Stories / William Bartram

William Bartram

William Bartram
Observe these green meadows how they are decorated; they seem enameled with the beds of flowers. The blushing Chironia and Rhexia, the spiral Ophrys with immaculate white flowers, the Limodorum, Arethusa pulcherima, Sarracenia purpurea, Sarracenia galeata, Sarracenia lucunosa, Sarracenia flava. Shall we analyze these beautiful plants, since they seem cheerfully to invite us?

When he was an old and hunched man, shuffling about the interior of the stone house where he was raised, on a verdant farm along the Schuylkill River a few miles out of Philadelphia, William Bartram looked back on a life of turmoil, uncertainty, financial setbacks, and the political upheaval of the American Revolution. He could also reminisce on a life of adventure, danger and astounding accomplishments in a peculiar and ill-defined calling normally reserved for wealthy and eccentric hobbyists. His career as a naturalist initially showed great promise, but was derailed for many years before he was ultimately vindicated by the 1791 publication of his masterpiece: 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 Country of the Chactaws. Although his magnum opus was not immediately appreciated upon its publication, it eventually established him as one of the most informed and knowledgeable naturalists of his time.

His fame in later life drew an endless stream of visitors from Europe and America to confer with him and observe the wonders of his great herbarium – a living museum of the majority of plants native to the eastern United States, specimens accumulated by his father and himself during fifty years of roaming the wild and tangled hinterland on the fringe of 'civilization,' the western boundary of the English Thirteen Colonies. William Bartram corresponded regularly with such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Barton, Thomas Nuttall and André Michaux about matters of scientific importance. Although he was one of the most widely travelled naturalists at the dawn of the heroic age of scientific exploration, in his later years he seldom traveled farther afield than Philadelphia claiming that his youthful travels had permanently weakened his constitution.

Born the seventh of eleven siblings on February 9, 1739, William Bartram's love of the natural world could easily have come from a childhood spent wandering through acres of exotic plants, groves of peculiar shrubs and a small forest of trees that his father had begun cultivating a few years before he was born. But his love of adventure in the wilds likely developed in 1854, when at age fifteen, he accompanied his father on a collecting trip to the Catskill Mountains in New York State. It was here, despite his father's misgivings about the unpredictable prospects of a career that was heavily dependant upon European patrons for livelihood, that his ambition to succeed as a naturalist-artist took root. For most of his life, the adventure and freedom of living simply in the woods would draw him away from his mercantile endeavors and any semblance of a settled life.

The younger Bartram began sketching birds, trees, flowers and other vegetation soon after returning from this first trip, imitating the style of Mark Catesby, the famous English ornithologist who briefly sojourned in the Carolinas twenty years earlier. He spent the winter at school in Philadelphia, and then accompanied his father to the Catskills in 1755. These expeditions made lasting impressions upon him that he still wrote about nearly forty years later.

"Being youthful and vigorous in the pursuit of botanical and novel objects," he wrote, recalling his first encounter with a rattlesnake in 1755, "I had gained the summit of a steep rocky precipice, a-head of our guide, when just entering a shady vale, I saw at the root of a small shrub, a singular and beautiful appearance . . . and was just drawing back my foot to kick it over, when at that instant my father being near, cried out, 'a rattle snake my son,' and jerked me back, which probably saved my life." The torpid serpent, "very beautiful, speckled and clouded," continued its indolent lazing. Although his father "plead for its life" the guide immediately killed it, and Bartram had to be content with its skin and fangs for his collection. 1

Although his father referred to him proudly as "my little botanist," and Bartram worked on a commission to collect and draw all species of American turtles he could find for John Collinson, his father's influential English colleague, Bartram's father remained dubious about his son's prospects to earn a living as a naturalist. Collinson, however, was so impressed with William's work that he showed the drawings to another Quaker naturalist, Dr. John Fothergill, one of England's most noted horticulturists and gardeners. Fothergill, who later became one of William's most important patrons, urged the lad to "observe and draw plants and all varieties of creatures." Still, erring on the side of caution the elder Bartram apprenticed William to a Philadelphia merchant when he was eighteen so that he might learn the skills for a secure living and be waylaid from the uncertain path of a naturalist and artist. William, who had grown into a young man with prominent features and a thoughtful countenance, had little interest in practical matters and he continued to devote his time and energy to his drawings. Although he departed for Cape Fear, North Carolina, in 1761 to live with an uncle and establish himself as a trader, his heart was not in it and the business did not prosper.

Four years later, in 1765, the elder Bartram, now sixty-six years old, was appointed official botanist to His Majesty George III, a position of great prestige but little remuneration. With his first annual stipend he set out on another botanical collecting expedition, this time to Florida, a strange and relatively unexplored land where there were rumored to be many new and curious -specimens of the "vegetable kingdom." 2 En route, he stopped in Cape Fear to visit William, who persuaded his father to hire him as an assistant, and the two headed off to the swamps and savannas of Georgia and east Florida together.

William Bartram

The younger Bartram, twenty-six years old, was immediately enamored with the south, and began an association that would continue for the rest of his life. "How gently flow thy peaceful floods, O Altamaha!" he expounded upon seeing the verdant growths along the shores of the river in Georgia. "How sublimely rise to view, on thy elevated shores, yon Magnolia groves, from whose tops the surrounding expanse is perfumed, by clouds of incense, blended with the exhaling balm of the Liquid-amber, and odours continually arising from circumambient aromatic groves of Illicium, Myricea, Laurus, and Bignonia." Literary effusion aside, it was not the circumambient groves that would prove to be their greatest discovery during this journey.

Along the banks of the Altamaha River father and son stumbled upon an elegant shrub, or small tree, that they correctly surmised was a new and rare species. "It is a flowering tree," William reported, "of the first order for beauty and fragrance of blossoms: the tree grows fifteen or twenty feet in height, branching alternately; the leaves are oblong, broadest towards their extremities . . . The flowers are very large, expand themselves perfectly, are of a snow white color and ornamented with a crown or tassel of a gold-colored refulgent staminae in their center, . . . and make a gay appearance. The fruit is a large round, dry, woody apple or pericarp opening at each end." They named it Gordonia Pubescens Franklinia (later re-named Franklinia altamaha) – the Franklinia tree, after the elder Bartram's good friend Benjamin Franklin. 3

They continued their journey overland to St. Augustine, and then began the most daring foray yet a canoe excursion up the St. Johns River, surveying the – main stream and all major tributaries and lakes; making charts of the waterway's winding course, measuring width, depth, distances and providing notes on currents. It was a four hundred mile paddle that consumed many months and likely furnished the younger Bartram with the basic survival skills for his solitary travels and explorations in the following decade. Pitcher plants and Venus's-flytrap were both fascinating finds on this trip. "How greatly the flowers of the yellow Sarracenia (pitcher plant) represent a silken canopy," he wrote. "The yellow, pendant petals are the curtains, and the hollow leaves are not unlike the cornucopia or Amalthea's horn. What a quantity of water a leaf is capable of containing: about a pint! Taste of it," he implores his reader, "how cool and animating – limpid as the morning dew." William called the Venus's-flytrap, which is native to South Carolina, "tipitiwichit" and considered it one of his favorites. "Let us advance to the spot in which nature has seated them," he suggests. "Astonishing production! See the incarnate lobes expanding, how gay and sportive they appear! Ready on the spring to entrap incautious, deluded insects, what artifice! . . . carnivorous vegetable!"

The elder Bartram returned to Philadelphia in June 1766, with "a fine collection of strange Florida plants," while William elected to remain in Florida and try raising indigo and rice along the St. Johns River. In this he failed more disastrously than in any other business venture to date, and the following year he boarded a ship for home.

He began laboring in obscurity on a farm near Philadelphia. Despite his humble occupation, though, in 1768 he was elected a corresponding member of the American Society Held in Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge (later amalgamated with the American Philosophical Society). Benjamin Franklin and his father were elected members at the same meeting. In spite of this honor, his prospects as a naturalist remained dim for a few years, and only improved when Peter Collinson secured for him a commission to draw for the Duchess of Portland "all Land, River and your Sea Shells, from the very least to the greatest," and another commission from Dr. Fothergill to draw a series of mollusks and turtles.

Around this time Bartram started another mercantile enterprise, but it too faltered after a few years. Facing almost certain bankruptcy, in 1770 he fled Philadelphia for Cape Fear, where he remained for a few years fulfilling his obligations to his English patrons, organizing and drawing specimens. In 1772, he determined to throw off the shackles of commerce and venture to Florida to explore on his own. How he would finance this expedition remained unclear, and on hearing these plans, his father expressed concern over his "wild notion" and summoned him home to help expand the herbarium. William was not in Philadelphia long, however, when he received a letter from Dr. Fothergill offering financing for an extended expedition through the south, and then west to the Mississippi. "It is a pity that such a genius should sink under distress," Fothergill wrote to William's father.

While the United States hovered on the brink of revolution, the younger Bartram (now thirty-four years old) spent the next five years wandering through much of the wildest and least known terrain in the Carolinas (1773), Georgia (1773-1774) and eastern Florida (1774), Cherokee country (all land west of the English-inhabited regions along the coast) by way of Georgia and South Carolina (1775), and western Florida (1776) before returning in the fall of 1777. He spent much of this time camping in a tent in the woods, as a guest of socially-starved outlying farmers, or staying at Indian trading posts deep inland. Nothing missed his eye: tree, insect, bird; flower, fish, fruit; mammal, mineral or mollusk. The great political upheavals that would result in the creation of a new nation, the United States of America, and change forever Bartram's own citizenship and complicate his relationship with his sponsors and seed purchasers, seems to have been far from his mind.

William Bartram

He rode about the hinterland, which evidently to him was surreal in its lushness and variety, loaded with food and "camp equipage." He flitted about for years along murky, ill-trodden, and underused trails through the overgrown foliage and shady groves, skirting the fringes of torrid swamps enshrouded in tendrils of lush cypress, hickory, water hyacinth, great leaf magnolias and drooping clusters of Spanish moss. He crossed savannas covered in magnificent specimens of black oaks that, he claimed, "to keep within the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would, I fear, fail of credulity." The trunks in one forest averaged 8-11 feet wide five feet above the ground, and he measured "several that were thirty feet girt." The Tulip trees, Liquid amber, and Beech, were equally stately, while in Florida he frequently regaled himself with plump oranges that grew profusely in groves along the glades of the interior. He plucked them from branches above his head, squeezing the juice over his frying fish.

He parleyed his way out of trouble with the Creek and Seminole Indians (who eventually named him "Plant Hunter"), escaped from brigands along unpatrolled byways, and avoided being eaten by carnivores, poisoned by snakes, or sucked beneath the turgid waters of a vast swamp. He was, by his own admission, "continually impelled by a restless spirit of curiosity, in pursuit of new productions of nature." He was astonished at the "avidity" of frogs and fishes in pursuit of their insect prey at dawn and dusk, and he marveled at the antics of bears when he frightened them by shooting his gun. On one occasion, he came upon a cool stream just below a small set of rapids and he observed a cluster of small gravel pyramids strewn about the streambed. The pyramids were inhabited by a congregation of small crayfish who used them as a citadel, "a place of retreat for their young, against the ravages of their enemy the gold-fish," who swarmed the citadels attacking the crayfish. Occasionally, "a small detachment of veteran cray-fish sallied out upon them" and the fish "instantly fled from every side, darting through the transparent waters like streams of lightning." No sooner had the crayfish retreated, however, than the others emerged again to surround the pyramids. "In this manner," he mused, "the war seemed to be continual." 4

The crude, rudimentary maps of the terrain he traversed did not deter him, and when he ventured into "Indian country," where the land shown on his maps bore little resemblance to reality, he frequently hired Creek or Seminole guides. Towards the Indians he was unusually generous, at odds with the prevalent attitudes of the times – that native peoples were savages and the only way to control them was, in the words of William's own father, to "bang them stoutly." Although on more than one occasion his guide deserted him in the wilderness, he maintained a balanced view of native peoples as human beings deserving of the same respect he accorded to others. "Such is the virtue of these untutored savages: but I am afraid this is a common phrase epithet, having no meaning, or at least improperly applied; for these people are both well tutored and civil; and it is apparent to an impartial observer, who resides but a little time amongst them, that it is from the most delicate sense of honour and reputation of the tribes and families, that their laws and customs receive their force and energy." 5

His characteristic descriptions of the terrain are so specific, it is almost possible to imagine riding along beside him through the English frontier, sharing his wonder. It also provides a window to view the land as it was before the forests were cut down to make way for cultivation, and before civilization crept westward in the following decades. Riding inland from Savanna near the beginning of his trip, he described the changing terrain: "from the sea coast, fifty miles back, is a level plain, generally of a loose sandy soil, producing spacious high forests . . . Nearly one third of this vast plain is what the inhabitants call swamps, which are the sources of numerous small rivers and their branches . . . twenty or thirty miles upwards from the sea, when they branch and spread abroad like an open hand, interlocking with each other, and forming a chain of swamps across the Carolinas and Georgia, several hundred miles parallel with the sea coast. . . . We now rise a bank of considerable height, which runs nearly parallel to the coast, through Carolina and Georgia . . . is mostly a forest of the great long-leaved pine, the earth covered with grass, interspersed with an infinite variety of herbaceous plants."

The land was shrouded in a verdant canopy of shrubs "of great beauty and singularity;" and the great swamps were "varied with the coppices and hommocks of the various shrubs and trees." Then came the hilly country, covered in pine and extending 150 miles west, "fertile and delightful" and fed by burbling rivulets "either coursing about the fragrant hills, or springing from the rocky precipices . . . the coolness and purity of which waters invigorate the air of this otherwise hot and sultry climate."

In 1774, he canoed again up the "impetuous current" of the St. Johns River, recreating the journey he took with his father nearly a decade before, only this time alone (apart from a Seminole guide who deserted somewhere inland because of the horrible conditions and Bartram's tedious preoccupation with the minutiae of the natural world). It was the steamy heat of summer, and he scanned always for something new, something exotic, something rare; constantly distracted by a world of magic and marvelous enchantment: "O thou Creator supreme, almighty!" he exclaimed one day, "how infinite and incomprehensible thy works! most perfect, and every way astonishing!"

Bartram observed and was awed by the infinite variety of nature, and in turn was inspired to write about his discoveries. In his account of his years of travel, his own tale takes second place to his observations – when encountering some aspect of nature previously unknown to him his writing takes on a light of its own, in eloquence and sheer delight in the boundless variety of the natural world and its mystical significance – all of which was evidence to Bartram, a deeply religious Quaker, of the influence of the divine manifestation of God. "This world," he postulated, "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."

William Bartram

The dreamy Bartram did have one close encounter with providence. While canoeing alone deep in the winding inlets of the inland glades of Florida, "elegantly embellished with flowering plants and shrubs," he was distracted from his musings by a tremendous battle between two "subtle, greedy" alligators. 6 One enormous beast surged toward the other across the murky lagoon "the waters like a cataract descend[ing] from his open jaws," while "clouds of smoke" issued forth from his dilated nostrils. Apparently, the "boiling surface of the lake mark[ed] their rapid course" and they entwined "in horrid wreaths" before sinking into the gloom. After a frenzied combat the victor emerged, produced "a dreadful roar" and continued its indolent lounging.

After the lagoon had returned to tranquility, Bartram leaped into his canoe to skirt across the murky water and catch some fish for supper. Several sneaky reptiles, however, ascertaining his destination, slipped into the water, surrounded his flimsy boat, and attacked on all sides, "several endeavouring to overset the canoe." That he had underestimated their determination, or hunger, was now obvious, yet still he was amazed at the onslaught. Two huge ones attacked simultaneously, "rushing up with their heads and part of their bodies above the water, roaring terribly and belching floods of water over [him]." Their vicious jaws snapped so close to his head that he was stunned, and, he fearfully recounted, "I expected every moment to be dragged out of the boat and instantly devoured." Fortunately, he managed to beat them off with a club and then paddle quickly to safety. Later, when he was scaling fish by the shore, he looked up to see a sly creature emerging from the lagoon and swiping its tail. Bartram leaped back, and it only "brushed off several fish." This "incredible boldness of the animal," he recorded with great understatement, "disturbed me greatly."

He later learned why there was such a "prodigious assemblage of crocodiles at this place." As the sun set, the river "appeared to be one solid bank of fish, of various kinds, pushing through this narrow pass" into a nearby lake. The reptiles, apparently, were clamoring over each other and quarrelling to be near the fish. "It would have been easy to have walked across on their heads," he suggested, "had the animals been harmless." It was this scene that astonished and frightened him. The "horrid noise of their closing jaws, their plunging amidst the broken banks of fish, and rising with their prey some feet upright above the water, the floods of water and blood rushing out of their mouths, and the clouds of vapours issuing from their wide nostrils, were truly frightful." It was with great apprehension that he bedded down on his little islet that night, with scenes of the feeding frenzy before his eyes. He records having seen an alligator with three large fish in its mouth at the same time, "squeeze them betwixt his jaws, while the tails of the great trout flapped about his eyes and lips, ere he had swallowed them." Although he was "occasionally awakened by the whooping of owls, screaming of bitterns, or the wood-rats running amongst the leaves," the tremendous appetite of the devouring alligators had apparently been satiated.

On another, more peaceful, occasion Bartram witnessed a large spider barring his path through the woods. After recovering from his initial shock, he observed that the spider was engaged "on predatory attempts against the insect tribes," and he quietly drew near to watch the proceedings. The spider, he noted, had its eyes set on a large fat "bomble" bee that "was visiting the flowers, and piercing their nectariferous tubes." The spider drew closer, with the stealth, or so it seemed to Bartram, of a Seminole approaching a deer. With short leaps, timed at the precise moment that the bee was busy inside a flower, the spider slunk forward, and then "instantly sprang upon him." The bee with the spider on its back immediately flew into the air, but was jerked back at the end of a tether, a strand of silky web that bound them to the earth. "The rapidity of the bee's wings, endeavouring to extricate himself, made them both together appear as a moving vapor," he reported, "until the bee became fatigued by whirling around . . . quite exhausted by his struggles, and the repeated wounds of the butcher, became motionless, and quickly expired in the arms of the devouring spider." The victorious spider shinnied up the strand and removed itself to feast upon its prey, but perhaps, speculated Bartram, "before night became himself, the delicious evening repast of a bird or lizard."

Birds also fascinated him. He noted that they became quieter at night, and expressed his observation as only Bartram could: "At the cool eves approach," he wrote one inspired evening, "the sweet enchanting melody of the feathered songsters gradually ceases, and they betake themselves to their leafy coverts for security and repose." He spent considerable time observing migration patters and debunking early theories on where birds went in the winter. Some theories suggested that they went to the moon, others that they found caves and hollow trees and hibernated; and, Bartram noted with incredulity, "even at this day very celebrated men have asserted that swallows, at the approach of winter, voluntarily plunge into lakes and rivers, descend to the bottom, and there creep into the mud and slime, where they continue overwhelmed by ice in a torpid state until the returning summer warms them again into life; . . . This notion, though the latest, seems the most difficult to reconcile with reason and common sense." Although he admitted to being "entirely ignorant of how far southward they continue their route," he was completely convinced that almost all birds, "beautiful and entertaining beings," did migrate somewhere for different seasons.

Bartram included a catalogue of 215 species of birds as an addendum to his published Travels. Although nearly half proved to be incorrect, the renowned ornithologist Elliott Coues remarked nearly a century later that Bartram had formed "the starting point for a distinctively American school of ornithology."

On several occasions during his five year odyssey Bartram suffered from fevers and other mysterious ailments. Only occasionally did he return to Savanna or St. Augustine to mail off correspondence and send specimens to his patron Dr. Fothergill in England, or just to relax. On one such occasion near the coast of Georgia at Frederica, he stared east into the "majestic scene," heard "the solemn sound of the beating surf strik[ing] our ears; the dashing of yon liquid mountains, like mighty giants, in vain assail the skies; they are beaten back, and fall prostrate upon the shores of the trembling island." He reached Baton Rouge in late October 1775, but constant travelling in harsh climates and conditions had worn him down and he began thinking of returning to Philadelphia. In 1776, he joined a group of American volunteers in Florida to defend against a rumored British invasion from St. Augustine (an invasion that fortunately never materialized). For the most part, though, the Revolution had little impact on him because he was so far removed from the civilized regions along the coast.

William Bartram

When he finally decided to end his ceaseless rambles, in late 1776, his body was weakened by the ravages of fevers and years of difficult living. He turned north and arrived in Philadelphia in January 1777, at the height of the Revolutionary War, to find his father suffering from frailty and age. The elder Bartram died soon thereafter, in September, apparently from anxiety over the fate of his botanical garden in the wake of advancing British troops. The war never reached the Garden, however, and William elected to remain there while he finished organizing his specimens and writing his travelogue. On July 4, 1777, the war ended and he was no longer a British citizen, but a citizen of the United States of America.

Bartram's explorations resulted in dozens of paintings and sketches, descriptions and collections of new species of plants, and reports on Indian culture, soil conditions, topography, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fishes. It was a truly broad compilation of information, the first collection and description of the flora and fauna of the wild lands to the west of the new American States. He kept a meticulous journal during his travels, which was eventually forwarded to Dr. Fothergill. William then spent the next decade slowly compiling the text for Travels. Unfortunately, an ailment of the eyes he contracted in Florida rendered them extremely sensitive to light; direct sun caused tears to flow down his cheeks, and he scrawled away on his manuscript in pain sometimes with eyes shut, a condition that may perhaps explain such a long delay in publishing his book.

Bartram's sketches and paintings reveal the dual components of his character – the artist and the scientist: alternately dreamy and improbable, or precise and painstakingly accurate. Some look like something out of Alice in Wonderland: a surreal melange of disparate ecosystems, distorted in scale and association yet executed with remarkable attention to detail on individual species: snails creep along loamy detritus; droopy fronds of sleepy-looking plants sway on delicate curving stems; elliptical pads splay out over placid pond water; ill-shaped serpents swallow squirming frogs next to pelicans peering down into the hazy depths; playful alligators writhe in the swamp gobbling fish and snorting water through their nostrils, "bellowing in the spring season." Others, such as his depictions of specific plants, however, are unerring in their exactitude, showing minute detail such as insects clustered along a stem, the subtle speckles along a turtle's shell or the spidery tendrils of an immature root bulb. In some cases, his drawings and accompanying description were so precise that they were used as the defining information about a species in preference even to a dried specimen.

In America, there was considerable criticism of his masterpiece Travels and its evident poetic inspiration, which had an influence on the romantic poets Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others. Many could not believe some of his accounts, such as his tale of the alligators which seemed too overblown to be credible; others were disturbed by his sympathetic depiction of the natives; or criticized his elegant, flowery language as being unscientific, or in one review, "very incorrect and disgustingly pompous." Although it appeared in eight or nine editions in six different countries in Europe in the first decade alone, including Britain, Germany, Holland and France, only a small printing originally went ahead in the United States. It is difficult to speculate what effect, if any, the somewhat muted reception to his life's work had on Bartram, but his writing after 1791 was limited to a few scientific publications and plant descriptions, some of which he forwarded to his friend Benjamin Smith Barton, a professor of Botany at the University of the State of Pennsylvania, who published them, sometimes without proper credit, in his own texts on botany.

Although knowledge of how organisms functioned was basically non-existent, Bartram was at the forefront of a scientific tradition that would see the understanding of the world greatly expanded. His speculations on the interrelationships between species and the environment, the concept of an ecosystem, were groundbreaking, if only speculative. And his idle thoughts about "the continual circulation of animal juices" in living creatures is both simplistic and uncannily accurate considering the lack of any means of empirically measuring such things. His dismissal of the preposterous theories of seasonal bird disappearances was an early example of the quest for scientific explanations of natural phenomena that would become increasingly important in America and Europe throughout the 19th century. Bartram had no means to test his hypotheses, but in the coming years other scientists would ask similar questions and continue to strive for a greater understanding of the complexity of the natural world.

Despite his concern that his exertions had broken his health, Bartram lived to the grand old age of eighty-five, tending the Garden and playing host to visiting statesmen, scientists, authors and artists who flocked to see both him and America's first botanical garden – a garden that still exists as Historic Bartram Gardens along the Schuylkill River. Around the turn of the century he was invited by Thomas Jefferson, who had purchased and presumably appreciated his book in 1791, to be the naturalist on a military and scientific expedition to the Far West (what would become known as the Lewis and Clark expedition). But because of his age, he didn't feel up to the task of a cross continental trek through more uncharted wilderness.

William Bartram, who had never married, spent his final years living on the farm along the Schuylkill with his brother and family. After their father's death in 1777, the Garden and farm had passed to William's brother John. In the end death was kind. William collapsed early one morning in July 1823; he had just finished scrawling out the description of the natural history of a plant, and was enjoying a "morning survey" of his glorious garden.


1. On another occasion in east Florida a decade later he again almost trod upon a sleeping serpent, "about six foot in length and as thick as an ordinary man's leg." Startled, he killed it in a passion and then dragged it back to the fort, "his scaly body sounding over the ground," where it was served up for dinner to the "amazed multitude." For Bartram, though, it was a sad occasion and he couldn't swallow his portion, tender though it was. "He certainly had it in his power to kill me almost instantly," he mused, "and I make no doubt but that he was conscious of it . . . I promised myself that I would never again be accessory to the death of a rattle snake, which promise I have invariably kept to."

2. Although Florida was primarily inhabited by the Seminole Indians, it was claimed by England from Spain following the Treaty of Paris (1763). In 1773, after the American Revolution, it was returned to Spain. Boundary disputes between the United States and Spain, however, lingered until 1819 when Spain ceded the territory to the United States. The Seminoles were eventually driven off the land in a series of wars that culminated in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). When the Bartrams first ventured to Florida, it was nominally English, yet when William published his Travels in 1791, it was back in Spanish hands.

3. Although the tree was no longer in bloom at the time of their first discovery, William again encountered the tree along the Altamaha River eight years later in 1773. He spied it the second time enveloped in beautiful creamy flowers and brought seeds back to the garden in Philadelphia and cultivated it. By this simple act, the Bartrams likely preserved it from extinction – it has never been recorded in the wild since 1790. Today, the Franklin tree is a popular American ornamental, with all living specimens descended from the Bartram's garden.

4. In his description of the seemingly mundane, he elevated nature writing to an art. "The gold-fish," he recorded, "is about the size of an anchovy, nearly four inches long, of a neat slender form; the head is covered with a salade of an ultramarine blue, the back of a reddish brown, the sides and belly of a flame, or of the colour of a fine red lead; a narrow dusky line runs along each side, from the gills to the tail; the eyes are large, with the iris like burnished gold."

5. On one occasion his imagination got the better of him and he was tempted to liken the noble Seminole to the Greek hero of yore: "What an elisium it is!" he spouted, "where the wandering Seminole, the naked red warrior, roams at large, and after the vigorous chase retires from the scorching heat of the meridian sun. Here he reclines, and reposes under the odoriferous shades of Zanthoxilon, his verdant couch guarded by the Deity; Liberty, and the Muses, inspiring him with wisdom and valour, whilst the balmy zephyrs fan him to sleep."

6. Alligators and crocodiles are both native to the swampy morass of the southeastern United States. Bartram used the terms interchangeably, and so it is impossible to know specifically which creature he actually encountered.

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