Naturalists. John Bartram was born in Marple, Pennsylvania, on March 23, 1699, the son of the farmer William Bartram and his wife, Elizabeth Hunt. Beginning around 1727, Bartram became interested in botany, a subject in which he was largely self-taught. Through a London correspondent and fellow Quaker, Peter Collinson, Bartram became a participant in the international world of botanical exchange, sending seeds, bulbs, and cuttings of American plants to Europe and receiving payment or other botanical specimens in exchange. Bartram’s skill became recognized in the learned communities of America and Europe. The great Swedish natural historian Carl Linnaeus is said to have referred to Bartram as the finest natural botanist in the world. Bartram contributed specimens to enable Mark Catesby, then in London, to finish his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–1748) and exchanged seeds and bulbs with Martha Logan, the owner of a famous Charleston garden.
Bartram’s first botanizing trip to South Carolina occurred in 1762, when he explored the interior of the state. It was followed by a longer trip to the southeastern British colonies in 1765, when Bartram was appointed King’s Botanist. This appointment shocked the Scottish physician and botanist Alexander Garden, Bartram’s Charleston friend, who found it “rather hyperbolical” that Bartram, a collector rather than a learned botanist, should be appointed to such a position. Regardless of Garden’s shock, Charleston, with its port facilities and active scientific community, was a logical departing point for Bartram’s expedition, and he arrived there in July 1765 on his way to Florida. He also spent some time in Charleston in 1766 on the way back, purchasing equipment and slaves for a rice plantation that his son William Bartram was trying to set up in Florida, a venture which proved a total failure. Bartram’s account of his trip, The Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida: From July 1, 1765 to April 10, 1766, not published until 1942, is principally of botanical interest. John Bartram died on September 22, 1777, in Kingsessing, Pennsylvania.
William Bartram was born on April 9, 1739, in Philadelphia, the son of John Bartram and his second wife, Anne Mendenhall. William’s keen interest in botany and natural history was manifest early in his life, causing his father to despair of finding a remunerative career for the young man. He was a gifted illustrator and accompanied his father on his trip to the southeastern colonies in 1765.
William Bartram is best known for his narrative of a series of expeditions in southeastern North America from 1772 to 1776, Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians (1791). This trip was sponsored by Bartram’s patron, the Englishman John Fothergill. Charleston again was the starting point for the expedition. Bartram’s friends there included Alexander Garden and Dr. Lionel Chalmers, who furnished Bartram with introductions to prominent persons in the Southeast. Bartram arrived in April 1773, staying in Charleston only a few days before leaving for Savannah. Bartram’s travels in South Carolina, unlike his father’s, were restricted to the area of Charleston, the coast, and the area of the South Carolina–Georgia border. He returned to Charleston in the fall of 1774 to stay over the winter and again in 1776 before returning to the Philadelphia area, where he spent the rest of his life.
William Bartram’s interests were broader than his father’s. In addition to botany, his book contains a great deal of information about animal life and both English and Indian societies. He was more sympathetic to the Indians than were most Anglo-American writers of the time. Travels through North & South Carolina was more popular in Europe, where it went through several editions and translations, than in the United States, where it was not reprinted until 1928. Its influence was greatest, not among natural historians, but among Romantic poets, most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. William Bartram, who never married, died on July 22, 1823, at his home near Philadelphia.
Earnest, Ernest. John and William Bartram: Botanists and Explorers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.
Slaughter, Thomas P. The Natures of John and William Bartram. New York: Knopf, 1996.