appalachians before Indians discouraged their further progress. In May 1692 he joined a party going to the Roanoke River, where he was accidently shot while botanizing among the river rocks.

The originals of his catalogs (after being copied?), some drawings, dried plants, seeds, and shells were sent to Bishop Compton, who passed them on; the botanical material was given to Plukenet, who loaned much of it to Petiver. Upon Petiver’s death his vast accumulation of natural history materials, still containing some of Banister’s and Plukenet’s specimens and letters, was purchased by Sir Hans Sloane.

Banister’s devotion to natural history is well expressed in his letter of 1688: “Had I an Estate would bear out my Expense, There is no part of this, or any other Country that would afford new matter, though under ye Scorching Line, or frozen Poles my genius would not incline me to visit,”


Banister’s known letters and manuscripts are in the British Museum, Sloane MSS 3321 and 4002: the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Sheared MSS B26 and B37; and Lambeth Palace, letter from “the Falls” (Apr. 1679). These are reproduced in Joseph and Nesta Ewan, John Banister and His Natural History of Virginia (Urbana, III., in press).

Printed excerpts and information come mainly from Martin Lister, “Extracts of Four Letters From Mr. John Banister to Dr. Lister...” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 17 (1693), 667–672; Robert Morison, Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis, Jacob Bobart the younger, ed., III (Oxford, 1699)–although not acknowledged in the Preface, Banister is mentioned in the discussion of many species; James Petiver, “Herbarium Virginianum Banisteri,” in Monthly Miscellany or Memoirs for the Curious Decad no. 7 (Dec. 1707), and “Some Observations Concerning Insects Made by Mr. John Banister in Virginia, a.d. 1680...” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 22 (1701), 808–814; Leonard Plukenet, Opera, especially the Phytographia (London, 1691–1705); John Ray, Historia Plantarum, 3 vols. (London, 1686–1704), esp. II, Preface and 1926–1928, and III, Preface and passim; and Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, The Early English Colonies (London-Milwaukee, 1908), pp. 192–201.

Joseph Ewan