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Charles Russell Orcutt (1864-1929)

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Photo of Charles Orcutt standing next to cactus, SDNHM archives

Charles Russell Orcutt always considered himself first and foremost a collector. It was largely through his writings and extensive collections that a foundation was provided for what is now known as the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Born on April 27, 1864 in Hartland, Vermont, he was the first of five children of Herman Chandler Orcutt and Eliza Eastin Gray Orcutt. In 1879, the Orcutt family left Vermont and relocated to San Diego. Herman Orcutt was considered a pioneer in the field of horticulture and had opened a nursery near the ruins of the San Diego Mission de Alcalá.

C.R.Orcutt was a self-educated man, who had a strong interest in the field of science. He accompanied his father on many expeditions throughout the San Diego region. In 1882, Orcutt accompanied his father and scientist Charles Parry to Ensenada. Even though Orcutt was brought along merely as a driver, he was curious about the discoveries being made. On this journey, he learned from his father and Parry how to collect and preserve specimens. Later when he talked of this trip, Orcutt stated that he "owed whatever skill he has as a botanical collector" to this expedition.

As his interest in horticulture grew, Orcutt began to explore the San Diego region alone. Charles Orcutt was constantly searching for new discoveries, something that would make him a standout in the scientific world. His desire for new fields to explore would take him to Southern California, Baja California, the mainland of Mexico, Central America and eventually to the Caribbean. On many of these expeditions Charles Orcutt found new species of cacti and was thus given the name "The Cactus Man."

This combination of interests in natural history and collecting led him to an organization known as the San Diego Society of Natural History. He attended all the society meetings regularly, participated in the discussions and donated new specimens to the organization. Orcutt was considered one of the more colorful members of the society during the time. He was known as an eccentric individual who was always very boastful of his accomplishments. Charles Orcutt was elected a life member of the San Diego Society of Natural History on June 5, 1885. He also served on the Board of Directors in 1893, 1902, and 1903. Orcutt left the San Diego region to live in Jamaica and Haiti in the late 1920s. On August 24, 1929 at the age of 65, Charles Orcutt died in Haiti. He was buried there as well, according to his wishes.