Lesueur, Charles-Alexandre

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Lesueur, Charles-Alexandre

(b. Le Havre, France, 1 January 1778; d. Le Havre, 12 December 1846),

natural history.

Since his father was an officer in the Admiralty, Lesueur was readily accepted at the age of nine at the École Royale Militaire at Beaumont-en-Auge. From 1797 to 1799 he was sous-officer in the Garde Nationale at Le Havre. He had early shown remarkable talent in sketching, and in 1800 his great opportunity came when the expedition to Australia and Tasmania of the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste (1800-1804), under the command of Nicolas Baudin, was fitted out and sailed from Le Havre. Lesueur shipped as apprentice helmsman but was soon placed in charge of drawing natural history subjects. His relations with the naturalist François Pèron were close throughout the long voyage, and through their efforts more than 100,000 zoological specimens, including at least 2,500 new species, were brought back to Paris. The official report of the expedition, written by Péron and Lesueur, was completed later by Claude de Freycinet. Unfortunately Péron died in 1810 before the natural history results were completed, and few of the more than 1,500 of Lesueur’s beautiful drawings were ever published. He later took them to America and eventually back to Le Havre, where they survived World War II.

In 1815 Lesueur met in Paris the geologist William Maclure, with whom he sailed for America on 15 August as a paid companion and naturalist. They spent a year in the West Indies on the way, where, among other novelties, Lesueur found many new species of fish, corals, and other marine organisms, some of which he described a few years later. In May 1816 they arrived in New York and immediately set out on a long trip through New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. On the journey Maclure reexamined in more detail the geology he had studied some years earlier, and Lesueur assiduously collected fossils (which he probably understood better than anyone else in America at the time), fishes, mollusks, and insects.

For the next nine years Lesueur resided in Philadelphia, where he established himself as naturalistengraver and teacher of drawing, earning a precarious living. He enjoyed his association with other Philadelphia naturalists, such as Thomas Say, Gerard Troost, and George Ord, to whom he brought his wide knowledge of tropical marine faunas. He soon became a member of the American Philosophical Society and an enthusiastic supporter of the newly founded Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

In 1825 Lesueur left for Robert Owen’s settlement at New Harmony, Indiana, in Maclure’s “Boatload of Knowledge.” Although New Harmony’s utopian dream soon faded, Lesueur remained there many years, beginning a great work on the fishes of North America—one of several extensive projects that never materialized. An indifferent writer and a compulsive wanderer, Lesueur spent much time on long trips down the Ohio and took four long trips down the Mississippi to New Orleans. In 1837 he descended that river for the last time and returned to France on 27 July 1837, after an absence of twenty-two years. After eight years in Paris he was appointed curator of the newly established Muséum d’ Histoire Naturelle du Havre, where he died on 12 December 1846.

In spite of his literary failings, Lesueur’s explorations in the Mississippi valley contributed much to the zoology and paleontology of that poorly known area. He was the first to collect and study the fishes of the North American interior and published twenty-nine papers on them as well as others on reptiles, crustaceans, and other organisms. The record he left bears witness to “his quick and agile pencil and his clumsy and encumbered pen.”


I. Original Works. A list of Lesueur’s publications is appended to the memoir by Ord (below).

II. Secondary Literature. See Gilbert Chinard, “The American Sketchbooks of C.-A. Lesueur,” in proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,93 (1933), 114-118, with portrait, bust, and sketch; Jean Guiffry, ed., Dessins de Ch.-A. Lesueur exectés aux États-unis de 1816 à 1837 (Paris, 1933), With 50 plates and reproductions of many of Lesueur’s American sketches; E.-T. Hamy, “Les voyages du naturaliste Ch. Alex. Lesueur dans 1’Amerique du Nord (1815-1837),” in Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris,5 (1904), with 17 plates and 14 figures; and The Travels of the Naturalist Charles A. Lesueur in North America, 1815-1837, H. F. Raup, ed. (Kent, Ohio, 1968), with 26 illustrations and 4 maps; Waldo G. Leland, “The Lesueur Collection of American Sketches in the Museum of Natural History at Havre, Seine-Inférieure,” in Mississippi Valley Historical Review,10 (1923), 53-78, which lists American notes and sketches then in Le Havre; Mme Adrien Loir, C.-A. Lesueur, artiste et savant français en Amérique de 1816-1839 (Le Havre, 1920), with 42 figures; André Maury, “C.-A. Lesueur, voyageur et peintrenaturaliste Havrais,” in French-American Review,1 (1948), 161-171, with portrait and 8 illustrations; George Ord, “A Memoir of Charles Alexandre Lesueur,” in American Journal of Science, 2nd ser.,8 (1849), 189-216, a lengthy account of the Géographe and Naturaliste expedition by Lesueur’s closest American friend, with a list of Lesueur’s published writings.

John W. Wells