Florida Museum of Natural History

William Bartram


william bartram

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.

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.

A Naturalist's Vision

In East Florida, the fields seemed painted with the colors of wildflowers, and Bartram drew many species: the flowering paw paw, pink bindweed, Magnolia grandiflora, and lovely American lotus. Indeed, few things escaped the notice of Bartram's sharp eye. The fragile celestial lily that he described near Lake Dexter was not found again for the next 150 years! Nature's variety inspired Bartram, and his drawings and records introduced readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean to East Florida. Bartram also described the region's fauna - the black vulture, gopher tortoise, and sandhill crane, performing its distinctive mating dance. Although he wrote about the alligator as a noisy dragon-like animal with a "horrifying roar," biologists at the University of Florida, Gainesville, have confirmed Bartram's observations of group feeding and maternal care among alligators. With time, Bartram's memories of Florida were reshaped by national ideals. Like many visitors to Florida, Bartram enjoyed fish stories. At Lake George, he observed water so clear that all fish, big and small, seemed to have an equal chance to survive. "Here," he said, "the trout swims by the very nose of the alligator and laughs in his face, and the bream swims by the trout." Bartram made scientific drawings of these fish, but this spring was his excuse to describe nature in the terms of a democratic society.

Bartram also observed the native peoples of Florida, and his book included his portrait of a Seminole chief, Long Warrior. As Congress debated the constitutional war powers of the president, Bartram urged his readers and the federal government to avoid warfare with Indian peoples. Specifically, he suggested sending diplomats to learn Indian customs and languages. Unfortunately, Bartram's sensible advice was ignored, and three Seminole Wars characterized nineteenth-century Florida.

Bartram's book, better read in Europe than in his own country, was translated into almost every major European language. The best remembered sections described Florida. British poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge used Bartram's imagery. Indeed, the Romantic Movement owed much to sights, sounds, and fragrances which Bartram described in Florida.

Bartram's writings also popularized Florida for settlement. In the 1830s, the famous bird painter, John James Audubon, attributed a premature land boom to Bartram's "flowery sayings." In 1873, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, promoted the region's natural history in Palmetto-Leaves, a collection of letters for women. "We never pretended that Florida was the Kingdom of Heaven," Mrs. Stowe wrote from Mandarin, but "it is a child's Eden."

Bartram's Florida received national literary attention again in 1942 after prize-winning author of The Yearling, Marjorie Kinan Rawlings, published Cross Creek and Cross Creek Cookery. Like Bartram, Rawlings was a keen observer: "There is no such thing," she wrote, "as an ugly tree, but the Magnolia grandiflora has a unique perfection."

Modern travelers are lucky. The State of Florida has used Bartram's writings and drawings to restore the Alachua Savanna as Paynes Prairie State Preserve for public recreation and edification.

Unless otherwise noted, William Bartram's drawings are housed at the British Museum (Natural History), London, UK

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