At Northampton, Ravenel developed his interest in collecting, identifying, and pressing/preserving plants, which included all levels of plants from fungi to flowering plants.
Botanist, diarist. Ravenel was born at his grandfather’s plantation, Pooshee, in St. John’s Berkeley Parish on May 19, 1814. His parents, Dr. Henry Ravenel, a physician and planter, and Catherine Stevens, were both descended from prominent Huguenot families. As was the case with other children of planters, Henry’s early education was with private tutors and at private academies, but it also included exploring the lowcountry’s natural environment and enjoying the stories and folklore told by the plantation slaves, by his family, and most certainly by visiting naturalists.
In January 1829 Ravenel left Pooshee to attend the school of James M. Daniels in Columbia to prepare for admission to South Carolina College that fall. At college he was active in the Clariosophic Society and graduated in December 1832. Returning to the lowcountry, he married Elizabeth Galliard Snowden on December 1, 1835. The marriage produced five daughters and one son. Ravenel’s father dissuaded him from a medical career, so he followed family tradition and acquired Northampton Plantation from his father.
At Northampton, Ravenel developed his interest in collecting, identifying, and pressing/preserving plants, which included all levels of plants from fungi to flowering plants. During this period he developed many of his lifelong collaborations with other botanists, including Asa Gray, Moses Curtis, Edward Tuckerman, and Miles Berkeley. In 1851 Ravenel’s health began to decline and he decided to move to Aiken, which was only a day’s train ride to Charleston. In 1853 Ravenel sold Northampton and built a house just west of Aiken called Hampton Hills. His wife Elizabeth died in 1855, and on August 12, 1858, he married Mary Huger Dawson. His second marriage produced five daughters.
One of Ravenel’s major legacies is the journal that he began keeping on December 19, 1859, and in which he faithfully made daily entries until July 2, 1887, fifteen days before his death. They reveal his deep southern patriotism and that he invested heavily in the Confederacy, but his age and frail health prevented any active service in the Confederate army. After the Civil War he kept detailed records of his botanical collecting and correspondence. His observations have proven to be a rich resource to both historians and botanists.
Ravenel’s other major contribution was in the field of botany, primarily mycology: the study of fungi. He was a well-established botanist before the Civil War and remained so until his death. In his honor, several genera bear the species name ravenelii and one genus of fungal rust was named Ravenelia. He published two major works of mycology, Fungi Caroliniani Exsiccati, published in five volumes in Charleston between 1852 and 1860, and Fungi Americani Exsiccati, published in eight parts in London with the English mycologist M. C. Cooke between 1878 and 1882. Together, these works afforded mycologists in America and in Europe a unique opportunity to see fungi native to the southeastern United States. Ravenel died in Aiken on July 17, 1887, and was buried at St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church cemetery there.
Childs, Arney Robinson, ed. The Private Journal of Henry William Ravenel, 1859–1887. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1947.
Haygood, Tamara Miner. Henry William Ravenel 1814–1887, South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.