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William Bartram’s Travels

By John Bauerschmidt

I first came to know of William Bartram in fictional form, as a minor character who appears at the beginning of Kenneth Robert’s novel Lydia Bailey. Bartram has what amounts to a cameo role in the book, living in retirement on his family farm outside of Philadelphia, where he cultivates a botanical garden that is famed throughout the fledgling United States, and Europe as well. It is the first years of the 19th century, and Bartram has lived through a tumultuous revolution and the end of British colonial rule. The novel marches on without him, but this brief appearance is suggestive of the pivotal times in which Bartram lived, and his own role in them.

Bartram was the premier American naturalist of his day, best known now through his book, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, The Cherokee Country, The Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the County of the Chactaws, published in 1791. The book recounts several journeys taken by Bartram in what is now the American South, between 1773 and 1777. Bartram traveled in Florida as well in the 1760s with his father, John Bartram, also a renowned naturalist and member of the Royal Society, who had been appointed by the Crown as botanist for the American Colonies.

When Bartram came to explore the Southeast on his own in the 1770s, he did so under the aegis of family friend and fellow Quaker, Dr. John Fothergill of London. This was only the latest in a series of commissions that Bartram received from a number of distinguished British patrons of the arts and sciences, who sought from him seeds, samples, and illustrations. Bartram prepared a detailed report for Fothergill of the 1773 and 1774 journeys in Georgia and Florida, one that in many respects is more accurate than Bartram’s later idealized reconstruction in his Travels, with a clearer focus on commercial opportunities in the lately established colonies of Georgia and East Florida.

Bartram’s Travels is a treasure, even for someone whose knowledge of flora and fauna is largely confined to the back yard. It stands in an idyllic and pastoral tradition that stretches back to classical times. For this writer, Bartram’s work has formed a backdrop during the time of the coronavirus, when many of us have discovered or rediscovered our yards and gardens and the rhythm of the seasons, situating ourselves anew in time and space.

Part of the attraction of Bartram’s chronicle for me is the bracket his travels place around what was not yet the South. Bartram’s journeys take him up and down the St. John’s River in Florida; along the Savannah River to Augusta and Silver Bluff, then to the Carolina Upcountry inhabited by the Cherokee; and to Charleston (repeatedly) as his launching base for exploration. As part of the 1775 expedition, Bartram went in company with colonial traders, as far as the Territory of the Creek Nation (now Alabama), then to Mobile and the Gulf Coast, along into Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas, then Manchac, and Pointe Coupe along the Mississippi. Some of these places I’ve lived in, at different times; others have been part of my family’s history for generations.

I learned from Bartram the Latin term he used for the live oak, one of the glorious trees of the coastal South: quercus sempervirens; as well as for the broader-ranged magnolia: magnolia grandiflora. To my mind, these trees help define places I love. As far as the names go, “grandiflora” is a stately word, describing (if you know the magnolia) a stately reality; “sempervirens” delights the ear as well as the heart, conjuring up in marvelous fashion not only the doctrine of the Resurrection, but also the peroration of certain Latin prayers. Not too shabby for a humble botanical name.

Travels displays a delight with the sheer multiplicity of the natural world, evidenced in Bartram’s painstaking description of the Franklin Tree, “a flowering tree, of the first order for beauty and fragrance of blossom” (Travels, New York: The Library of America, 1996, 375), one apparently indigenous to only a few acres in Georgia; as well as in his marvelous account of the predatory machinations of a spider observed stalking a bumble bee. “This world, as a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator, is furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creatures” (Travels, 13). There’s more than a hint of the wisdom tradition of the Scriptures in Bartram’s description of the natural world.

A series of scenes, of both flora and fauna, is exactly what Bartram proceeds to give the reader. For one who usually wrote in a pastoral mode, he describes the heroic battle between two alligators on a Florida lagoon: “Behold him rushing forth from the reeds and flags. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake. The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder” (Travels, 114). An alligator pursues Bartram while he’s fishing on the lagoon, and Bartram is forced to abandon his canoe in order to outrun the alligator on the shore. “I saw before me, through the clear water, the head and shoulders of a very large alligator, moving slowly towards me… It was certainly most providential that I looked up at that instant, as the monster would probably, in less than a minute, have seized and dragged me into the river” (Travels, 116).

Then there is this description of a morning in Florida, from an encampment near what is now the Suwanee River:

Behold how gracious and beneficent shines the roseate dawn! Now the sun arises and fills the plains with light; his glories appear on the forests, encompassing the meadows, and gild the top of the terebinthine Pine and the exalted Palms, now gently rustling by the pressure of the waking breezes: the music of the seraphic crane resounds in the skies, in separate squadrons they sail, encircling their precincts, slowly descend beating the dense air, and alight on the green dewy verge of the expansive lake; its surface yet smoking with the grey ascending mists, which, condensed aloft in clouds of vapour, are born away by the morning breezes and at last gradually vanish on the distant horizon. All nature awakes to life and activity (Travels, 209).

In many ways, Bartram’s significant book anticipates works like Walden, in Thoreau’s praise of “Nature,” though Bartram contrives to be both a more objective observer of the natural world, and more genuinely interested in nature for its own sake. As a collector of specimens and as an illustrator, Bartram perforce exhibits a concern for the things of nature in themselves, rather than for “Nature” as a whole. In his enthusiasm and delight in the natural world, Bartram influenced the later English Romantics, like William Wordsworth, whose poetry alludes to passages in Travels, as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who also read Bartram.

But Bartram, as an agent, also represented typical Enlightenment concerns: for the discovery of new knowledge, its scientific cataloging, and its encyclopedic presentation. The Franklin Tree discovered in their 1760s journey was named by the Bartrams after their friend Benjamin Franklin, that avatar of science, industry, and radical political change. The same mix of economic and scientific motivation that provided the impetus for James Cook’s contemporaneous voyages to the Pacific also informed Bartram’s journeys. His report to Dr. Fothergill especially highlights Bartram’s concern with the development of the territories through which he passed. The picture painted in his Travels is romantic and pastoral, but the reality was far more imperial and commercial.

The shadow of the future also lies over Bartram’s work. At the time he explored the Southeast, indigenous peoples still held their own, but that period was coming to an end. Bartram himself traveled with a surveying party in Cherokee territory, as part of their land was surrendered to the colonists. Bartram was a keen observer of what he termed “the manners of the Indian nations” (Travels, 24), as the full title of Travels indicates; and by the time he wrote his book, twenty years or so later, he was very concerned about the future of the Native Americans in the face of the newly independent States: “Our negligence in the care of the present and future wellbeing of our Indian brethren, induce me to mention this matter…” (Travels, 25). As the next century unfolded, Bartram was right to be concerned about the fate of indigenous peoples.

Another shadow is present as well, though hardly acknowledged. In 1766, Bartram tried his hand as a rice and indigo planter on the Florida frontier, and purchased slaves to develop the property. Bartram quickly turned out to be a failure as a planter, and the result for the enslaved persons is not recorded. This backstory doesn’t fit comfortably into the idealized picture of Travels and wasn’t referenced at all.

At the end of his journeys, a more realistic and sobering note intrudes. As Bartram is traveling through the plantation country of coastal Carolina, he sees ahead “a party of Negroes.” He continues:

I had every reason to dread the consequence; for this being a desolate place, and I was by this time several miles from any house or plantation, and had reason to apprehend this to be a predatory band of Negroes: people being frequently attacked, robbed, and sometimes murdered by them at this place… I mounted and rode briskly up, and though armed with clubs, axes and hoes, they opened to right and left, and let me pass peaceably, their chief informed me whom they belonged to… they kept on quietly and I was no more alarmed by them (Travels, 379).

This story, perhaps unwittingly, speaks volumes about the menace that slavery represented, not least of all for enslaved persons, and also to the fragility of the society it undergirded.

With these twin shadows, Bartram’s Travels is as complicated as America itself. He lived in revolutionary times, when an old world was ending and a new one was coming into being. His patriotism, however, is pledged to the live oak and the magnolia; his loyalty belongs to the world around him. Bartram helped to define a place even before it became the place we now know. He painted an idealized and pastoral portrait, of course, and the political and social realities are relegated to the background. In his work, Bartram is after something else, and that is sheer delight in the beauty, complexity, and particularity of what is given. An encouraging insight, I think, no matter what time we live in.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.


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