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The Memorable Bartrams

May 2024
13min read

They were botanists, but not of the dull variety: William’s journals inflamed the imaginations of the European romantics, and John may have inadvertently touched off the American Revolution

You can sum up the beginnings of natural history in America in one name: Bartram. John Bartram and his son William laid the groundwork for American botany and either directly or indirectly taught most of our early naturalists. Their combined lives spanned a hundred and twenty-four years. Sir Isaac Newton was still in his prime when John Bartram was born. Audubon was a young man and Thoreau a child when William Bartram died.

John Bartram was born on a farm near Philadelphia in 1699, only seventeen years after William Penn laid out that city. Perhaps because of his gentle Quaker background John grew up fascinated by all growing things. He thought of becoming a physician, if only to study herbs, and a friend of the family gave him a copy of Parkinson’s Herbal, the nearest thing there then was to a botany text. John studied it. But one must make a living, so he became a farmer like his father, and in 1783 he took a wife, who bore him two sons before she died four years later. In 1728 John bought a riverbank farm on the Schuylkill at Kingsessing, three miles south of Philadelphia, built a large stone house on it with his own hands, and remarried. His second wile, Ann Mendenhall, bore five sons and four daughters, a houseful to feed. One of those sons, born in 1739 when John was forty, became his exploring companion and botanical heir. John lived to be seventy-eight, a venerable old man whom Linnaeus called “the greatest natural botanist in the world.”

John Bartram’s early botanical work was done almost alone. Although it was a time of busy inquiry into natural phenomena, there were few real botanists and virtually none in America interested in our native plants. Newton had investigated light, gravity, and the tides; Leeuwenhoek had discovered microorganisms; Fahrenheit had invented his thermometer; Grew had discovered chlorophyll in plants in 1680; and in 1710 Hales discovered sap pressure in plants. But Linnaeus wasn’t born until 1707 and didn’t publish his Systema Naturae until 1755. Had he solicited informed help, Bartram would have had a hard time finding it, even in Europe. And here in America most people thought of the virgin woodland and open plains as a howling wilderness, hostile and fit only to be tamed, subdued.


But John Bartram was fascinated by the untamed wilderness and its plants. With his smattering of herbal botany he sensed the wealth of new plant life native to this country. He managed his farm for a living for his family—and managed it well—but all his spare time was spent gathering plants, tending a “garden” of native trees and plants that spread acre by acre, year by year, and exploring farther and farther afield. Most of his trips beyond a day or two from home were made in the autumn, partly because by then the bulk of the farm work was done, perhaps more because then he could gather ripe seeds and nuts, roots and bulbs.

Early in the 1730’s Bartram became acquainted with an extraordinary man who would prove to be an immeasurable help to him during his career. Peter Collinson was a wholesale woolen draper, a prosperous London merchant who had built up a trade with the colonies and thereby had come to know natives of Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New England. An ardent and gifted amateur botanist, Collinson was fascinated by the varied flora of the New World. He urged his American customers to send him samples. They did their best but frequently sent him the wrong kinds of plants. Finally they all gave up, telling Collinson that they were happy to buy his woolens but that they didn’t care about plants. One of them, a Philadelphian named Joseph Breitnall, mentioned his friend John Bartram to Collinson as a likely source of supply. Collinson communicated his wishes to Bartram, who was happy to send him selections of specimens at five guineas a box.

Collinson, who expected to receive only a few boxes of samples, had not anticipated Bartram’s energy and skill. The American packed off box after box of rare and fascinating plants, and Collinson was delighted. He told others about his find, and soon Bartram was supplying material to upward of fifty members of the British aristocracy, including the Earls of Bute, Leicester, and Lincoln and the Dukes of Argyll and Marlborough. In so doing Bartram both fed and benefited from the enthusiasm for landscape gardening that was sweeping England at the time. The fussy, geometric formal gardens of the century before had fallen from vogue, replaced by more romantic and natural gardens with clumps of trees, winding paths, and irregular lakes and pools. The nobility wanted exotic plants and trees for these gardens, and Bartram supplied them. There has been some interesting if farfetched speculation that were it not for this gardening rage, there might have been no American Revolution. The Prince of Wales, displaying the streak of stubbornness shared by his whole family, refused to come in out of the rain while watching the planting of some new trees. As a result he contracted pneumonia and died, leaving his brother to ascend the throne as George III. The fatal trees may well originally have come from Bartram.

Bartram prospered from Collinson’s sponsorship far beyond the five guineas a box. Collinson, a tireless letterwriter, put Bartram in touch with virtually all the important naturalists of the day, both in England and in the colonies. He relayed Bartram’s letters to Dr. John Fothergill, distinguished English physician and authority on herbs, and eventually brought Bartram to the attention of the great Linnaeus, who wrote him seeking botanical information. Peter KaIm, one of Linnaeus’ favorite students, came to America especially to talk with Bartram.


Collinson, moreover, took an almost fatherly interest in Bartram, though only five years his senior. His letters were filled with paternal advice. When Bartram was about to set out for Virginia, Collinson cautioned: One thing I must desire of thee, and do insist that thee oblige me therein; that thou make up the drugget clothes, to go to Virginia in, and not appear to disgrace thyself or me; for though I should not esteem thee the less, to come to me in what dress thou will,—yet these Virginians are a very gentle, well-dressed people—and look, perhaps, more at a man’s outside than his inside. For these and other reasons, pray go very clean, neat, and handsomely dressed, to Virginia. Never mind thy clothes: I will send thee more another year.

Whether or not Bartram followed this advice is anybody’s guess, for the man had a strongly independent turn of mind (he was, for instance, read out of the Darby meeting of Quakers for refusing to acknowledge the divinity of Christ; nonetheless he continued to attend the meetings). He did, however, go to Virginia in 1738, travelling over eleven hundred miles of wretched roads in five weeks’ time. In this his first long trip he went to Williamsburg and thence up the James and across the Blue Ridge before returning to the Kingsessing farm. Soon Bartram was off again on another expedition. It was a rough business, journeying between remote villages on roads little better than woodland trails, ever in danger from malaria, yellow fever, and Indians. This last peril caused Bartram a good deal of worry. He wrote of a time when ”… far beyond the mountains, as I was walking in a path with an Indian guide, hired for two dollars, an Indian man met me and pulled off my hat in a great passion, and chawed it all around—I suppose to show me that they would eat me if I came in that country again.” He twice stated, at some variance with his Quaker traditions, that the only way to handle the Indians “is to bang them stoutly.” Nevertheless he often travelled alone, for “our Americans have very little taste for these amusements. I can’t find one that will bear the fatigue to accompany me in my peregrinations.” Always he stopped by riversides and in thickets to gather seeds and roots and to record observations on the local wildlife. However, he was too tenderhearted to do the dissecting that a thorough study of zoology called for. “As for the animals and insects,” he wrote, “it is very few that I touch of choice, and most with uneasiness. Neither can I behold any of them, that have not done me a manifest injury, in their agonizing mortal pains without pity.” But occasionally he did send turtle eggs, wasps’ nests, and snakes to Collinson, for his benefactor urged him to, saying of himself: “My inclination and fondness of natural productions of all kinds is agreeable to the old proverb ‘Like the parson’s barn—refused nothing.’


Eventually Bartram’s research carried him from Nova Scotia to Florida and from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. He published an account of his trip to Lake Ontario, the most interesting of his journals, in 1751.

By then his son William had begun to show an interest in his father’s studies as well as a talent for drawing. He soon was going along, learning his botany in the field and something of ornithology, too, and of zoology. Young William was soon drawing everything in sight—trees, flowers, birds, shells, snakes. Father and son made a trip to the Catskills in 1755, to the Carolinas in 1760, to Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) in 1761.

John Bartram was proud of his son’s artistic abilities but was worried about the boy’s future livelihood. He took great care to see that William got a sound education. “I don’t want him to be what is commonly called a gentleman,” he wrote to his friend Collinson, “I want to put him to some business by which he may, with care and industry, get a temperate, reasonable living. I am afraid that botany and drawing will not afford him one, and hard labor don’t agree with him.” John’s long-time friend Benjamin Franklin offered to teach William to be a printer and engraver, skills in which he could use his artistic talent; but John demurred, saying that Franklin was the only printer he’d ever known who made a living at it. Finally, when he was eighteen, William was placed with a Philadelphia merchant named Child to learn to be a storekeeper. Four years of that, undoubtedly interrupted from time to time by trips afield, and William quit Philadelphia to become an independent trader at Cape Fear, North Carolina. Soon after that Peter Collinson persuaded King George in to name John Bartram, then sixty-six years old, colonial botanist to the king, with an annual stipend of fifty pounds. Typically, John set out to spend the stipend at once on an expedition. He sailed to Charleston, picking up William on the way—and that was the end of William’s storekeeping—went overland from Charleston to St. Augustine, and then explored the St. Johns River by canoe. John collected specimens and kept a detailed journal. William drew pictures of trees, flowers, birds, fish, shells, insects, turtles. Then John went home, but William remained behind, determined, as his father said, “to be a planter upon St. Johns River.” That venture, too, failed. A year later William was back home on the family farm near Philadelphia.

John Bartram by then was getting travel-weary. He had seen more American plant life, studied it more closely, knew more about it than anyone else alive. His garden on the farm in Kingsessing was internationally famous. His correspondents included all the great men of the plant world. Now, with his eyesight failing (Franklin sent him thirteen pairs of eyeglasses from London), he settled down to a more leisurely life and edited his journal of the St. Johns River expedition, which was published in London in 1769 as Description of East Florida, With a Journal by John Bartram. Visitors from abroad came to see him. Distinguished leaders in America came to talk, to listen, and to look. Benjamin Franklin came to talk and to relax. George Washington came. Probably Thomas Jefferson came. Talking with Franklin, John Bartram suggested an epochal exploration, a journey to be made from the East Coast to the West by a group of explorers qualified to make a report on the flora and fauna of this continent as well as its geography and what could be learned of its geology. A tremendous dream, Franklin conceded. And eventually Franklin told Thomas Jefferson of the dream. John Bartram had been dead twenty-six years before it came true—the Lewis and Clark expedition. But when the plans were being made, President Jefferson suggested that William Bartram accompany the expedition as official botanist. William was sixty-four by then; he declined “for reasons of age and health.”

Long before that, however, W’illiam Bartram had had his fame. After the St. Johns River expedition his father sent a group of William’s drawings abroad to Peter Collinson. Collinson admired them and showed them to Dr. Fothergill, who thought so much of them that he commissioned William to make others and to travel at Fothergill’s expense and collect seeds, specimens, and drawings for him. Several other patrons were soon asking for his work in England, including the Duchess of Portland.

Young Bartram then struck out on his own to the Florida-Georgia area in 1773. He spent forty poundsmost of his first year’s compensation—on a good strong horse. In time, though, he wore it out and had to get another, for although he had not anticipated it, he disappeared into the wilderness for five years. From time to time he appeared on the coast, sent cuttings and seeds and drawings to his sponsors, and wrote to his father. Then he plunged back into the trackless stretch of swamp and timber. Unlike his father, he had a Rousseau-like respect for the natural dignity of the Indians and travelled unharmed through the country of the Cherokees, the Creeks, the Choctaws, and the Seminoles. While Indians did not frighten him, alligators did; he saw the beasts and heard their bellowing, and the sound dogged him in his nightmares for the rest of his life. But he also found deserted places that struck him as small paradises, which he described in poetic terms. Of “the enchanting little Isle of Palms” he wrote, This delightful spot, planted by nature, is almost an entire grove of Palms, with a few pyramidal Magnolias, Live Oaks, golden Orange, and the animating Zanthoxlin; what a beautiful retreat is here! blessed unviolated spot of earth! rising from the limpid waters of the lake; its fragrant groves and blooming lawns invested and protected by encircling ranks of the Yucca gloriosa; a fascinating atmosphere surrounds this blissful garden; the balmy Lantana, ambrosial Citra, perfumed Crinum, perspiring their mingled odours, wafted through Zanthoxilon groves.

Far to the north the Revolution had broken out; Lexington and Bunker Hill, Trenton and Saratoga and Brandywine had become history, and the colonies William Bartram was exploring had become states. Nevertheless Bartram kept sending his samples to the mother country. Few of the seeds and specimens that he dispatched to England arrived there, but almost miraculously his drawings, some of them colored, and his journals eventually got through.

William Bartram’s pursuits were not much disturbed by the war. His father, however, was more immediately involved. After Brandywine, when it became evident that the British would occupy Philadelphia, John Bartram, who had heard tales of enemy depredations on the countryside, became deeply worried for his garden. This fear was intense enough to hasten the venerable botanist’s death.


It was 1778 before William Bartram finally returned to Philadelphia to find that his father had died the previous September at the age of seventy-eight. The botanic garden, however, was undisturbed. It had passed to William’s brother John, who subsequently took William into partnership. The war dragged on. William made no more expeditions. His patronage from abroad was pinched off’ by the hostilities. His health was none too good. Unmarried, he lived on the farm with his brother John and his family. He spent much of his time editing his journals and produced a manuscript that, though not published until 1791, was of profound interest and influence, not only to naturalists but also to other authors. Its title was twenty-nine words long: Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Mmcogules, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. For obvious reasons it is more commonly known as Bartram’s Travels.

This lyrical book was published in most of the European languages in the next ten years, and although one London reviewer took exception to the “somewhat too luxuriant and poetical language,” literary Europe was enthralled by it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was particularly impressed by Bartram’s rich descriptive prose, and the caverns of Xanadu are, in fact, caverns Bartram visited on a trip to Tallahassee. Wordsworth and Chateaubriand were also influenced by the book, as were various writers on natural sciences.

In 1782 William was elected botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but he declined it “for reasons of health”—perhaps for other reasons, too, since he had only a little formal education and was a shy person besides. By then Dr. Fothergill had died, as had others of his patrons in England, and William was thrown back almost entirely on his friends in Philadelphia for companionship and discussion. In 1786 be became a member of the American Philosophical Society, of which his father had been one of the organizers in i743- He had done his exploring by then; and he had done most of his remarkable drawing, which made him the foremost nature artist of this country before Audubon. He continued to draw, but illustration primarily for botanical books of one kind and another written by others. This was good journeyman work but by no means as good, either as art or as natural history, as his work in the earlier years.

In 1802 a frustrated Scottish poet who was thirty-six years old and had been in America only eight years became a schoolteacher at Gray’s Ferry, near the Bartram farm. His name was Alexander Wilson, and he was interested in birds. He soon met William Bartram and had access to the Bartram library. They talked. Wilson wanted to learn to draw so he could draw the birds of America. Bartram, himself self-taught, taught Wilson enough to get him started. Bartram had a catalogue of two hundred and fifteen birds that he had seen and identified, the longest list of American birds identified till then. Wilson was an apt pupil, dedicated and talented. His is another story, but by 1808 Alexander Wilson had done his exploring, his discovering, his identifying. He had written his descriptions, drawn his birds, and published the first volume of his American Ornithology, a landmark book that eventually ran to eight volumes. Wilson’s work was so thorough for the eastern United States north of Florida that only twenty-three indigenous land birds were added to his list in the next hundred years. Wilson started with Bartram, a fact too often forgotten.

They were, as indicated before, remarkable men, those two Bartrams. Botanists, yes, both of them, and Bartram’s Garden lives as their monument today, a part of the Philadelphia public park system. In it are huge old trees that John Bartram planted with his bare hands and lineal descendants of nobody knows how many flowering plants the Bartrams brought in from the wilderness that they were so completely attuned with. But beyond botany, they knew birds, reptiles, turtles, insects, shells, and fish. There wasn’t much in nature that failed to catch their interest; and all this at a time when they had to make most of their own discoveries, for there were few books of any kind about the natural sciences and almost none about those subjects in America. This was, when John Bartram made his first exploration, largely virgin territory for the natural scientist. But as indicated earlier, before William’s death in 1823 there were reports, more or less accurate, of both the flora and the fauna not only in the East but, thanks to the Lewis and Clark expedition, all the way to the Pacific.

Remarkable men. John Bartram, according to William, was “rather above middle size, and upright. His visage was long and his countenance expressive of a degree of dignity with a happy mixture of animation and sensibility.” His rawhide physique may be imagined from the fact that he made that strenuous St. Johns River expedition at the age of sixty-six. William, on the other hand, never had robust health but seems never to have been really sick. Somewhat shorter than his father, he was of a wiry build. His face has been described as “refined and intellectual.” When he was exploring, he always wore leather clothing, head to foot. Both were members of the Society of Friends—Quakers—but both became pantheistic as they delved deeper and deeper into nature. William drifted off into a pantheistic deism, but he never left the Society of Friends.

John Bartram’s name is remembered in science only by a genus of inconspicuous mosses, Bartramia. No plant was ever named for William, though Alexander Wilson did name a bird for him, Bartram’s sandpiper, the upland plover, still known as Bartramia longicauda.

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