Clergyman, naturalist. Bachman was born in Rhinebeck, New York, on February 4, 1790, the son of Jacob Bachman, a farmer, and his wife, Eva (Shop?). Reared on a farm in Rensselaer County, New York, Bachman developed an interest in natural history. After tutoring by a Lutheran minister, he entered a college in Philadelphia, but an attack of tuberculosis forced him to withdraw. He later studied theology in Philadelphia and became a Lutheran pastor in 1813. Another bout with tuberculosis prompted him to seek relief in a warmer climate, and he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1815 to serve as minister of St. John’s Lutheran Church. On January 16, 1816, he married Harriet Martin. They had fourteen children, five of whom died in infancy. Following Harriet’s death in 1847, Bachman married her sister, Maria Martin, in 1848. Devoted to his ministerial duties, Bachman also led in the formation of the South Carolina Synod and a Lutheran college in Newberry.
Meanwhile, Bachman continued his pursuit of natural history, mainly studying the flora, birds, and mammals of the region. During the 1830s he began to publish articles in scientific journals, a development fostered by a chance meeting with the noted bird artist John James Audubon in Charleston in 1831. A close relationship followed, and each helped the other. Bachman lent considerable assistance to Audubon in his study of birds, and Audubon encouraged Bachman to publish his scientific inquiries. Eventually each of the two Audubon sons married a Bachman daughter, thus strengthening the Bachman-Audubon bond.
Among Bachman’s most significant publications were the descriptions of several mammals previously unknown in scientific works, particularly certain squirrels, mice, rabbits, shrews, and moles. During a trip to Europe in 1836, Bachman enhanced his reputation as a mammalogist, and soon thereafter he began a collaborative project with Audubon and his sons on a book describing and illustrating all of the known mammals of North America. Audubon and his son John Woodhouse Audubon did the illustrations, and Bachman wrote the scientific descriptions. First issued serially in thirty parts, the illustrations were published in three bound volumes between 1845 and 1853 as The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Three volumes of text appeared successively in 1849, 1851, and 1854, and a single volume combining text and illustrations was published in 1854. In the later volumes, the title was altered to The Quadrupeds of North America. In all of his work taken together, Bachman contributed thirty-one descriptions of mammals new to science, including eleven that were coauthored with Audubon. Thus, Bachman became one of America’s important pioneering mammalogists.
Actively involved in the affairs of Charleston, Bachman served as president of the Literary and Philosophical Society and the Elliott Society of Natural History. From 1848 to 1853 he was professor of natural history at the College of Charleston. In the meantime, between 1848 and 1855 Bachman also gained notice for his defense of the idea of the unity of all human races. In a long-running debate with the noted Philadelphia craniologist Samuel George Morton, the renowned naturalist Louis Agassiz, and the southern physician Josiah C. Nott, Bachman consistently presented a sound scientific case for all races of humans as members of the same species. Drawing on his keen knowledge of the nature of species, he presented his argument in numerous articles and in The Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Races, Examined on the Principles of Science, published in 1850.
Yet Bachman condoned slavery, and he was an unyielding defender of states’ rights. He championed the secession of South Carolina from the Union and worked vigorously to support the Confederacy. After the war, Bachman continued as the pastor of St. John’s until a stroke in 1871 forced him to curtail his work. He died in Charleston on February 24, 1874, and was buried in the church that he had served for nearly six decades.
Shuler, Jay. Had I the Wings: The Friendship of Bachman and Audubon. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
Stephens, Lester D. Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815–1895. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.