The Adventures of Joel Poinsett (Conclusion)

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on December 25, 2011

Leaving the Khanate, Poinsett and his party set their sights on the Caspian Sea and the city of Baku in Azerbaijan. There he marveled at the pools of petroleum oozing from the earth and predicted that someday this amazing substance might well be used for fuel. He noted that the pools were often set ablaze by a sect of fire worshipers.


Roughly the boundaries of the area covered during Poinsett's trip (Click to enlarge)

Then it was on to Erivan in Armenia, where the Russian Army was just mounting an assault on the city.  Ever intrigued with military battles and maneuvers, Poinsett actually joined the Russian troops for a short period.

Homeward Bound

On the return voyage to Moscow, the entourage traveled through the Armenian Mountains to the Black Sea, then to the Ukraine, and finally arrived in Moscow in the latter part of 1807.  Poinsett reported his health as “much impaired.”  Most of his party had suffered a worse fate.  Without giving the details, one report states that Poinsett and two others in the group were the only ones to come back alive.

After hearing the details of Poinsett’s voyage, Czar Alexander offered him an appointment to colonel in the Russian Army.  Although it is likely that he would have accepted the position, it was not to be.  Poinsett received word that the British ship, the H.M.S. Leopard, had attacked the U.S.  It seemed certain that war would quickly follow.  He met one last time with the Czar, who assured him that Russia supported the U.S.  Before he set sail for home, he also learned from the Russian foreign minister that Alexander had expressed a strong desire to have a minister from the U.S. at his court.

Back home in Charleston, Poinsett continued to distinguish himself with his fortitude, his eloquent speech, and his refined character.  He was elected to every office for which he ran, including a seat in the state’s House of Representatives and one in the U.S. House of Representatives.  One of his main concerns while in elective office was what at that time was called “internal improvements.”  The primary issue was that of building roads and waterways to link remote areas to populated ones.  Poinsett served on the state Internal Improvements and Waterways Committee and was president of the South Carolina Board of Public Works.  As a well-seasoned traveler, he had first-hand knowledge of the importance of good road- and waterways.  While in Congress, he strongly supported the maintenance of a strong army and navy as well.

Poinsett’s Final Foreign Adventures

Argentina and Chile

From 1810-1814 Poinsett was employed by President James Madison as a special agent to Chile and Argentina.  His task was to check out revolutionists in those two countries, who were fighting for their independence from Spain.  He quickly established friendly commercial relations with the new government in Buenos Aires.  By the time he arrived in Chile, the revolutionists, under José Miguel Carrera, had gained control of the government there as well.  Carrera had met Poinsett in the U.S. when the former was there seeking financial support for his revolution.  He gave Poinsett an official reception, making him the first accredited agent of a foreign government in the history of Chile.

Poinsett did not fare as well in his relations with the Peruvian government next door.  Peru was still strongly loyal to Spain and resented Chile’s disregard for Spanish authority.  It finally came to blows, when Peru started seizing ships in the Chilean port of Talcahuano and confiscating their cargo.  When Poinsett heard that some of those ships were American, he took matters into his own hands (with the approval of Carrera), mustered a small army of Chileans, marched on Talcahuano, liberated it, and released the vessels that had been confiscated.

Sometime later, concerned about the war with England, Poinsett managed to sail back home, following a circuitous route to avoid piracy and involvement in other conflicts that were in progress on the more direct route.

Once back home, Poinsett became a member of a very prominent society, the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences.  Counted among its members were the likes of two former presidents, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, and many other prominent men of the era, including those in the military, in government service, and in the medical profession.


U.S. embassy in Mexico City today

During the 1820s, Poinsett enjoyed one final grand adventure.  At that time he was serving his country as special envoy to Mexico and was subsequently appointed the first American minister to Mexico by President John Quincy Adams.  It didn’t take long for Poinsett to become embroiled in the country’s political turmoil.  Here is just one example provided by author Charles J. Sillle (The Life and Services of Joel R. Poinsett, Philadelphia, 1888).

The revolutionists had determined to attack the National Palace, which is at one end of the principal street (that of San Francisco), while the Alameda, the public park, bounds the other.  Having seized the Alameda, the barracks, and the artillery, the mob advanced along this street towards the Palace.  The houses on each side were filled with Government troops, and many of them were known to belong to families of Spaniards, or of persons supposed to be friendly to the Government.

Those houses were regularly besieged by the insurgents, and many of them were taken and destroyed.  Mr. Poinsett’s house was in this street, and while the conflict was raging, Madame Yturrigaray [no typo], the widow of a former Spanish Viceroy, who was his neighbor, with some of her friends, all Spaniards, sought the refuge and protection of the American Embassy.  The insurgents advanced to attack the house, which they do not seem to have known to be that of the American Minister, maddened by the story that was told them that its proprietor had sheltered the hated Spaniards.

They attacked the gates which enclosed the court-yard and clamored for the blood of their enemies.  A musket-ball which came through the window lodged in Mr. Poinsett’s cloak.  At this moment Mr. Poinsett, accompanied by his Secretary of Legation . . . took the American flag, and, advancing with it in his hand to the balcony of his house, displayed it for the first time before the eyes of the thousands who were thirsting for his blood because he had baulked their vengeance.  He told them who he was, and what nation that flag represented.  Either because they recognized in that flag the emblem of the American power, or because some among them knew Mr. Poinsett as a diplomatist who had always been a friend of their leaders, they at once ceased their hostile attitude.  The display of that flag by its courageous upholder in the streets of the City of Mexico changed at once the threatening temper of that wild mob, and soon after it dispersed.

The Poinsettia


Native Mexican poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima

It is not generally known that Poinsett was an avid botanist who collected plants and seeds on many of his travels.  He was also very knowledgeable about growing such cash crops as cork, camphor laurel, flax, and grapes in the South.  He supplied botanical gardens with all sorts of species that he found interesting.  He experimented with crop rotation, composting, and attempted to create better yields from clover, hemp, peas, and rice.  The friends he had made around the world sent him seeds to see which ones would do well on his beloved plantation.

While he was stationed in Mexico, Poinsett took a trip to the southern part of the country to a place called Taxco del Alarcon.  It was there that he first saw a flower that dazzled him with its beauty.  The Aztecs in the area referred to it as “cuetlaxochit” (star flower), and in Spanish it was known as "Flor de Noche Buena" (Christmas Eve flower).  He sent specimens of the plant to his plantation, and in 1826 he brought another plant home with him.  He rooted cuttings and improved the plant to a point where it struck the fancy of other American gardeners.  At that time it was known as “Painted Leaf” or “Mexican Fire Plant.”

William Prescott, a historian and horticulturist, was asked in 1836 to give the newly classified Euphorbia pulcherrima a popular name.  It so happened that Mr. Prescott had just published a book called The Conquest of Mexico in which he wrote about Joel Poinsett’s discovery of the plant.  It seemed only right to Prescott that the plant should bear the name “Poinsettia” in honor of Joel Poinsett’s discovery.

Home to stay

Joel Poinsett statue in Greenville, South Carolina

Poinsett returned home to the U.S. to stay in 1830.  In 1833 he married Mary Izard Pringle, and they moved to her rice plantation, called “the White House,” on the Waccamaw River near Georgetown, South Carolina.  Four years later, he received the high honor of serving President Martin Van Buren as Secretary of War (1837-41).  In 1840, he cofounded the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, a precursor to the Smithsonian Institution.  At the end of his term as Secretary of War, he retired to his plantation at Georgetown, South Carolina.  He died, loved and respected by his compatriots and friends around the world, on December 12, 1851 at the age of 72 at the home of his doctor in Stateburg, South Carolina.  He had no heirs and thus was the last survivor of the Poinsett family.


Photos are courtesy of and used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
A true American hero Zanymuse Jan 10, 2012 9:55 PM 12
Well written, thanks for sharing Lance Jan 5, 2012 1:00 AM 3

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