- 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
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.