John Bartram (March 23, 1699-September 22, 1777), descended from Pennsylvania's original Quaker immigrants, was a self-taught botanist and naturalist. In 1728, he established Bartram's Garden. Situated on the east bank of the Schuylkill River in Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, Bartram's Garden is the oldest extant botanical garden in the United States.
Between 1730 and 1765, Bartram embarked on a series of botanical expeditions collecting specimens and making observations along the east coast, from New York to Florida.1 Simultaneously, Bartram's reputation grew beyond America. He exchanged seeds with Fellows of the Royal Society, Peter Collinson and Dr. John Fothergill in England, and made contributions to the plant taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus.2
During this period, Bartram developed a particularly close friendship with Benjamin Franklin — they co-founded the American Philosophical Society in 1743 with other leading figures in Philadelphia.3 By the 1750s, Bartram was recognized as the leading authority on botany and natural history in Colonial America. He was appointed Royal Botanist for North America by George III in 1765. "Bartram's Boxes" of North American seeds and root stock were planted widely in the pleasure gardens of Britain and Europe.4
While serving in the Second Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson likely encountered John Bartram through Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson and Bartram may also have met while Jefferson was visiting the ornamental farm of William Hamilton, adjacent to Bartram's Garden.
John Bartram died in September 1777 following a brief illness. In the words of a granddaughter, he died "exceedingly annoyed and agitated ... by the approach of the royal army after the battle of Brandywine ... he was also apprehensive that it might lay waste his darling garden."5
Bartram's Garden not only survived the Revolutionary War, but thrived as two of his sons carried on their father's legacy. John Bartram, Jr., expanded the nursery business and William Bartram became a world-renowned botanist, ornithologist, and Native American ethnologist. Now a National Historic Landmark, Bartram's Garden continues to serve as both a laboratory and a nursery for the preservation and propagation of America's native flora.
2. For a thorough exposition of John Bartram's contributions to American botany and connections to men of the English and European Enlightenment, see Andrea Wulf, The Brother Gardeners (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 25-33.
3. Franklin's correspondence with or regarding John Bartram is available in transcriptions at Founders Online.
4. A description of Bartram's Boxes and their impact on the trans-Atlantic seed exchange may be found online at Bartram's Garden.