- 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
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.