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.


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.

History and Herbaria: Dream Digital Projects


Nathaniel Wallich Website

In the last post, I discussed portals presenting historical plant collections and related correspondence. Now I want to describe my dreams of future projects. Think of how exciting it would be to map all of the Hooker’s correspondence as well as those of George Bentham, Asa Gray, and John Torrey. The intricacy of such a network would be an amazing display and would, I suspect, reveal previously unexplored connections. Ronald McColl, a librarian, has created network maps of correspondents for the Pennsylvania botanist William Darlington (1782-186), and it reveals a rather impressive set of botanical notables including not only Englemann, Gray, and Torrey, but also Jacob Agardh in Sweden, William Hooker, and Alphonse Pyramus de Candolle in Geneva. While Darlington is hardly a major figure in American botany, these diagrams reveal just how broad his network was, and his letter books indicate how hard he worked to develop it—offering to send specimens and publications in return for the same. McColl’s work suggests what can be done to present botany and history digitally.

Europeana is a massive portal that links science and humanities collections in museums and libraries throughout Europe, so searching for example for “iris” can yield links to art, as well as to scientific information on the species, reminding users about the connections among disciplines that many searches reveal. The Digital Library of America may one day provide some of the same power. However, my dream portals would be more circumscribed. For example, Linnaeus’s specimens at the Linnaean Society and other locations linked to the analysis of Linnaean type specimens in Jarvis’s Out of Chaos (2007) Some of the types are illustrations, so they would also be available. And while I am dreaming I’d like to be able to follow that trail to what has happened to these names up to the present day.

The thousands of images created by local artists during the Spanish Royal Botanical Expedition to New Granada (1783-1816) headed by José Celestino Mutis are available on a website hosted by the Real Jardín de Botánico in Madrid, but it would be interesting to see how these illustrations are tied to information about the species portrayed. The botany behind the expedition is complex and involves botanists not only in South America and Spain, but in Switzerland and the United States as well. This is an example of an endeavor that would be difficult for more than technological reasons.

I would also love to see work building on the Lewis and Clark material that is already online, thanks to the work of the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS) in Philadelphia, which holds an impressive collection of these specimens. In addition, James Reveal and his colleagues have made a great deal of information about the expedition available on the web, including photographs of the plants. If more botanical illustrations of the same species as well as the current literature on them, from for example, the Flora of North America, could be added, the visual, historical, and scientific value of the site would indeed be powerful. The same goes for the John Bartram specimens in the NHM, and in a more unlikely place, the Sutro Library in San Francisco, which holds the 16-volume herbarium of Lord Robert Petre, one of Bartram’s patrons. Several of the volumes contain Bartram plants, some with short notes he added to describe where he found the specimen or why he considered it of interest. At the moment, the Sutro material hasn’t been digitized, but it would be valuable addition to what is available electronically about John Bartram, his travels, his collections, and his economic dealings with British botanists and horticulturalists. If this were tied to images and transcripts of his correspondence with the primary British patron and fellow Quaker, Peter Collinson (1694-1768), and to the art and writings produced by his son, William Bartram (1739-1823), the portal would make a major contribution to American history as well as to botanical history.

It is not only figures of the rather distant past who could benefit from such internet attention. NYBG has created a portal, the Barneby Digital Monograph and Specimen Catalog, with links to both the material the garden’s botanist Rupert Barneby wrote on legumes and to relevant specimens. This is obviously of taxonomic importance, but it also contains important information on how plant science was done in the mid-20th century that can be studied alongside books such as Douglas Crase’s (2004) biography of Barneby and his partner, Dwight Ripley. It serves as a model for other such projects. But what concerns me is the difficulty of meshing resources that have been put online in different formats. The Barneby material was primarily from NYBG, and much of it was digitized for this project, but I again return to the problem of standardization in the handling of digitization. Things are definitely moving in this direction, but it is a laboriously process and that’s why theoretical and technical work in bioinformatics is so important to the future of digital information. It will be interesting to see how things evolve over the next few years. Right now, the emphasis within the natural history collection community is primarily on the scientific value of its collections, but hopefully the viewpoint will become more inclusive. I myself am involved in a project that brings scientists, historians, educators, and literary scholars together with garden enthusiasts to create a portal that will be of interest to all these constituencies. More will be forthcoming on this as the project gets underway later this year.

Brunfels, O. (1530). Herbarum Vivae Eicones. Strassburg, HRE: J. Schott.

de Koning, J., van Uffelen, G., Zemanek, A., & Zemanek, B. (Eds.). (2008). Drawn After Nature: The Complete Botanical Watercolours of the 16th-Century Libri Picturati. Zeist, the Netherlands: KNNV Publishing.

Haygood, T. M. (1987). Henry William Ravenel, 1814-1887: South Carolina Scientist in the Civil War Era. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Sloane, H. (1707). Natural History of Jamaica (Vol. I). London, UK: British Museum.

Sloane, H. (1725). Natural History of Jamaica (Vol. II). London, UK: British Museum.

Specimen Labels: Bartram and Petre


John Bartram’s specimen of Acer pensylvanicum, in the Petre Herbarium at the Sutro Library, San Francisco State University

During the 18th and 19th centuries when colonial powers were scouring the world for resources to send back home, plants were important targets of their efforts as valuable sources of wealth in terms of foods, garden plants, medicines, and other products. By this time botany had developed significantly as a discipline, and its practitioners were eager to make their mark by identifying as many new genera and species as possible. Since it was difficult to transport live plants, and even seeds would often fail to survive a long sea voyage—or fail to germinate even if they did—pressed specimens were frequently the first sources of information to reach Europe. While collectors and nurserymen like John Bartram in Philadelphia sent seeds and cuttings to Hans Sloane and his associates such as Peter Collinson and Lord Robert Petre, specimens were also a significant element of the interaction. Bartram could much more easily find single specimens of rare plants than gather seeds for plants he seldom encountered.

At the Sutro Library in San Francisco, there is a 16-volume herbarium owned by Petre with Bartram specimens in four of them (Schuyler & Newbold, 1987). Petre, an ardent horticulturalist, employed a botanist to carefully mount and label his specimens. These were prepared in the 1730s and 1740s, before Linnaeus had introduced binomial nomenclature, so the names are often six or seven words long, which suggests why reform was needed: no one could keep track of many names that extensive. Besides the names, some of the Bartram specimens also have notes on scraps of brown paper describing where he found the plant or something of its characteristics. These are informal messages to help his patron visualize what he saw or to give a sense of the plant in situ. For example Bartram writes of Pluchea ordorata or salt marsh fleabane: “This I gathered in a pond as I came from Albany,” and for Saxifraga virginiensis, a saxifrage: “This is one of our first spring flowers.” In the case of Comptonia perigrina or sweetfern, its medicinal value is noted: “This we call sweet fern from its similitude to that plant The root is a wonderful astringent for stoping (sic) of blood.” These personal messages are a reminder of the lives and minds behind the specimens, both on the collecting and receiving ends: Bartram wrote the notes because he knew Petre would be interested in reading them. There are many examples of such collections that can be of interest not just to botanists but to cultural historians because they hint at what was important to the literate classes of the time. They also are significant documents of the age of discovery, and it is then that geography begins to become more important in labeling. During the Renaissance learning about the plant itself and its medical uses was key; later where in the world a plant grew became crucial. Biogeography slowly developed, particularly with the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, who with Aimé Bonpland collected over 60,000 specimens on they explorations in the Americas (Lack, 2009).

The Bartram/Petre exchange suggests that horticulture had become an important driver for botanical exploration and research. Still, botany’s link with medicine remained strong, as many botanists well into the 19th century had found the science while studying medicine. By the mid-19th century, botanical research was being done not only in universities but in botanic gardens. With this institutionalization of the discipline and its professionalization came a standardization of methods, including those of the herbarium. Along with the name of the species, there were often the name of the collector as well as the date and the place of collection. Many collectors used labels printed with their name and sometimes the region of the collection, but the rest of the information was added in longhand, and it varied in detail. Sometimes the exact date was given, sometimes month and year, or just the year. The place of collection could be simply the name of a town or even a county, or perhaps that the plant was found along a road or by a lake. For the early expeditions in the western United States, collectors were using crude maps and were in areas that were previously unexplored, so there was good reason for the nebulous location information. However, I have also seen specimens from the late-19th century that read simply “New York City.”  In the next post, I will examine what became standard practice by the beginning of the 20th century.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. New York, NY: Prestel.
Schuyler, A. E., & Newbold, A. (1987). Vascular plants in Lord Petre’s herbarium collected by John Bartram. Bartonia, 53, 41–43.