Florida Museum of Natural History

Artist-Naturalists in Florida

by Charlotte M. Porter

Scientific style of traveling naturalists after Bartram


William Bartram by Charles Wilson Peale (Courtesy of the Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia)

During his lifetime, William Bartram was the best-known native-born botanist in the United States.9 His Travels, published in 1791, established his scientific reputation and helped disseminate the Romantic view of American nature.10 Bartram used the Linnaean system for naming and classification of plant and animal species, but also described them as integral parts of the environment. Indeed, he seemed to dote upon details, making his landscape descriptions rich with the colors and textures of the southern regions he explored. Bartram had a remarkable eye, and his influence proved considerable.

With William Bartram's encouragement, Alexander Wilson, an impoverished political refugee from Scotland, produced his celebrated multi-volume masterpiece on North American birds.11 Seeking elegance, Wilson produced ornithological studies that provided models for a generation of naturalists working in the United States.12 Wilson died prematurely in 1813, but naturalists profited from his example and from personal contacts with his longer-lived mentor, the aging Bartram. Bartram's great-nephew, Thomas Say, and the British-born Thomas Nuttall were frequent guests at Bartram's famous gardens in Kingsessing near Philadelphia.13 Bartram's descriptions provided a starting point for younger naturalists to supplement Wilson's work. The works of Peale, Say, Nuttall, Townsend, and Audubon all made reference to Bartram's descriptions.14

alex wilson

Alexander Wilson by Rembrandt Peale (Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

Despite high regard for Bartram, these younger naturalists did not seek to copy the literary style of his Travels. Committed to describing frontier landscapes, they were uncomfortable with the emotions and language of Romanticism. Consequently, their works lacked the Romantic tone of Bartram's great book. In the many illustrated volumes of natural history that these industrious authors published, they presented scientific descriptions of species, followed by the occasional essays. Alexander Wilson pioneered this format, which Thomas Say conventionalized after 1817 on the pages of the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.15 As their scientific contributions became more formal, naturalists sought ways to reach general readers and to enhance their popular support. Published travel journals provided an important alternative to expensively illustrated books and technical papers.16

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9. William Bartram warrants the historical attention given to his botanist father John William was the first American naturalist asked to join a United States military expedition to the West. See Nathan B. Fagin, William Bartram: Interpreter of he American Landscape (Baltimore, 1933), 12.

10. Bartram's Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws (Philadelphia, 1791) was promptly reprinted in England and Ireland and translated into German, Dutch, and French.

11. See Alexander Wilson to William Bartram, October 30, 1803, and October 25, 1809, in Wilson Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; also Wayne Hanley, Natural History in America: From Mark Catesby to Rachel Carson (New York, 1977), 48-49; James S. Wilson, Alexander Wilson, Poet Naturalist (New York, 1906), 14.

12. Academy, Notice of the Academy, 4.

13. Graustein, Thomas Nuttall, 97; Harry B. Weiss and Grace M. Ziegler, Thomas Say, Early American Naturalist (Baltimore, 1931), 180; Benjamin H. Coates, A Biographical Sketch of the Late Thomas Say (Philadelphia, 1835), 6.

14. See Elsa G. Allen, "The History of American Ornithology before Audubon," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, XLI (1951), 535-591; Titian R. Peale, "Sandhill Crane," in Peale Papers, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York.

15. Say was on influential member of the Academy committee that published the first number of the Journal in May of 1817.

16. The mounting elitism and expense of Academy publications was a matter of constant concern. Natural history books were costly. At the time of their publication, the subscription price for Wilson's American Ornithology was $120; for the Academy supplement, $180: and for John J. Audubon's elephant folio, $1000. See J. Percy Moore, ''William Maclure -Scientist and Humanitarian,'' Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, XCI (1947), 234-241; Gerstner, "The Academy," 182-187, 193; Francis H. Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist (New York, 1917), 214-215; C.S. Rafinesque to John Torrey, April 5, 1819, in Torrey Papers, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx. New York.

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