During his lifetime, William Bartram was the best-known native-born botanist in the United States.1 His Travels, published in 1791, established his scientific reputation and helped disseminate the Romantic view of American nature.2 Bartram used the Linnaean system for naming and classification of plant and animal species, but also described them as integral parts of the environment.

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

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.3 Seeking elegance, Wilson produced ornithological studies that provided models for a generation of naturalists working in the United States.4

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.5 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.6

Portrait of Alexander Wilson
Portrait of Alexander Wilson attributed to Thomas Sully, via Wikimedia Commons

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.7 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.8