William Bartram was born near Philadelphia, the son of John Bartram, who was one of America’s first professional botanists. Bartram grew up on his father’s estate, a botanical garden and experimental farm. He was educated classically and had a talent for drawing and painting. As a youth, he accompanied his father on several plant-hunting expeditions, drawing the plants they encountered. After several failures at business, Bartram persuaded one of his father’s professional contacts in England to finance his own expedition in Florida to search for interesting plant specimens to send to Europe.
Bartram's trip lasted four years (1773-1777) and eventually included most of the Southeast. He developed an eye ailment while in Mobile, which probably contributed to his concluding the trip and returning home to Pennsylvania. His Travels, the story of his expedition, was first published in 1791, fourteen years after his return. Bartram spent the rest of his life at his father’s (later his brother’s) estate, working with plants. Pleading ill health, he turned down the offer of a botany professorship at the college that later became the University of Pennsylvania. At age sixty-six, he turned down an offer by President Thomas Jefferson to join what we now call the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Bartram died at age eighty-four while working in the garden.
Although Bartram’s Travels didn’t have much of an impact in the United States, it sold well in Europe. Bartram was one of the first to introduce the American southeastern “wilderness” to a European audience. Bartram’s work was also a bridge between the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the emotionalism of the Romantic Movement and inspired several of the English Romantic poets, including Coleridge and Wordsworth.
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Photo courtesy of the Independence National Historical Park Collection.
Last updated on Apr 30, 2009.