Book Tour: William Bartram

2 bartram barn

Barnyard at Bartram’s Garden, Philadelphia, PA (photo by the author)

This series of posts is about books I read on my recent trek to New York and Connecticut.  I first visited the Oak Spring Foundation Library in Virginia (see last post) and then headed to Philadelphia to have lunch with my friend Jan Yager, an artist and goldsmith.  She has created many amazing pieces including the Invasive Species Tiara, now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Coincidentally, I had brought with me a book about William Bartram (1739-1823), an earlier Philadelphia resident.  Called Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram (Braund & Porter, 2010), it deals primarily with his trip to southern areas in colonial America in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.  Bartram was the son of the farmer and nurseryman, John Bartram, who developed a business selling novel plant species on both sides of the Atlantic.  Between 1734 and 1766 John made at least 14 long journeys throughout the colonies, along with countless shorter ones, collecting plant specimens and seeds.  He had a particularly good eye for new species (Hoffmann & Van Horn, 2004) and wrote that he rarely found new plants in areas where he had already collected (McLean, 1992).

William Bartram accompanied his father on his 1765-1766 trip south to Florida.  The French and Indian War had just ended, and this territory was now under British control.  British gardeners like Peter Collinson, who managed Bartram’s shipments to England, encouraged him to go south and explore this relatively unknown territory.  He even arranged for Bartram senior to be named King’s Botanist, a title that came with a small stipend.  William was living in North Carolina at the time in a failed attempt to start a business there, so he was more than willing to accompany his father.  They traveled to Charleston, South Carolina and stayed for a few weeks, connecting with fellow naturalists and nurserymen.  They then made their way through Georgia to Florida and explored along the St. John’s River.  William remained there to set up a farming venture that also eventually failed, and he returned to Philadelphia.

By 1773, John was in failing health, but William was willing to make another collecting trip south at the behest of the British gardener John Fothergill who at Collinson’s death had taken over his role as the Bartrams’s go-between with their British patrons.  Impressed by William’s natural  history sketches, Fothergill financed the trip and suggested that the younger Bartram keep a journal and make sketches of what he saw.  William set out, again stopping in Charleston and visiting friends he had made there earlier.  However the times were different; these were the years leading up to the War of Independence, and Charleston was a major colonial city.  William’s acquaintances were on both sides of the issue, which must have made for some uneasy conversations, especially when he revisited the city toward the end of his trip in late 1776.

Edward Cashin has written about this journey from a political perspective in William Bartram and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier (2000).  His major point is that Bartram did not waste many words on the looming clash but instead focused on observations on the natural history of the areas he visited.  He was also interested in the native Americans he encountered and went out of his way to learn about them.  He left Charleston to attend a meeting with native American leaders in Augusta, Georgia and described in detail his experiences there and with other Indian tribes he met further south.  As Cashin notes, in Georgia the colonists were more concerned about relations with Indians than with the British.  Clashes with the former were a more immediate threat.

From Georgia, Bartram moved further west, eventually reaching the Mississippi River, although he only remained there a short time.  He then made his way east through what was called West Florida, encountering members of several Indian tribes and settlers who were creating new outposts in these areas.  By the time he returned to Charleston, the Revolution was underway, and his father was very ill, so he quickly returned to Philadelphia in early 1777.  Throughout his trip, he had been sending notes, specimens, seeds, and drawings back to Fothergill.  However, William didn’t begin his book until 1786 when he badly fractured his leg falling from a tree and was bed-ridden for some time.  The book was illustrated with his drawings and became a classic in American natural history literature, but as Cashin points out, it is about more than natural history.  It is a chronicle of what the South was like at the point when the United States was being created.  Several of the essays in Fields of Vision note that Bartram had a keen eye not only for plants but for human behavior, and yet seemed to hold back from describing the more vicious forms he encountered.  In other words, he attempted to present the new nation in a good light, to make of it something of which its citizens could be proud.

Bartram never undertook another long journey, though Thomas Jefferson suggested he join the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Instead, he continued to work on the Bartram farm.  He was also active in the Philadelphia botanical community, creating illustrations for the landmark American book on plants, Benjamin Barton’s Elements of Botany.


Braund, K. E. H., & Porter, C. M. (Eds.). (2010). Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Cashin, E. J. (2000). William Bartram and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Hoffmann, N. E., & Van Horne, J. C. (Eds.). (2004). America’s Curious Botanist: A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram 1699-1777. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.

McLean, E. P. (1992). John and William Bartram: Their importance to botany and horticulture. Bartonia, 57, 10–27.

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