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In Accidental Argonaut, Steve Cary relates the wide-ranging escapades of Winslow Howard, a renaissance man of science and culture whose life spanned the 19th Century. Howard was a trained jeweler, businessman, husband and father. He journeyed West to seek respite from deadly consumption and his ensuing adventures exemplified the fortunes of many contemporary Americans who left home and comfort on quests for freedom and new life in the largely unknown West. Like the mythical Greek Argonauts, Howard was driven to seek his fortune in gold, but the real treasure lay in his journey, during which he achieved fame and success as a self-taught assayer, naturalist, scientist and society organizer, and during which fortunes were won and lost and personal accomplishments came at tragic costs.
New Hampshire-born, Howard apprenticed at Tiffany & Co. in New York City. His thirteen years of training culminated in prized, journeyman jeweler credentials and Howard seemed destined for prosperity in America's financial center, but that dream shattered when he acquired consumption. Unwilling to wither and die at age thirty, Howard rolled the dice and headed to New Mexico Territory, home of Kit Carson, ancient Spanish gold mines and a health-restoring climate.
For the next forty years, Howard operated jewelry and assay shops in gold rush towns and silver mine camps around the West. Along his life's journey, Howard collected everything from clocks and coins to fossils and Indian artifacts. He was of a curious and scientific disposition, so the Smithsonian's Spencer Baird was able to lure him into the world of natural history where Howard made a name for himself collecting new species of plants and insects across the West. While American science was coalescing, gaining momentum and matching European science, Howard rode the rising tide of reason, interacting with founding scientists John Torrey, John Newberry, Asa Gray and Henry Edwards. At home in his mining towns, Howard's business ventures and scientific achievements contributed to transformation of the American West as its myth was being made.