(b. Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, 9 April 1739; d. Kingsessing, 22 July 1823)
William Bartram, third son of the botanist John Bartram and his second wife, Ann Mendenhall, was born on his father’s farm at Kingsessing, four miles from Philadelphia. In 1752 he was sent to the Academy of Philadelphia; his studies there included Latin and French, but botany and drawing, his father wrote, were “his darling delight.” The father encouraged his son in these directions, taking him on botanizing trips to the Catskill Mountains in 1753 and to Connecticut in 1755, and letting him sketch on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, instead of working and going to meeting. Samples of William’s work were sent to Peter Collinson, his father’s London friend and patron, who was much pleased with them. Before he left the Academy in 1756, William was making natural history drawings for Collinson and for George Edwards, who used them and William’s descriptions of Pennsylvania birds in his Gleanings of Natural History. Two of William’s drawings of turtles were printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine.
William had no idea what profession or trade he should enter. His father, sure only that he did not “want him to be what is called a gentleman,” consulted Collinson and Benjamin Franklin. He considered medicine, surveying, printing, and engraving for the lad; but finally, in 1757, apprenticed him to a merchant. In 1761 William moved to Cape Fear, North Carolina, where he opened a trading store that soon failed. Nothing, in fact, went well for him, and by 1764 he seemed to Collinson, who liked him, to be “lost in indolence and obscurity.”
In 1765 John Bartram setting out on his trip to Florida, asked William to accompany him. When the journey was over, William chose to remain in the south. Turning down an invitation from Major John G. W. DeBrahm to join him as a draftsman on his survey of Florida, he settled as a planter of rice and indigo, living in a mean hovel on the St. John’s River. His father did not approve and could not understand—Billy, he lamented, was “so whimsical and so unhappy.” The young man succeeded no better as a planter than as a merchant. He returned to Pennsylvania, eked out a poor living by various means, and made a few drawings for Dr. John Fothergill, the London Quaker physician who had succeeded Collinson as the Bartrams’ patron. But the lure of the Carolinas and Florida was strong, and in 1771 William was in the south again. Fothergill encouraged him to visit Florida, offered him fifty pounds a year, and agreed to purchase any drawings he made. With this assurance William set out in March 1773 on the travels that were to make his reputation.
For four years he traveled through South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Much of the way he went alone; and so patent were his innocence and devotion to nature that colonial governors—even in wartime—let him come and go freely, and the Indians everywhere welcomed him, naming him Puc-puggy, the “Flower Hunter.” Bartram made notes on birds, animals, fishes, and plants, which were everywhere in profusion, and he recorded the life of the Indians. He wandered along meandering streams, refreshed himself from crystal springs, took refuge in dark caves from crashing thunderstorms, marveled at the terrifying roar and thrash of angry alligators, and stood in awe before forests of azalea so bright that the very mountains seemed on fire. In this world, which was as much of his own making as nature’s, Bartram found peace. He returned to Kingsessing in January 1778, however, and never left again. His brother John, who had inherited their father’s farm and garden, made him welcome; and so, after John’s death, did their sister and her husband. William never-married.
He worked in the garden, planting, grafting, and performing the many other chores the nursery required. In 1782 the University of Pennsylvania offered him the professorship of botany, but he declined it. He wrote up his notes and sometimes shyly showed them to visitors; but he was in no hurry to publish, and the Travels did not appear until 1791. The book was reprinted in London in 1792 and 1794; and before the decade closed, other editions appeared in Paris, Dublin, Vienna, Berlin, and Holland. Most reviewers praised Bartram’s descriptions of natural products and of the Indians; but almost all criticized his style as florid, luxuriant, imaginative, imprecise, and personal. Yet it is for its style that the Travels is best known, and for its influence on romantic literature that it has its most lasting fame. Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Chateaubriand filled pages of their notebooks with excerpts from the, Travels; and from these notebooks Bartram’s figures and sense of nature passed through the poets’ richly imaginative minds and reappeared, still recognizable, in Ruth, “Kubla Khan,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Atala, and other works, Bartram, in short, was one of the earliest voices, and one of the authentic sources, of the nineteenthcentury romantic movement.
The fame of the Travels, in addition to John Bartram’s reputation, brought a procession of visitors to Kingsessing; otherwise, William’s life was unchanged. He wrote down his observations of the Creek and Cherokee Indians for Benjamin Smith Barton, made most of the drawings for Barton’s Elements of Botany (1803), and wrote a few papers for Barton’s Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal, among them a biographical sketch of his father. To the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, which elected him a member in 1785, he sent “Observations on the Pea-Fly or Beetle.” At its founding in 1812, the Academy of Natural Sciences made him a member. He was also a member of the American Philosophical Society, but took no interest in its work and never attended a meeting.
Gentle, loving, and well loved, “the happiest union of moral integrity with original genius and unaspiring science,” William Bartram lived out his life in harmony with the numberless lives in nature all about him. Without formal education in science, he was nonetheless recognized, as his father had been, for his unequaled knowledge of the natural world. Many sought his help, and he cheerfully shared all he knew. Thomas Nuttall, F. A. Michaux, Thomas Say, and Palisot de Beauvois felt they could hardly begin their work without his advice and blessing. In particular, the ornithologist Alexander Wilson owed much of his training to Bartram, lived for a time at the garden, and urged his benefactor to accompany him on his ornithological journeys. On 22 July 1823, having completed in his study a note on the natural history of a plant, Bartram took a few steps, collapsed, and died in the house where he was born. A portrait by Charles Willson Peale, done in 1808, is in the Independence National Historical Park collection, Philadelphia.
I. Original Works. William Bartram’s works are “Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians, 1789,” in American Ethnological Society, Transactions, 3 , part 1 (1853), 1–81; “Travels in Georgia and Florida, 1773–74: A Report to Dr. John Fothergill,” Francis Harper ed., in American Philosophical Society, Transactions, 33 , part 2 (1943), 121–242; and Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida,... (Philadelphia, 1791). Of many subsequent printings and editions of the Travels, that edited by Francis Harper (New Haven, Conn., 1958) is most useful for scholars.
II. Secondary Literature. Works concerning Bartram are William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall (Philadelphia, 1849); Ernest Earnest, John and William Bartram: Botanists and Explorers (Philadelphia, 1940); N. Bryllion Fagin, William Bartram, Interpreter of the American Landscape (Baltimore, 1933); John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (Boston, 1927).
The drawings Bartram made for Fothergill, now in the British Museum (Natural History), have been published, in color and with an introduction and notes by Joseph Ewan, by the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, 1968).
Whitfield J. Bell, Jr.
The American naturalist William Bartram (1739-1823) published an account of his botanical expedition to the southeastern United States that was widely read in his country and Europe.
William Bartram was born on Feb. 9, 1739, near Philadelphia, Pa., in the house built by his father, John Bartram, the noted botanist. William displayed considerable talent for drawing in his youth but was not immediately interested in botanical work, instead engaging in trade for several years in Philadelphia and near Cape Fear, N.C. He began collecting botanial specimens in 1765-1766, while accompanying his father on a trip up the St. Johns River in Florida.
In 1768 Peter Collinson, a friend of the elder Bartram, showed some of the young man's drawings to George Edwards, the English naturalist, and to Dr. John Fothergill, a noted London physician. Fothergill extended his patronage to the young Bartram and in 1773-1777 sponsored his exploratory trip through the Southeast. Specimens were sent to Fothergill, but in 1778, on his return to Philadelphia, Bartram seems to have lost interest in continuing his work, refusing the offer of Benjamin Smith Barton to add to and publish his accounts.
On his father's death William began joint management of the gardens on the Schuylkill River with his brother John. By 1791 William had managed the Philadelphia publication, by subscription, of his account of his southeastern explorations, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, and E. and W. Florida, his major contribution to science. It was immensely popular in Europe and went through many editions and translations, eventually providing inspiration to romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge (whose Kubla Khan and Ancient Mariner were influenced by the work). He also furnished materials to Benjamin Smith Barton which found their way into Barton's publications Elements of Botany and Essay toward a Materia Medica.
Bartram was influential in starting the young Scot Alexander Wilson on his study of North American bird life. Chronic ill health forced him to decline the position of professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, offered in 1782, and the post of botanist on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
His botanical work is noted for its splendid imagery and eloquence. His standards of completeness and accuracy were high, and his list of native species of birds was excelled only by the later work of his protégé and friend Wilson. His dependability was not great, however, and his actual production of major works was limited to the Travels. Neither he nor his brother John rivaled the scope of their father, but William clearly inherited his father's scientific talent. The Travels was the first comprehensive treatment of the southeastern United States, including descriptions of flora and fauna, geologic formations, and Native American tribes. William never married. He died suddenly at his beloved gardens on July 22, 1823.
Bartrams's major work has been reprinted as The Travels of William Bartram, an edition by Mark Van Doren (1955). The standard biography is Nathan Bryllion Fagin, William Bartram, Interpreter of the American Landscape (1933). Ernest Earnest, John and William Bartram, Botanists and Explorers (1940), is also useful. General background is in Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1789 (1956). □
William Bartram, 1739–1823, American naturalist, b. Philadelphia; son of John Bartram. He is known chiefly for his Travels (1791), in which he describes his journey (1773–77) through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida and areas to the west. His book vividly portrays the plants and wildlife of the country and lists 215 native birds, the most complete list of that time. Bartram's influence is seen in the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Chateaubriand, and other writers who found his book an unexcelled source of descriptions of the American wilderness and its inhabitants.
See T. Hallock and N. E. Hoffmann, ed., William Bartram, The Search for Nature's Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings (2010).
American naturalist, botanist, and artist who, continuing the work of his father, John, identified and cultivated the flora of the American colonies. He published his observations and drawings in Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida in 1791. His published work was poetic, showing delight in his experiences of nature. It significantly influenced the Hudson River School of American artists and the English romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge.