About John Clayton

This brief account is drawn from published sources and further information can be found in the Bibliography.

Little documentary evidence about John Clayton survives largely because the British burnt down the Gloucester County Court House in Virginia where he had worked for so many years.

The contents of Clayton's house were also lost to fire, so that only the specimens that he sent abroad remain. There is also no known picture of Clayton to date.


Life and work

John Clayton was born in 1694 in Fulham, Middlesex. In1715 he emigrated to Virginia joining his father, John Clayton senior, who became Attorney General for the colony between 1713 and 1737.

John Clayton junior was educated in law and, in 1720, took up a post as Clerk to the County Court of Gloucester County that he was to hold until he was seventy-nine.


Soon after taking up the post he married Elizabeth Whiting and they moved into their new residence close to the Pianketank River.

Records show they also owned a sizeable garden and plantation, though the precise whereabouts remain uncertain. John and Elizabeth had eight children: five boys, the eldest called John, and three girls.

Natural history

Natural friends

Clayton's interest in natural history probably stemmed from his friendship with Mark Catesby (1682-1749), the artist and naturalist, who first arrived in Virginia in 1712. Clayton probably joined Catesby on the Spotswood expedition to the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

In about 1734, Clayton started collecting material to send to Catesby who by this time was back in England.


Catesby in turn passed these specimens on to J.F. Gronovius (1690-1762), and encouraged Clayton to continue sending specimens to Europe.

Without Clayton's knowledge, Gronovius prepared and published a Flora Virginica (1739-1743), based on a manuscript of Clayton's and his specimens.

Linnaean classification

Studied plants

Clayton's specimens were also studied by the Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), where they were among the earliest North American specimens that he had seen. 

When, in his monumental Species Plantarum (1753), Linnaeus introduced the consistent use of binomial nomenclature, his knowledge of North American species was based heavily on Clayton's specimens

Important specimens

Consequently, many of Clayton's specimens are type specimens of Linnaean names.

Linnaeus obtained some duplicates of Clayton's specimens, now found in Linnaeus' own herbarium at the Linnean Society of London.

Botanist friends

Long-distance friends

Two other notable botanists of the time, and long-distance friends of Clayton, were Peter Collinson (1694-1768), a London mercer with business interests in North America, and his protégé in Philadelphia, John Bartram (1699-1777). 

Collinson encouraged Clayton to collect mosses and other non-flowering plants, and also introduced him to Bartram who was later (in 1765) to be appointed the King's botanist.

New versions

Clayton, disappointed at the lack of recognition that his collecting efforts should have justified, determined around 1760 to prepare a new Flora of Virginia.

However, the publication of a second edition of Gronovius's flora in 1762 led Collinson to advise Clayton to search for a publisher in America, but none was found and any hope of its publication died with Clayton in 1773.