- Historic Sites
The Memorable Bartrams
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
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
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.