Washington County’s Internationally Famous Botanist
Ignorance is such a terrible, stubborn, throat-cutting thing.
Nestled among the final resting places of some of Texas’ most famous founding fathers, the gravestone of Gideon Lincecum at the Texas State Cemetery provokes the inevitable question, “Who was he and why is he buried here?” The marker states that he was an “internationally famous botanist” and a “friend of Darwin.” A closer look at his life will reveal what an exceptional man he truly was.
Born in Georgia in 1793, Gideon Lincecum grew up playing with and being educated by the Muscogee Indians. He developed a sharp curiosity and keen understanding of the natural environment, in spite of only five months of formal schooling. As a child, his family often moved from place to place, causing him to become self-reliant and resourceful. At the age of 15, he struck out on his own, and continued to explore new territories. Married at age 21, Gideon and his young bride settled in Columbus, Mississippi, where he learned to speak and write the language of the local Choctaw Nation. This knowledge set him apart from other settlers, allowing him a deeper understanding of Native American ways and beliefs.
At the urging of a doctor friend in Mississippi, Gideon read many medical books and opened a medical practice in Mississippi. However, he began to doubt the prevailing medical practices when several of his patients died. He studied for six weeks with a Choctaw medicine man to learn more about Indian herbal medicine, and soon became a convert to the botanic system.
In 1835 Gideon joined an exploratory group of Mississippians to travel to Texas to determine if the conditions there would be favorable for emigration. This excursion made a lasting impression on Gideon, providing ample opportunities to study and record the vast wonders and complexities of Texas. After 2 months of exploring the Trinity, San Jacinto, Brazos and Colorado River valleys, Gideon’s five companions had seen enough, and headed home. Left alone in the wilderness, Gideon continued the exploration, subsisting solely on nature’s bounty. His outdoor skills and his familiarity with Native American ways served him well for the remainder of the excursion.
Along the way, Gideon spotted a league of land on a long point of high ground in Washington County near Yegua Creek that he determined would be an ideal place to settle. Unable to afford the $5 purchase price, he marked the property to reserve it for the future. He returned thirteen years later, purchased it for seventy-five cents per acre, and named it Long Point.
It was at Long Point that Gideon’s interest in natural science flourished. The self-taught naturalist spent countless hours observing birds, insects, weather, rocks, and plants. He regularly corresponded with like-minded individuals, including Charles Darwin on two occasions. He published numerous articles in scholarly scientific journals and came to be recognized as a thorough and respectable researcher, in spite of his lack of formal education. His in-depth studies of the ants in Texas were paralleled by no other.
Gideon also gained a reputation as being somewhat eccentric. A self-described “infidel ” and “free-thinker,” he rejected many of the popular ideas of the day if they were not based on pure scientific evidence. His agnostic beliefs led him to declare that no church could be built at Long Point unless it had an arch over its entrance with the words “Free Discussion” permanently inscribed on its face.
Outspoken in his opinions, Gideon freely voiced criticism of allopathic doctors, the Union, and newspapers, which he called “slangwhangers.” He favored purification of society by emasculation, and went so far as to push for legislation supporting the idea.
In spite of his controversial ways and beliefs, those who knew Gideon Lincecum regarded him as a man of honor, dedicated to the betterment of society through exploration and research. His never-ending curiosity served him well, and led to his notable final resting place at the Texas State Cemetery.
“Notes,” Vol. 32: No. 3, 2007
Star of the Republic Museum