(b. Marple, Pennsylvania, 23 May 1699; d. Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, 22 September 1777)
The eldest child of William Bartram and his first wife, Elizabeth Hunt, both members of the Society of Friends, John Bartram was born on his father’s farm near Darby, Pennsylvania. He had only a common country schooling; but, from the age of twelve, as he later said, he had “a great inclination to Botany and Natural History,” although for a time medicine and surgery were his “chief study.” On reaching manhood, Bartram inherited from an uncle a farm on which he established himself and his young family; he sold it in 1728 and bought another, of 102 acres, on the banks of the Schuylkill River at Kingsessing, four miles from Philadelphia. Here he converted the marshy lands into productive meadows by draining them; and, through intelligent use of fertilizer and crop rotation, he was soon reaping more abundant crops than most of his neighbors. By 1730 he had laid out a small garden where he cultivated plants, shrubs, and trees from different parts of America. As Bartram’s interest in scientific botany grew, James Logan, chief justice of the province and a learned amateur of science, encouraged him with loans and gifts of books. About 1734 Bartram was introduced to the London mercer and enthusiast of science Peter Collinson as “a very proper person” to provide specimens of the products of American fields and forests; and thus his career was launched.
Collinson ordered seeds, plants, and shrubs; got Bartram other customers; advised him on what would sell in England; and instructed him how to pack and ship the specimens and even how to behave toward his patrons. The dukes of Richmond, Norfolk, Argyll, and Bedford; Lord Petre; Philip Miller, author of The Gardener’s Dictionary; Sir Hans Sloane; and Thomas Penn all enriched their gardens and greenhouses with plants obtained from Bartram. In this way Bartram introduced more than a hundred American species into Europe. Collinson and his friends annually raised a fund to pay for their purchases and thus to underwrite Bartram’s collecting. Sometimes they sent him botanical works as gifts so that he could identify the plants he found, and Collinson persuaded the Library Company of Philadelphia to give Bartram a membership so that he might use its collections. In addition, Collinson introduced Bartram by letter to Linnaeus, Gronovius, G. L. Buffon, and other European naturalists, and also to Americans who shared his interests.
With a market for his plants thus assured, Bartram began to make a series of botanical journeys to distant parts of the country. The first, in 1736, was to the sources of the Schuylkill River. In 1738 he traveled to Virginia and the Blue Ridge, covering 1,100 miles in five weeks and spending but a single night in any town. He made shorter expeditions to the New Jersey coast and pine barrens and to the cedar swamps of southern Delaware. The yield to science from these explorations was so great that in 1742 Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphians opened a subscription to enable Bartram “wholly to spend his Time and exert himself” in discovering and collecting plants, trees, flowers, and other natural products. The subscription was abandoned when Logan opposed it, and Bartram never had the kind of financial independence he repeatedly sought. Nonetheless, in the summer of 1742 he tramped over the Catskill Mountains, and in 1743, with Conrad Weiser, the province interpreter, and the cartographer Lewis Evans, he traveled through Pennsylvania into the Indian country of New York as far as Oswego and Lake George. “Our way... lay over rich level ground,” Bartram wrote of one day’s journey, in a good example of both his life in the woods and his prose style.
... but when we left it, we enter’d a miserable thicket of spruce, opulus, and dwarf yew, then over a branch of Susquehannah, big enough to turn a mill, came to ground as good as that on the other side of the thicket; well cloathed with tall timber of sugar birch, sugar maple, and elm. In the afternoon it thunder’d hard pretty near us, but rained little: We observed the tops of the trees to be so close to one another for many miles together, that there is no seeing which way the clouds drive, nor which way the wind sets: and it seems almost as if the sun had never shone on the ground since the creation.
By 1750 Bartram was famous. Copies of his journals circulated in manuscript in London, and that of the trip to Onondago was published there in 1751. Such American naturalists as Dr. John Mitchell of Virginia and such philosophers as Cadwallader Colden of New York sought him out. Peter Kalm spent so much time at Kingsessing that Logan complained that during an eight-month visit to Philadelphia the Swedish botanist had seen no one but Franklin and Bartram. Dr. Alexander Garden of Charleston wrote of a visit to Bartram in 1754:
His garden is a perfect portraiture of himself, here you meet with a row of rare plants almost covered over with weeds, here with a Beautifull Shrub, even Luxuriant Amongst Briars, and in another corner an Elegant & Lofty tree lost in common thicket. On our way from town to his house he carried me to severall rocks & Dens where he spewed me some of his rare plants, which he had brought from the Mountains &c. In a word he disclaims to have a garden less than Pensylvania & Every den is an Arbour, Every run of water, a Canal, & every small level Spot a Parterre, where he nurses up some of his Idol Flowers & cultivates his darling productions. He had many plants whose names he did not know, most or all of which I had seen & knew them. On the other hand he had several I had not seen & some I never heard of [Earnest, p. 21].
Bartram’s observations were not limited to things botanical. He collected shells, insects, hummingbirds, terrapin, and wild pigeons. He described the mussels of the Delaware River, rattlesnakes, wasps, and the seventeen-year locust; and from his letters about them Collinson fashioned communications that were printed in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. Except for the introduction and notes for a Philadelphia edition of Thomas Short’s Medicina Britannica and two short pieces on snakeroot and red cedar for Poor Richard’s Almanack, Bartram wrote almost nothing for publication; even the Onondago journal, in Kalm’s estimate, contained not “a thousandth part of the great knowledge which he has acquired in natural philosophy and history.”
Bartram was also interested in every scheme to promote scientific inquiry in America, and he offered several of his own. In 1739 he suggested that “ingenious & curious men” be organized into a society or college for “the study of natural secrets arts & syances.” The suggestion was premature, but in 1743 Franklin succeeded in establishing for a few years a less ambitious group, the American Philosophical Society, to which Bartram was especially devoted. In a letter to Garden in 1756 he proposed a kind of geological survey of the mineral resources of the North American continent. Bartram was always ready to become a traveling naturalist, supported by the government or private patrons and reporting his discoveries to his sponsors. As increasing numbers of explorers and collectors uncovered and carried away mammoth fossils from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, in the 1750’s and 1760’s, Bartram expressed the hope that wealthy “curiosos” would “send some person that will take pains to measure every bone exactly, before they are broken and carried away, which they soon will be, by ignorant, careless people, for gain.”
Single-minded and untiring in pursuit of natural history, Bartram grumbled and complained when anything impeded his work. On the other hand, he was friendly and open to those who shared his devotion. Kalm gratefully acknowledged that he owed Bartram much “for he possessed that great quality of communicating everything he knew.” Everyone who knew him was impressed with Bartram’s industry, his capacity for accurate observation and recall, and his independence. When Kalm repeated Mark Catesby’s theory that trees and plants decrease in size and strength when they are taken north, Bartram answered that if the question were “more limited,” Catesby’s answer “would prove more worthwhile”—some trees grow better in the south, others in the north.
This independent turn of mind also showed itself in Bartram’s religious views, which were deeply influenced by his studies of nature. He was contemptuous of ecclesiastical formalities and theological points; he was scornful of Quaker pacifism, which he believed made men hypocrites, “for they can’t banish freedom of thought”; and, unlike his coreligionists, he judged that the only way to establish lasting peace with the Indians was to “bang them stoutly.” He was in fact a deist, and when he persisted in expressions of disbelief in the divinity of Jesus, the Friends disowned him in 1757. He continued to attend Quaker meetings, however—and to express his unorthodox views. “My head runs all upon the works of God, in nature,” he wrote in 1762. “It is through that telescope I see God in the sky.” Over the window of his house in 1770 he carved the words, “’Tis God alone, Almighty Lord,/The Holy One, by me ador’d.” The sentiment, his son William remembered, gave offense to pious neighbors.
The close of the French and Indian War brought Great Britain a vast increase of territory in North America, and Bartram set out to explore it. He traveled in 1761 to the forks of the Ohio River and to the springs of western Virginia, crawling “over many deep wrinkles in the face of our antient mother earth”; and in 1764 he appealed to Collinson to raise funds to send him on an exploration of Florida. In consequence of his friend’s representations, in 1765 Bartram was named king’s botanist with an annual stipend of fifty pounds. Although he complained that it was not enough, Bartram set out all the same, accompanied by his son William. Entertained by governors and other officials, he traveled from Charleston through Georgia into Florida, visiting plantations, noting the quality of the soils, and recording trees, plants, and fossils. During these journeys he discovered the lovely Franklinia altamaha, which has never since been found in its native soils and survives today only in descent from a specimen Bartram brought back to his garden. In Florida, Bartram went up the St. John’s River to Fort Picolata, where he and William witnessed an impressive Indian treaty ceremonial.
This was Bartram’s last trip. He was aging, and his sight was failing. He spent his remaining years at Kingsessing, surrounded by family and friends, tending his garden, visited by the great and the curious. One visitor, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, later published a pleasing, although romanticized, account of Bartram’s life and manner of living. Inevitably honors came to Bartram. The Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden made him a member in 1769, and in 1772 “A Society of Gentlemen in Edinburgh” who were interested in propagating arts and sciences, awarded him a gold medal for his services. Before he died, his fellow citizens and European friends of America had ranked Bartram with Franklin and David Rittenhouse as one of the country’s authentic natural geniuses.
Bartram was married twice: in 1723 to Mary Maris of Chester Monthly Meeting, by whom he had two sons; and in 1729 to Ann Mendenhall, of Concord Monthly Meeting, who bore him five sons and four daughters. His sons Isaac and Moses became apothecaries, John inherited the farm and famous garden, and William achieved lasting fame as a botanical traveler, artist, and author. John Bartram, in William’s words, was “rather above the middle size, and upright,” with a long face and an expression that was at once dignified, animated, and sensitive. A painting by John Wollaston in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington is thought to be a portrait of Bartram.
I. Original Works. Bartram’s published writings are Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and Other Matters... From Pensilvania to Onondago, Oswego and the Lake Ontario, in Canada (London, 1751); and “Diary of a Journey Through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida...,” Francis Harper, ed., in American Philosophical Society, Transactions, 33 , part 1 (1942–1944), 1–120.
II. Secondary Literature. Works on Bartram are William Bartram, “Some Account of the Late Mr. John Bartram, of Pennsylvania,” in Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal, 1 , part 1 (1804), 115–124; William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall (Philadelphai, 1849); Ernest Earnest, John and William Bartram: Botanists and Explorers (Philadelphia, 1940); Peter Kalm, Travels in North America, A. B. Benson, ed., 2 vols. (New York, 1937); Leonard W. Larabee et al., eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, Conn., 1959–), II, 298–299, 355–357, 378–380, et passim; Francis D. West, “John Bartram’s Journey to Pittsburgh in the Fall of 1761,” in Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, 38 (1955), 111–115; “John Bartram and the American Philosophical Society,” in Pennsylvania History, 23 (1956), 463–466; and “The Mystery of the Death of William Bartram, Father of John Bartram the Botanist,” in Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, 20 (1956–1957), 253–255.
Whitfield J. Bell, Jr.
March 23, 1699
Marple, Delaware County, Pennsylvania
September 22, 1777
Botanist and gardener
John Bartram was "the greatest contemporary 'natural botanist' in the world."
Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus.
John Bartram, an eighteenth-century botanist (a specialist in plant life), was well known in colonial America and Europe. He grew up in Pennsylvania, where he was inspired by the beautiful countryside to study nature. As a young man, Bartram ventured to the nearby city of Philadelphia, one of the scientific centers of colonial America, where he met important scientific figures of the time, including James Logan. He introduced Bartram to the study of botany and, through Logan, Bartram became acquainted with the work of the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Bartram is best known for the five-acre botanical garden, called "the Garden," that he began planting at Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, in 1728. While conducting a correspondence with English botanist Peter Collinson, Bartram imported (to bring from a foreign external source) rare and exotic plant specimens. (A specimen is an individual item typical of a whole.) Because of its extensive variety of plant species, the Garden was the pride of the colonial American scientific community. While conducting expeditions throughout the countryside of the eastern colonies, Bartram commented not only on the plant life, but on the cultural aspects of the colonies as well. These proved to be an insightful and influential study of early America.
Inspired by local countryside
John Bartram was born on March 23, 1699, in Marple, which is located near Darby in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. His father was William Bartram, and his mother was Elizabeth Hunt. Bartram's grandfather, John Bartram, had settled near Darby after leaving England in 1682. When Bartram was born several years later in 1699, his extended family had already been Quakers for three generations. (The Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, believe that the individual can receive divine truth from the Holy Spirit through his or her own "inner light" without the guidance of a minister or priest.) Bartram himself remained a Quaker all his life. However, as he grew older and learned more about science and nature, he found it increasingly difficult to remain an orthodox Quaker (one who conforms to established doctrine).
Bartram first became interested in nature as a young man. He was particularly intrigued by the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside south of Philadelphia. As he was growing up, Bartram increasingly spent his time outdoors. In order to acquire more information about his newfound fascination, Bartram traveled to Philadelphia, where he could find the appropriate books on plants. It was there that he met James Logan, an influential Philadelphia scientific scholar and patron (one who gives financial support). Logan introduced Bartram to Latin, which was the language of scientific correspondence. Logan also loaned books to Bartram, helped him master the microscope, and turned the young man's attention to the work of the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Bartram eventually carried on a fruitful correspondence with Linnaeus.
Bartram was married twice during his lifetime. In 1723 he wed Mary Morris, with whom he had two sons. After her death, Bartram married Ann Mendenhall in 1729. With Mendenhall, Bartram had five sons and four daughters. One of his sons from his second marriage was named William who, like his father, became a great botanist.
Starts botanical garden
Even though Bartram studied important books about plants early in his career, he preferred to grow plants rather than read about them. This enthusiasm for nature led Bartram to gather and distribute plants. He also became an accomplished gardener. In 1728 Bartram began his great five-acre Garden on land he purchased in Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, three miles from Philadelphia on the banks of the Schuylkill River. After laying out the Garden, he conducted what might have been the first experiments in hybridization (interbreeding of offspring of two animals or plants of different breeds) in America.
One of Bartram's activities as a gardener was the trading of plants with other botanists throughout the world. Mainly, he received requests for plant and animal specimens from European scientists. In about 1733 Bartram began a correspondence with the English botanist Peter Collinson. Bartram and Collinson were both Quakers, and although they became lifelong friends, they never met. Their letter exchange greatly benefitted both men. Bartram fulfilled Collinson's endless requests for specimens of butterflies and such trees as sasparilla, cypress, white cedar, laurel, and locust. In return Collinson sent seeds from plants found in England and Europe that Bartram planted in the Garden.
Bartram was so accommodating that Collinson found other patrons for his activities. Bartram conducted correspondences with Mark Catesby, Hans Sloane, John Fothergill, J. F. Gronovius, and other leading European scientists. Gaining fame in Europe, he even corresponded with Linnaeus, who believed that Bartram was the greatest botanist in the world at the time. Bartram also corresponded with American colleagues of Linnaeus, including Alexander Garden, Cadwallader Colden (see box in Jane Colden entry), John Mitchell, and John Clayton. As a result of these contacts and the constant exchange of plants between America and Europe, Bartram's Garden became varied and exotic. In fact, it was the talk of the entire colonial American scientific community. Even scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin (see entry) and future American president George Washington would stop in the Garden to view the beautiful plants and have philosophical conversations. Despite Bartram's worldwide reputation, however, he continued to be a humble farmer.
Travels throughout colonial America
In addition to being an active gardener, Bartram traveled thousands of miles throughout America collecting specimens of plant life. There were few regions that Bartram did not visit. In 1738 he journeyed 1,100 miles through Maryland and Virginia and crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains. Four years later, he traveled up the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains, journeyed along the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Rivers in Pennsylvania, and crossed the Allegheny Mountains to upstate New York and Lake Ontario. Along the way he made notes on the topography (configuration of a surface including the position of its natural and man-made features) and described Native American customs. Bartram's account of his journeys was published in London as Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and Other Matters Worthy of Notice (1751). Beginning in 1754 Bartram took his son William, the future botanist, along with him on his travels. In 1761, during a trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—which was then a fort on the western frontier—Bartram encountered a group of Native Americans. One of them reportedly snatched his hat and began eating it. A distressed Bartram interpreted this act as a threat of cannibalism (the eating human flesh by a human being).
In 1765, through the help of Collinson, Bartram became the royal botanist to King George III of England. This position involved the study and description of plant life in North America, and he immediately set off for Charleston (in present-day South Carolina) to observe plant life in the South. Bartram then traveled by land through Georgia to Saint Augustine, Florida. After obtaining a canoe, he explored the San Juan (St. John's) River and prepared a detailed map of the waterway. During this expedition Bartram also discovered the royal palm tree. This was considered an important finding because the royal palm is rare and can be found only in the southernmost part of Florida and Cuba.
Remembered as influential American
After taking his numerous journeys, Bartram became disappointed that most Americans were not more interested in nature or science. He also disagreed with colonial Americans on the issue of slavery. A strong abolitionist (a person who takes measures to end slavery), he freed his own slaves even though it was unpopular to do so at the time. They remained in his household as paid servants and regularly took meals with the Bartram family and guests. Bartram was an enthusiastic scientist throughout his life, collecting shells, birds, insects, fish, and turtles. Acquiring an interest in geology (study of the Earth), he proposed the creation of a map of the rocks underlying the vast American landscape. This job was eventually performed by the United States Geological Survey. Bartram also suggested a massive voyage to survey the American West. Historians speculate that this idea was later passed on by Franklin to President Thomas Jefferson and may have led to the famous expedition headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in search of an overland route to the Pacific Ocean (1803–06). Meanwhile, the Garden at Kingsessing remained one of the greatest in the world. Over the years, it has been studied by many prominent naturalists. The first memorial to an American botanist, the Garden later became part of the Philadelphia park system.
For further reference
Berkeley, Edmund, and Dorothy Smith Berkeley. The Life and Travels of John Bartram from Lake Ontario to the River St. John. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1982.
Herbst, Josephine. New Green World. New York: Hastings House, 1954.
Historic Bartram's Garden.http://www.libertynet.org/bartram/story/index.html Available July 13, 1999.
Slaughter, Thomas P. The Natures of John and William Bartram. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
John Bartram (1699-1777) was the first native-born American botanist. He achieved considerable inter national fame as a collector of botanical specimens.
John Bartram was born on March 23, 1699, near Darby, Pa. He spent his youth farming, which may have sparked his interest in plants. His attempts to learn botany by purchasing books brought him to the attention of some Philadelphians, most notably James Logan, who encouraged him in the more systematic pursuit of that science. In 1728 Bartram purchased a plot of ground near Kingsessing, just below Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River, where he laid out a botanical garden and built a stone house. This garden, which survives in part to this day, was a mecca for visiting botanists throughout his lifetime and afterward.
Probably through Logan, who was William Penn's secretary, Bartram came into contact with a fellow Quaker, Peter Collinson, the London naturalist who acted as a patron to several American scientists. Their correspondence after 1733 provides many insights into the circumstances of the adoption of new plants in the respective countries. Collinson arranged for Bartram to collect specimens for him in America, providing partial support for the relatively poor American. The relationship between the two scientists was very close, and Collinson thought of Bartram as his pupil. Bartram's contact with Collinson brought him to the attention of Carl Linnaeus and other European naturalists, and Bartram established, through his collection of seeds and plant specimens, a substantial European reputation before he was well known in America.
Collecting New World Specimens
Bartram made several long-range collecting expeditions, some of them financed partly by European naturalists. He traveled 1100 miles across the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1738, explored the Catskill Mountains in 1755, and in 1760 traveled through the Carolinas. He was, however, forced to farm and to practice medicine locally in order to support his large family. Only in 1765, when Collinson got him an appointment as botanist to the king, was he assured of a steady income of any sort. Bartram was very honest and blunt, and he told Collinson that the £50 he was to receive for the post was not enough.
His European reputation brought Bartram to the notice of other American naturalists, particularly Cadwallader Colden of New York and Alexander Garden of South Carolina. Although some correspondence and cooperation occurred between these American botanists, Garden and especially Colden (who had mastered the Linnaean system of classification) felt that Bartram lacked the systematic skills to go beyond simple collecting. Bartram seems to have been attracted to the field by a love of plants and living, growing things, rather than from any abstract sense of scientific accomplishment. He possessed excellent powers of observation but never became a systematic specialist in the modern sense of the word. His interests ranged also to geology, and he suggested a geological survey of the country to determine the potential usefulness of various parts of the North American continent. He also suggested a general western exploration expedition similar to that later accomplished by Lewis and Clark.
Bartram regretted his lack of opportunity to further his education and training in the sciences in the New World, and he became one of the founding spirits of what developed into the American Philosophical Society, America's first scientific society. Disagreement over the founding of this organization in 1743 may have contributed to Bartram's estrangement from his onetime sponsor James Logan. The Philosophical Society was not permanently founded at this time, and most of the support for Bartram's work continued to come from Europe, indicating that the Colonies were not yet strong enough to support a scientific establishment on their own.
Bartram was a person of very independent character, a complete individualist who, though he was willing to carry out projects for Peter Collinson, took little direction from others. Read out of a Quaker meeting for his unwillingness to acknowledge the divinity of Christ, he nevertheless carried his deep convictions to the point of freeing his slaves and rehiring them as paid servants. As for Native Americans, however, a frightening experience near Pittsburgh made him less tolerant. Thus, his humanitarianism, like his career, was individualistic rather than consistent.
Bartram published journals of his travels, the most important of which was Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, etc … Made by John Bartram in His Travels from Pennsylvania to … Lake Ontario (1751). The most significant part of his work was actual collecting of specimens for Collinson and others. In his celebrated garden he began some work with hybrid plants which, though not systematic, stimulated interest. The garden itself and Bartram's home became a focal point for botanical activity in the Colonies. His lack of knowledge of systematic classification seems, curiously, to have bothered his ambitious American friends more than it did the European scientists. Though some have suggested that he was in effect a "creation" of the gifted Londoner Collinson, at the time of his death, on Sept. 22, 1777, Bartram was regarded by Linnaeus as the greatest contemporary "natural botanist" in the world
Bartram married Mary Morris in 1723, by whom he had two sons. On her death in 1727, he married Ann Mendenhall, by whom he had five sons and four daughters. Much of his energy was devoted to supporting this large family.
A selection of writings by John and William Bartram is available in Helen Gere Cruickshank, ed., John and William Bartram's America: Selections from the Writings of the Philadelphia Naturalists (1957). The standard biography of Bartram is Ernest Earnest, John and William Bartram, Botanists and Explorers (1940), replacing the older William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphrey Marshall: With Notices of Their Botanical Contemporaries (1849). A popular account can be found in Josephine Herbst, New Green World (1954). General background is in Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1789 (1956).
Berkeley, Edmund, The life and travels of John Bartram from Lake Ontario to the River St. John, Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1982. □
Bartram, John (1699-1777)
John Bartram (1699-1777)
Philadelphia. John Bartram was a farmer who, because of his interests in botany and his tireless fieldwork, became one of America’s finest naturalists. Bartram was a simple Quaker who lived at the outskirts of Philadelphia, the scientific center of the middle colonies. Open to new ideas, he allowed some of the greatest minds of the eighteenth century to guide his scientific research. He was friends with the Philadelphia scientists Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Breintnall. James Logan, one of the most influential Philadelphia sponsors of science, introduced Bartram to Latin, the medium of scientific correspondence. Logan loaned science books to Bartram, helped him master the microscope, and turned his attention to the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Bartram was never a great thinker but rather was an active fieldworker who traveled thousands of miles throughout America collecting specimens of plant life.
Journeys. There were few regions of colonial British America that John Bartram did not visit. In 1738 he journeyed eleven hundred miles through Maryland and Virginia and crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains. Four years later he journeyed up the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains, paralleled the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Rivers of Pennsylvania, and crossed the Allegheny Mountains to upstate New York and Lake Ontario. He took note of the topography of the land and described Native American customs. His account of the journeys was subsequently published in London as Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and Other Matters Worthy of Notice (1751). Beginning in 1754 Bartram took his son William, the future naturalist and ornithologist, on his travels. They journeyed to Florida in 1765 and ascended the Saint John’s River to its source. In the same year King George III made John Bartram the Royal Botanist of America.
Correspondence. Bartram’s journeys often occurred at the instigation of his correspondents. Beginning in the 1730s and continuing to his death forty years later, Bartram received requests for plant and animal specimens from English and European scientists. Bartram and the Englishman Peter Collinson were lifelong friends, though they never met. Collinson heard about Bartram’s abilities and, being a collector, initiated a correspondence with the American. Bartram fulfilled Collinson’s endless requests for specimens of sarsaparilla, hellebore, cypress, white cedar, laurel, locusts, and butterflies. Bartram was so accommodating that Collinson found other patrons for his activities: Mark Catesby, Linnaeus, Sir Hans Sloane, Dr. John Fothergill, J. F. Gronovius, and other leading European scientists. Bartram often received payment for his work, making him the first professional scientist in America. He also received seeds from the gardens of his correspondents, which he added to his own five-acre botanical garden at Kingsessing, near Philadelphia. Bartram’s garden was so exotic and varied it was the talk of the colonial American scientific community.
Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, The Life and Travels of John Bartram (Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1982);
American Naturalist, Botanist and Explorer
John Bartram is best known as a naturalist and as the first American botanist. His explorations resulted in the identification, collection, and propagation of much of the flora of the American colonies.
Bartram was born into a Quaker family and grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He received no formal education but taught himself, learning by observing the natural world closely and reading everything he could obtain on biological subjects. In 1728 he established, on his farm, the first botanical garden in America. It was here that he performed the experiments that resulted in the first successful hybridization of flowering plants in America. He and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) became friends. He helped Franklin organize the American Philosophical Society and was one of its first members.
John Bartram traveled extensively in the wild areas away from the towns and settlements of the American colonies, exploring much of the region of the Allegheny, Blue Ridge, and Catskill mountains, the area around Lake Ontario, the forests and mountains as far west as the Ohio River, and portions of New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. He made his exploratory trip in Florida in 1765-77 with his son, William (1739-1823), who became a noted botanist and naturalist in his own right. On these exploratory trips, he identified the native plants, collecting seeds and plants to add to his botanical garden in Pennsylvania. He and his son identified and cultivated more than 200 native American species. One species, Franklinia altamaha, that he discovered in Georgia and named after Benjamin Franklin, is now extinct in the wild; the only survivors are descendents of a specimen he brought back to Pennsylvania and planted in his botanical garden.
European botanists were anxious to receive descriptions and samples of the flora of the new world, most of which they had never seen before. Bartram corresponded with many of them and sent them specimens and seed. Among his European correspondents and friends was Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), one of the best-known plant scientists of his day, who thought highly of his American colleague. Bartram's dissemination of information and specimens was improved in 1734 when his botanical expertise was recognized by Peter Collinson, a London merchant with numerous contacts. As a result of Collinson's encouragement, Bartram provided seed and specimens for the gardens of, among others, the Dukes of Richmond, Norfolk, Argyll, and Bedford. In 1765 King George III appointed him as the official royal botanist for the American colonies. He is credited with introduction of more than 100 new species into Europe.
In 1743 he served as a commissioner of the Crown and traveled to Canada to confer with the leaders of the American Indian League of Six Nations. On this trip he explored a section of Canada, identifying and collecting native plants of the region.
A true naturalist, he did not confine his interest to plants but became knowledgeable of the zoology and geology of the regions he explored as well. He carefully observed and collected samples and information on the shells, insects, birds, turtles, and snakes that he encountered in his travels. A moss genus, Bartramia, and the Bartramian sandpiper are named in his honor.
His interest in science and exposure to the European scientific thought of the day led him to become a deist (one who believes that God created the world but no longer has any direct interactions with it). As a result, the Quakers disowned him in 1757. He, however, never completely disengaged himself from them.
John Bartram has received well-deserved recognition as the father of American botany. His botanical garden remains in operation today and may be visited by the public.
J. WILLIAM MONCRIEF