- 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
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.