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The Bartrams of America

The Bartrams of America

The Bartrams have been the pride and a part of American history of great achievers. The field, though relatively new, the Bartrams carved a niche for themselves with their selfless work and the approach of adding value to the land around them.
Historyplex Staff
John Bartram and his son William Bartram are widely regarded as the first great naturalists of America. They were the first to observe, collect, grow, and catalog a vast swathe of American flora and fauna.

John Bartram was born in 1699 in Darby Township into a Quaker Family. As a boy he had very little formal schooling, but, being very bright and eager to learn, he educated himself and eventually came to be counted amongst the most original, expressive, and keenly observant writers of his time.

In 1728, when he was 27, John Bartram purchased a 102-acre farm at Kingsessing, a beautiful, fertile land just outside Philadelphia and right on the banks of the river Schuylkill. He designed and built a large stone house for himself, and then set about to making the farm one of the best ones in the region. He grew corn, wheat, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and a variety of other crops, and, given the quality of produce, his farm soon became the talk of Philadelphia. Not only his crops, but the cider he produced at his own self-built stone press. His friends, notably Benjamin Franklin, came all the way over just for a drink.

No sooner was the farm in full-swing operation than he set about designing and setting up a botanical garden that stretched 5 acres from the house right down to the river edge. He diligently explored the surrounding countryside and forests for plants to add to his garden, collecting all that were useful or ornamental or just plain unusual. Later, he began setting off on long expeditions to New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Pennsylvania.

Traveling extensively was a rough business in those times, but John was a tough chap and quite accustomed to looking after himself. He knew the woods well, knew how to hunt and where to fish, and, most importantly, how to cook whatever he caught. He always returned from his travels with his large collection bags filled to the brim with interesting specimens.

His interest in botany, which had begun as a mere hobby, soon became a source of huge income as well. He was contracted by an affluent British merchant called Peter Collinson to dispatch cases of seeds and plants annually to him in London. Their long-term and friendly association also proved influential in getting Bartram's travel journal published to great acclaim in 1751 and then getting him the important appointment as Botanist Royal in America by King George III later in 1765.

Meanwhile, while farming, traveling, and expanding his botanical garden, John Bartram had also found time to marry, and he and his wife Ann had nine children together. The fifth child was William Bartram.

William Bartram

William Bartram, who was born in 1739, was one of those promising people that impress everyone with their good education, their extraordinary brilliance. From a certain perspective, actually, he can be said to have had a highly successful life. To a large extent he did exactly what interested him - exploring the wilderness, studying botany, drawing beautiful and exact renderings of all that caught his eye, and taking detailed notes of everything he encountered during his journeys.

John Bartram, however, found him a huge disappointment. He was very fond of him, of course, and it was great to have a like-minded soul come along on the botanical expeditions, especially on the long trek they made together to Florida, but if only 'Poor Billy' would get along so well in the real world as well. 'Poor Billy' was an abysmal failure at nearly every commercial enterprise he attempted - or perhaps he just wasn't suited to become a shop-keeper or an Indigo planter.

Eventually, he too found a wealthy sponsor from London, Dr. John Fothergill, and, in 1773, in order to provide him with seeds, plant specimens, and realistic drawings of the native flora and fauna, Billy set off on a long and solitary journey that took him through North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and five other states. He was gone for four years, they indeed were interesting and adventurous years, but, it never occurred to him to write and let his family know of his whereabouts and they took his long absence to mean that he had been scalped by the Indians.

John Bartram died in 1777 at the age of seventy-eight. The hardships during the Florida tour with Billy had affected his sturdy constitution, and he had mostly stayed put on his farm in his last years, looking after farming matters, his garden , and maintaining a steady correspondence with his great many friends and acquaintances.

Billy didn't hear about his father's death until his return to Kingsessing many months later. His eldest brother, John Jr., who had inherited their father's property, asked him to remain at Kingsessing and so Billy returned to stay at his childhood home. He managed and expanded the botanical garden and spent the next fifteen years turning his copious travel notes into a beautifully descriptive Travel Journal. It was eventually published as 'Travels' in 1791 and its great reception from both fellow botanists and readers established his reputation as one of America's foremost naturalists and writers. Typically, fame did not sway him. He continued to live quietly in his own fashion, doing what pleased him and taking his good time with it. He died in 1823 at the age of eighty-five.