Botanist, planter, patriot, politician. Walter was probably born in Hampshire, England. His aunt Frances Knight died there in 1784. She left a house to Walter from which he received rents until his death. His parents’ names, his place and time of birth, and his education are not known. By 1769 Walter was in Charleston and remained in the lowcountry for the next twenty years. He acquired 4,500 acres through purchase and royal grants.
During this period Walter produced a manuscript for Flora Caroliniana that stands as a hallmark in its genre. It was the first flora document of a region of North America to utilize the Linnaean system of classification. For years Walter had collected plants in the coastal plain of South Carolina and cultivated many in his garden. He also received many specimens from the plant collector John Fraser. Fraser, a Scot, had traveled to South Carolina and, after meeting Walter, agreed to collect plants in the Piedmont and foothills for him. Walter added four hundred plants from Fraser to his own collection of approximately six hundred. His Latin descriptions of these species became the basis for the Flora. More than one thousand species are described, many of which were new to science, including Walter’s pine (Pinus glabra) from the coastal plain and a magnolia (Magnolia fraseri) from the Carolina mountains that Walter named for Fraser. The plant collections, along with Walter’s manuscript, were taken by Fraser to London in 1788. The Flora was published that year, and the collection remains housed in the British Museum of Natural History.
Walter collected plants and wrote descriptions while operating as a merchant and planter in the Carolina lowcountry. Active in the community, he could not escape the Revolutionary War. As a member of the committee for the Continental Association, Walter actively recruited for the patriot cause. In 1779 he received a commission as deputy paymaster of the state militia. After the war Walter became involved with planning the Santee Canal. Although the canal was constructed after his death, he did serve as a member of a company organized in 1786 to investigate the possibility of connecting the Santee and Cooper Rivers. The president of this company was General William Moultrie, and the vice president was John Rutledge. In addition to Walter, members of the board included Generals Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.
Walter married Ann Lesesne of Daniels Island on March 26, 1769. She died without issue that same year. On March 20, 1777, he married Ann Peyre. The union produced three daughters and a son before Ann died in 1780. Walter was married for a third time the next year, to Dorothy Cooper. This final marriage produced one daughter.
Walter was elected to the General Assembly in the fall of 1788 but died in January 1789 before he was able to serve. He was buried in his garden on the south side of the Santee River in Berkeley County, near the old St. Stephen / St. John Parish line.
Coker, W. C. “A Visit to the Grave of Thomas Walter.” Journal of Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 26 (April 1910): 31–42.
Maxon, William R. Thomas Walter, Botanist. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1936.
Rembert, David. Thomas Walter, Carolina Botanist. Columbia: South Carolina Museum Commission, 1980.
Thomas, John Peyre, Jr. Thomas Walter, Botanist. Columbia: Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1946.