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From 1773-77, William Bartram (1739-1823) explored the American Southeast to record the region’s plants, animals, and Indian peoples. Published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1779 Bartram’s Travels has become a classic, in large part because of Bartram’s descriptions of Florida.

Portrait of William Bartram by Charles Willson Peale
Portrait of William Bartram by Charles Willson Peale via Wikimedia Commons

In the spring of 1774, William Bartram, a naturalist from Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, traveled inland from the St. Johns River to the Alachua Savanna, present-day Paynes Prairie Preserve. In 1772, Dr. John Fothergill had commissioned Bartram to collect the natural history specimens in the Georgia colony for the sum of £150 per annum. Having failed in 1766 to establish a plantation outside near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, Bartram had not yet made a place for himself in life. Now, at the age of thirty-five, he returned to East Florida to follow his favorite pursuit, the study of plants and animals.

In Bartram’s eyes, spring-fed streams, sandy banks, and ancient trees formed a natural paradise. At the village of Cuscowilla, near the present-day town of Micanopy, Bartram was greeted by the Creek mico, or chief, Cowkeeper in the spring of 1774. Cowkeeper’s people were hunters and farmers, and Bartram noted the numbers of Spanish cattle and horses in the Alachua Savanna. He believed their herds rivaled those of prosperous Pennsylvania farms of his youth.

Bartram, of Quaker upbringing, had arrived in Florida as a peace-loving British subject. Three years later, he returned to Philadelphia as a citizen of an emerging nation, the United States of America. While he traveled his 2400-mile trip, the thirteen British colonies began the War of Independence.