John Bartram

2 Bartram House Front

The house John Bartram built on his Philadelphia farm [my photo]

Born into a Quaker family who had arrived in Pennsylvania with William Penn, John Bartram (1699-1777) owned a farm on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. He built a stone house and barns that are still standing on a remainder of the original acreage (see photo above). He became curious about botany beyond that needed for farming, and eventually made contact with a British Quaker and merchant, Peter Collinson, who was also interested in plants and in obtaining new species from the colonies. Thus began a 40-year relationship of friendship and trade, in which Bartram sent Collinson pressed specimens, seeds, and cuttings, which the latter then distributed to interested gardeners including John Fothergill and Lord Robert Petre. In turn, Collinson dispatched books, paper, and other items to support Bartram’s work. An important part of the exchange was information. Bartram would send specimens and keep duplicates for himself. Collinson would identify the plants and send Bartram the information. The flavor of the relationship is apparent in the correspondence documented in a book on Collinson’s horticultural interests (O’Neill & McLean, 2008).

One of Bartram’s chief patrons was Lord Robert Petre, a young landowner with a passion for gardening. He was also one of Collinson’s dearest friends. Petre planted thousands of trees from Bartram seeds and cuttings, and also kept an herbarium that included scores of Bartram specimens. The entire herbarium amounts to 16 volumes, two of which have Bartram material (McLean, 1984). While there are also Bartram specimens in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia and the Natural History Museum, London, the Petre herbarium is in a less likely venue: the Sutro Library at California State University, San Francisco (see post). What all these specimens indicate is the fervor with which Bartram studied plants and collected specimens, and the equal fervor of those receiving them. Horticulture was the main driver: the ability to grow the latest imports from the colonies was very fashionable in Britain. But there was also something more, the passion to learn more about the living world. Since Collinson and Fothergill were both Quakers, they shared with Bartram an appreciation for learning about nature.

While Bartram was acidulously communicating with England, he was also busy connecting with colonial gardeners. They were interested in the native the plants he was propagating, including those he collected on trips he made with his son William; one was a long exploration in the South extending all the way to Florida. He also sent William on other expeditions while he remained in Philadelphia to tend his farm and nursery. William was passionate about plants and in addition was an artist. He did illustrations of native plants and animals for Fothergill, and many of these are now at the Natural History Museum, London. He was also a more facile writer than his father. His Travels recounting his trips South in the 1770s is filled with observations not only of the natural world, but of the Native Americans and colonists he encountered. This work is an important document by an American-born observer of what the South was like right before the Revolutionary War began. These journeys ended in 1777, the same year in which John Bartram died.

Obviously John Bartram had had strong ties with England especially through Collinson and other patrons. Collinson even managed to have him named King’s Botanist for North American, a title that came with a yearly stipend. Not surprisingly, since his farm was in Philadelphia, Bartram also had ties with leading revolutionaries. He had known Franklin for years, and since the latter had spent time in England, he knew many of Bartram’s patrons. Desiring to nurture respect for American species both at home and abroad, Franklin encouraged Bartram to write a book on American flora. However, Bartram was too busy with his farm and nursery business to settle down to such a project.

That business attracted the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both bought plants and seeds from John Bartram, and also from his son, John Jr. who took over the business after his father’s death. In her wonderful book The Founding Gardeners Andrea Wulf (2011) describes how passionate these two future presidents, as well as John Adams and James Madison, were about their gardens and farms. She tells a great story about how Madison and other members of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 visited Bartram’s garden during a break in the negotiations, and she sees this healing experience as contributing to the Great Compromise that was reached shortly afterward. For those like myself who don’t remember what the compromise was about, it dealt with the House of Representatives having proportional representation as the states with large populations advocated, and Senate representation being the same for all states, as the smaller states wanted. As I have noted elsewhere, as my interest in botany has grown, so has my curiosity about history, especially American history. When I learned about the Constitution in school, I never thought that its development was in anyway related to botany. Now I know that everything is related to botany! In my next post, I will discuss another colonial Pennsylvania nurseryman that also made history: Humphry Marshall.


McLean, E. P. (1984). A preliminary report on the 18th century herbarium of Robert James, Eighth Baron Petre. Bartonia, 50, 36–39.

O’Neill, J., & McLean, E. (2008). Peter Collinson and the 18c Natural History Exchange. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.

Wulf, A. (2011). Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. New York, NY: Knopf.

One thought on “John Bartram

  1. Pingback: Humphry Marshall and the American Grove | Herbarium World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s