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John Bartram: Colonial America’s Botanist and Naturalist

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and how-to topics. I have written over 70 books.

Caricature of John Bartram. No portrait of him is known to exist.

Caricature of John Bartram. No portrait of him is known to exist.

Who is John Bartram?

John Bartram’s interest in nature was obvious from an early age, and that love became a part of his life until his dying day. Just outside colonial Philadelphia, Bartram established one of the British colonies in America’s first botanical gardens. His beautiful garden drew visitors from as far away as Sweden and the United Kingdom, as well as noted Americans like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. His pursuit of rare and unusual plants for his garden and to export to his European clients carried him first from the nearby mountains of Pennsylvania and the New Jersey swamps to as far north as New York and into south Florida.

Bartram was an active correspondent with many plant collectors and botanists all over the American colonies and in Europe. Though not a professional scientist, his interest in science and nature propelled him to co-found, along with Benjamin Franklin, the American Philosophical Society in 1743. John Bartram will long be remembered as a naturalist who greatly expanded our knowledge of the plants and animals in colonial America.

Early Years

John Bartram was born on May 23, 1699, on his family’s farm near Darby, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. John was the eldest of two sons of William and Elizah (Hunt) Bartram. John was orphaned at a young age when his mother died and his father moved to North Carolina, leaving him in the care of his grandmother and uncle, Isaac Bartram. At an early age, John became attracted to the study of plants and nature, teaching himself about plants through books and observation. He received little formal education—his grammar and spelling remained poor throughout his life.

In 1723, John Bartram married Mary Maris, daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Maris of Chester Monthly Meeting of Friends. Mary died in 1727 while giving birth to her second son. Two years later, John married Ann Mendenhall. Meanwhile, John brought a farm at Kingsessing, along the Schuylkill River about three miles from Philadelphia. There, Ann bore nine children.

John Bartram was a successful farmer, enlarging his farm by additional land purchases as time went on. A story told about the beginning of his interest in botany is that it started one day while he was plowing a field. Taking a break, he looked down, plucked a daisy from the soil, and became enthralled with the intricacy of the plant’s structure. His fascination with plants may have also sprung from his interest in the medical value of plants. His systematic study of plants was encouraged by the Philadelphia intellectual James Logan, who provided him with a book on botany by the seventeenth century English botanist John Parkinson. Logan was a scholarly man and collected a large library of books on a variety of subjects including botany. He also tutored Bartram in Latin and instructed him on the use of a microscope.

The Botanical Garden at Kingsessing

On his farm he set aside roughly five acres and started a botanical garden. There, he began what were probably the first experiments in America on the hybridization of plants. The Scottish born naturalist and physician Dr. Alexander Garden traveled north from his home in Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina, to revive his health and visit with others interested in botany and the sciences. On the return trip of his journey into New York State, Dr. Garden made a stop at the house of John Bartram outside of Philadelphia. Garden was elated to meet a man like Bartram, who was just as interested in nature as he was, and wrote of the meeting, “How grateful was such a meeting to me! and how unusual in this part of the world! What congratulations and salutations passed between us!” On his journey, Garden had collected a variety of plants unfamiliar to himself and mineral samples of asbestos, talc, bastard rudy, and other unidentified rocks and minerals.

During his visit with Bartram, Garden hoped that he could identify some of the specimens. Garden later wrote an account of his visit to Bartram’s home and botanical garden to the fellow botanist Cadwallader Colden in 1754, stating:

“There was no parting with him for two Days, During which time I breakfasted, Dined & supped Sleep’t & was regaled on Botany & Mineralogy, in which he has some excellent Notions & grand thoughts. His garden is a perfect portraiture of himself, here you meet wt. a row of rare plants almost covered over wt. weeds, here with a Beautiful Shrub, even Luxuriant Amongst Briars, and in other corner an Elegant & Lofty tree lost in a common thicket—on our way from town to his house he carried me to several rocks & Dens where he shewed me some of his rare plants, which he had brought from the Mountains, etc. In a word he disdains to have a garden less than Pennsylvania & Every Den in an Arbour,…”

Garden wrote to others of his visit with admiration of Bartram’s comfortable stone house which he built with his own hands. He found it difficult to believe that Bartram was almost self-taught, with such a wide range of interests and knowledge. Garden wrote to the Dutch botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius the following year describing Bartram as: “He is really a man of genius—most versatile especially in the practice of natural science—a most curious observer—we spent many days and nights in the most agreeable conversation.”

John Bartram’s house.

John Bartram’s house.

Correspondence with Peter Collinson

Around 1734, Bartram began a lengthy correspondence with the noted English botanist Peter Collinson. Along with the series of letters, the two exchanged seeds and plants from their native countries. Collinson, a wealthy London cloth merchant, wanted seeds, bulbs, and cuttings from American plants and paid Bartram for the botanical specimens. Collinson sent a list of plants and seeds he was interested in purchasing, instructed him on how to pack and ship the samples, and helped him find buyers in Britain for all sorts of American trees and plants.

As well as money from Collinson, Bartram received advice and books on natural history. Though the date had faded from the original letter, the first known letter from Collinson to Bartram, written in January 1734 or 1735, opens with, “I am very much oblig’d to thee for thy Two Choice Cargos of plants which Came very Safe & in good Condition, & are very Curious & Rare & Well worth my Acceptance. I am very sensible of the great pains & many Tiresome Trips to Collect so many Rare plants scattered att a distance. I shall not forget It: but in some measure to show my Gratitude, tho’ not In proportion to thy Trouble I have sent thee a small token a Calico grown for thy wife & some odd Little things that may be of use amongst the Children & family…”

Though the two men never met, they carried out a fruitful correspondence for over three decades. The letters constitute a historical source book for the introduction of non-native plant species in both America and England.

European and American Contacts

Word of John Bartram and his expertise with plants grew over Europe. Over time he provided seeds and plant specimens to such notables as the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who is known as the "father of modern taxonomy.” Some of his other European contacts included the Queen of Sweden, Johann Dillenius of Oxford, the Dutch botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius, and Philip Miller, the herbalist and gardener of Chelsea.

In America, Bartram corresponded with John Clayton and John Mitchell of Virginia, Governor Cadwallader Colden of New York, Dr. Alexander Garden of Charleston, and others. Typical of his letters, in a correspondence with Jared Eliot of Connecticut he gave advice on agricultural matters, including the use of proper fertilizers and how to increase the production of salt marshes.

Botany

Though Bartram was not known as an experiment botanist, in 1739 he followed up with experiments in the hybridization of plants that had been reported by Cotton Mathers, James Logan, and others. Using a microscope, he gave careful description of the sex organs of the plants, attempting to determine when the female plant was “in heat.” In a letter to the English naturalist William Byrd II, Bartram describes his experiment and some curious results: “I have this spring made several microscopical observations upon the malle and femall parts in vegetables to oblige some ingenious botanists in Leyden, who requested that favour of mee which I have performed to their satisfaction and as a mechanicall demonstration of the certainty of this hypothesis of the different sex in all plants that hath come under my notice. I can’t find that any vegetable hath power to produce perfect seed able to propagate without the conjunction of malle seed any more than animals and by a good microscope the malle and femall organs is plainly discovered. I have made several successful experiments of joyning several species of the same genus whereby I have obtained curious mixed Colours in flowers never known before but this requires an accurate observation and judgment to know the precise time when the femall organs is disposed to receive the masculine seed…”


Early Explorations

To gather plants and seeds for his botanical garden and his European clients, Bartram began a series of expeditions that would continue over the next three decades and take him from upper New York State, through the middle colonies, and down into southern Florida. During the middle of the 1730s he made trips to visit the cedar swamps of New Jersey to determine the differences between white and red cedar trees and up the Schuylkill River.

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His travels typically occurred in the fall after harvest of his own crops from his farm and specimen seeds were ripe for collecting. In 1738 he made his first trip to Virginia where he met several botanists and plant collectors: Dr. Alexander Hamilton at Annapolis, Dr. John Clayton at Gloucester Court House, John Curtis at Williamsburg, and Colonel William Byrd of Westover. During the following decades, Bartram traveled over much of New England and into southern Carolina in search of new specimens. Through Collinson, Bartram made the acquaintance of Cadwallader Colden of New York, and the two became good friends. In 1751 he published a journal of his travels titled, Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil etc... made by John Bartram in his travels from Philadelphia Onondago, Oswego and the Lake Ontario, in Canada.

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin and D. Hall published an American edition of Dr. Thomas Short's Medicina Britannica: Or, A Treatise on Such Physical Plants... The book contained a preface by Bartram, “Botanist, of Pennsylvania, and his Notes throughout the works;.. and an Appendix, containing a description of a number of Plants peculiar to America, their uses, virtues, etc." The notes in the book gave details on where the plants could be found and how the American varieties differ from the English varieties.

American Philosophical Society

Through the postal system, of which Franklin was one of the key instigators, men like John Bartram and Peter Collinson exchanged ideas and their specimens of interest. In one letter from Bartram to Collinson written probably in 1738, which has faded badly over the years, Bartram suggested that scientific society be formed to exchange ideas and information about the state of natural philosophy in the colonies. Bartram wrote:“I believe it might be most ingenious & Curious men the wee [illegible] study of natural secrets arts & syences would [illegible] [acad]emy or society & have a house for to meet in to Communicate [illegible] discoveries freely this I believe would [illegible].”

Collinson responded on July 10,1738, with a tepid response to Bartram's idea of a scientific society, writing, “As to the Society that thee Hints att, Had you a sett of Learned Well Qualified Members to Sett out with It might Draw your Neighbors to correspond with you, Your Library Company I take to be an Essay towards such a society but to draw Learned strangers to you to teach Sciences requires Salaries & good Encouragement--and this will require publick as well as proprietary assistance--which can't be att present complyed with Considering the Infancy of your Colony."

Bartram did not give up on his learned society, pushing the idea on Benjamin Franklin. If anyone could get things done in colonial America, it was Franklin. In 1743, Franklin printed and distributed a circular, “A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge Among the British Plantations in America.” As postmaster for the British colonies, he mailed items for free, and his ownership of The Pennsylvania Gazette and a printing company allowed him to get the word out about the new scientific society.

Bartram was hopeful the society would grow and prosper, writing to fellow botanist Cadwallader Colden in New York, “I have here sent thee one of our proposals for forming A philosophical Society. we have already had three meetings & several Learned & Curious persons from our neibouring colonies hath allready Joyned membership with us & we hope thee will pleas to do us ye honor to be involved in our number--I hope this undertaking may be of publick benefit to our american colonies if we act with diligent application in this afair." Colden did join the organization, but one of the leading intellectuals of Philadelphia, James Logan, did not join.

By April 1745 Bartram was growing discouraged by the poor attendance at meetings, writing to Colden, "We make at present but a poor progress in our Phylosophik society: ye tumultuous reports of wars Invasions & reprisals exercises most of our thoughts & discourses & many is under apprehensions of being more sensibly touched with the calamities." The “war'' Bartram was referring to was the fighting that had broken out in the northern colonies between the French and British in what became known as King George's War. This early version of the American philosophical society was short lived; neither the efforts of Franklin or Bartram could make the fledgling society viable. By 1747 the society was dead, or went “dormant” as Franklin liked to say. In 1767 the American Philosophical Society was revived and is still active today.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Journey to the Onondaga Tribe

A skirmish between settlers in Western Virginia and an Iroquois hunting party in the fall of 1742 sparked rumors of an Indian war in Pennsylvania. To avert a possible war with native tribes, the colony of Pennsylvania sent their representative to the Native Americans. Conrad Weiser and a skilled cartographer, Lewis Evans, were sent to meet with the Indians. Bartram saw this as an opportunity to explore Upstate New York, an area that was virtually unknown to Europeans. In the summer of 1743, Bartram, Wiser, and Evans journeyed to the area that is now Syracuse, New York, to meet with the Onondaga tribe.

While Weiser met with the tribal leaders, Bartram continued on to Oswego and Lake Erie where he carefully recorded his visit to Indian towns, noted the ecology of the region, and collected plant and fossil specimens. As well as giving details of the natives and their customs, Bartram noted the character of the soil, pitch of the terrain, and the amount of forest growth. After a six-week journey, he returned to his farm and recorded his findings and observations in a journal to be published.

William Bartram

William, John's son born to his second wife Ann Mendenhall in 1739, grew up to follow in his father's footsteps, becoming a noted naturalist in his own rite. At about age 15 William started to become part of his father's work and began to paint detailed pictures of plants and animals. Bartram senior sent drawings of some of William's drawings of natural objects to Collinson. Bartram writes of his son in 1755, "I design to set Billy to draw all our turtles with remarks, as he has time, which is only on Seventh days in the afternoon, and First-day mornings; for he is constantly kept in school to learn Latin and French." The references to the languages in the letter indicate Bartram’s desire for his son not to suffer the setbacks he encountered for lack of knowledge of the European languages. At the time, William "Billy" was attending college in Philadelphia.

The Magnolia Warbler by William Bartram, circa 1757

The Magnolia Warbler by William Bartram, circa 1757

Interests in the Natural World

Bartram's interests in the natural world extended beyond that of plants, as he also showed an interest in geology, animal anatomy, astronomy, and other natural phenomena. In 1755, he wrote Dr. Alexander Garden in Charleston suggesting a series of borings into the earth to search for valuable mineral products and to understand the subterranean nature of the earth. In a letter to a friend in 1756, he wrote about his theory on the origin of soil: “My dear worthy friend, thee can't bang me out of the notion that limestone and marble were originally mud, impregnated by a marine salt, which I take to be the original of all terrestrial soils."

In a letter dated July 17, 1733 or 1734 (the last digit of the date has faded on the original letter), Bartram describes his dissection of a rattle snake and his discovery of reserve fangs within the snake’s jaw:

“…We found a Rattle Snake, which is now become a Rarity so near our Settlements. I took it home and dissected it. In the head I met with what has not been observed before by any, that I remember: that is a Cluster of Teeth on each side of the upper Jaw, at the root of the great Fangs, thro’ which the Poison is ejected—I observed in the same case, that the two main Teeth were Sheath’d, in which lay four others at the root of each Tooth in a cluster together….”

Collinson read the letter at a meeting of the Royal Society in London and it was printed in the society’s journal, the Philosophical Transactions. Over the years many of Bartram’s letters containing details on natural phenomena, from salt marshes to dragon flies, were read into the Transactions by Collinson and others. The publication of Bartram’s letters greatly increased his visibility to the European naturalists, who had many requests of the American naturalist.

In a letter to his friend Benjamin Franklin dated November 12, 1757, Bartram reports to Franklin his observation of the rare, at least for that latitude, Aurora Borealis, or northern lights. “Here is a visible Aurora Borealis; at 7 o’clock, it was about two hours high, to the northward pretty bright Soon after Daylight disappeared, it was much more East where it was redder, with some faint streamers, whose Points reached near 45 degrees Elevation, which soon disappeared, and the Light descended by degrees under the Pole, and by 10 oClock was near extinct…” The letter was read before the Royal Society and was recorded in the Philosophical Transactions in 1762.

Royal Botanist

Through his contact with Collinson, Bartram was able to gain the attention of Britain's King George III. The king, who had ascended the crown in 1760, was a supporter of the arts and sciences. Once the king learned of Bartram's skill as a botanist, he appointed him “Botanist of His Majesty for the Floridas” with a £50 yearly stipend. The appointment continued until his death in 1777. Dr. Gardner had corresponded with Bartram for years, exchanging observations of plants and specimens, but was astonished when Bartram was appointed the king’s Royal Botanist in 1765.

After Bartram visited Garden in Charles Town, Garden wrote to John Ellis with a harsh assessment of Bartram’s skills: “[Bartram] knows nothing of the generic characters of plants, and can neither class them nor describe them…his knowledge is rude, inaccurate, indistinct, and confused, seldom determining well between species and varieties. He is however alert, active, industrious, and indefatigable in his pursuits, and will collect many rare specimens. He is well acquainted with soils and timber…He appears to me not very credulous, which is another matter…to give the title of King’s Botanist to a man who can scarcely spell, much less make out the characters of any one genus of plants, appears rather hyperbolical.” This assessment of Bartram by Garden was very different from the one he had given less than a decade earlier—were the critical words brought on by a bit of professional jealously over Bartram’s appointment as Royal Botanist?

Expedition into the Southern States

The following fall after his appointment as Royal Botanist, Bartram made an expedition to the southern colonies. His son William accompanied him, later writing his father had been ordered to search for the sources of the St. John's River, which runs nearly the full length of the eastern coast of the Florida peninsula. Father and son traveled by canoe down one bank of the St. John’s River and returned along the other bank. They survived the main stream, its branches, and connecting lakes. They noted the lay of the land, water depth and width, soil conditions, and the type of plants and animals they encountered. The report was sent to the Board of Trade and Plantations in England and was published. During the journey, Bartram collected plants, fossils, and other native artifacts of interest. Many of the items were sent to the king, who was pleased with the findings.

The Bartrams’ trip to Florida was important to the king because little was known of these new southern colonies. The Floridas, East and West, had only been recently acquired by Britain from Spain at the Treaty of Paris in 1763 that ended the French and Indian War. People in London were anxious to learn of the two newly acquired southern colonies. After the land was ceded from Spain, nearly all of the Spanish had moved to Cuba, leaving most of East and West Florida uninhabited by Europeans. Much of the information gathered by the Bartrams was incorporated into the second edition of Dr. William Stork’s, A Description of East Florida, on up the River to St. John's as far as the Lakes, which was published in 1766. The work was widely read in Britain and spread "Florida Fever" among those in Britain anxious to acquire tracts of land in East Florida. Nearly ten years later, in 1774, William would return to conduct further investigations of the St. John's River.

Map of East and West Florida

Map of East and West Florida

John Bartram The Man

John Bartram was a man who enjoyed nature, its plants, animals, and fossil remains. He was not a trained scientist, but a practical farmer who had the tenacity to explore the eastern seaboard of colonial America in search of new plant varieties. During his era, he helped stock the gardens of Europe but left the detailed scientific work to men like Linnaeus and Gronovius. His son William describes his father as “a man of modest and gentle manners, frank, cheerful, and of great good nature; a lover of justice, truth, and charity…During the whole course of his life there was not a single instance of his engaging in a litigious contest with any of his neighbors and others. He zealously testified against slavery, and, that his philanthropic precepts on this subject might have their due with and force, he gave liberty to a most valuable male slave, then in the prime of his life, who had been bread up in the family almost from infancy.”

Bartram’s Views on Religion

Bartram was brought up as Quaker but later in his life rejected evangelical Christianity for the rational doctrine of the Enlightenment. In 1757, he was disowned by the Quaker Meeting at Darby for “disbelieving in Christ as the Son of God.” Bartram adopted a deistic religious belief system in line with that of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Though Bartram’s religious views were not fully aligned with the teaching of the Quaker faith, he did believe in a God; in a letter to Collinson he wrote: “My head runs all upon the works of God in nature. It is through that telescope I see god in his glory.” To Bartram, God and nature were intertwined. Writing to Dr. Garden in 1762, he tells of the grandeur of the night sky and his reverence for its creator: “…but what amaising distant glories is disclosed in A mid night scene: Vast are ye bodies which role in ye imence expance orbs beyond orbs without number, suns beyond suns, sistems beyond sistems with their proper inhabitanst of ye great Jehovanhs Empire. how can we look at the without amaisement, or contemplate ye divine Majesty that rules them without ye most humble adoration. Esteeming our selves with all our widom but as one of ye smallest atoms of dust prasing ye live God, the great I am.”

Honors

In his later years John Bartram was honored by several different scholarly societies for his work in botany. He received a gold medal from a society in Edinburgh, Scotland, for his work on obtaining seeds of useful trees and plants in other countries. The Scottish society gave Bartram a large gold medal with the inscription: “To Mr. John Bartram, from a society of Gentlemen in Edinburgh, 1772." In addition, Bartram received a letter from Queen Ulrica of Sweden, calling him the greatest natural botanist in the world.

Final Years

His trip to explore Florida would be the last long journey of exploration he would take as his health began to fail. In 1768 his old friend and patron Peter Collinson died, leaving a void in Bartram’s life. Benjamin Franklin encouraged Bartram to write a natural history of the country to bring honor to his name. As they do for all men and women, the ravages of time were catching up with him. He told his son William, “My eyes is so dim that I cant know my own children [at] 3 foot distance & I write with trouble & must hould my face within 2 or 3 inches of the paper.” To help Bartram with his failing eyesight, Franklin sent him a set of lenses from London with instructions on their use.

Bartram lived long enough to see the American colonies declare their independence from Great Britain but died the year after. According to his granddaughter, he became exceedingly agitated by the approaching troops of the British army after the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania, which she concluded shortened his remaining days. His fear was that his beloved garden would be destroyed as a casualty of war. After a short illness, John Bartram died on September 22, 1777. In his will he left the farm to his son John, who took care of his mother and brother William. His precious garden was entrusted to the care of William, who became a noted naturalist and nature painter. Today John Bartram’s garden is enjoyed by thousands of visitors to the park in Philadelphia.

References

  • Berkeley, Edmund and Dorothy S. Berkeley. Dr. Alexander Garden of Charles Town. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1969.
  • Berkeley, Edmund and Dorothy S. Berkeley (Editors). The Correspondence of John Bartram 1734 - 1777. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992.
  • Hoffman, Nancy E. and John C. Van Horne (Editors). America's Curious Botanist: A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram 1699 - 1777. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 2004.
  • Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1928-1995.
  • Stearns, Raymond P. Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
  • The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th Edition. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994.
  • West, Doug. John Bartram: Colonial America’s Premier Botanist: A Short Biography. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2022.
  • Youmans, William J. Pioneers of Science in America: Sketches of Their Lives and Scientific Work. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1896.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Doug West

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