- 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
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.