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William Bartram

William Bartram (April 20, 1739-July 22, 1823) shared Thomas Jefferson’s fascination with botanical science, natural history, and Native American culture. Bartram joined his father, John Bartram, in cataloging the plants and wildlife of Pennsylvania at an early age and displayed a talent for detailed drawings of the birds, other wildlife, and plants that he encountered. Educated at the Academy of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), Bartram’s life from 1755 to 1772 was a series of failed attempts to establish himself as a merchant in Philadelphia and North Carolina, and as a planter in Florida.

Finding a patron in Dr. John Fothergill, Bartram embarked on a natural history expedition through the southeastern colonies from 1773 to 1777. There, he collected seed and plant specimens, made extensive drawings and notes concerning the plants, wildlife, and Native Americans he encountered, and developed a deep understanding of Cherokee, Creek, Muskogee, and Seminole culture. Bartram made such an impression on the Seminole Chief Ahaya that he was given the name “Puc Puggy” (the flower hunter).1

Returning to Bartram’s Garden in 1777, in frail health after four years of exploration, William Bartram joined his brother, John Bartram, Jr., and his niece, Ann Bartram Carr, in expanding the nursery. Unfit for business, William Bartram’s role was that of horticulturist, botanist, and adviser to other naturalists. In addition to expanding the garden, Bartram began to record his exploration of the southeastern states. In 1782, ill-health forced him to refuse the offer to be the Chair of Botany at The University of Pennsylvania, preferring a role as independent botanist to that of academia.

The first documented encounter between Thomas Jefferson and William Bartram occurred on January 20, 1783, when Jefferson visited Bartram’s Garden.2 Fellow members of the American Philosophical Society, Bartram and Jefferson enjoyed the opportunity to share mutual interests with one another. Both men also shared the common goal of refuting the theory of the Comte de Buffon that America produced flora, fauna, and human beings inferior to those of Europe.

During his service as Minister to France from 1784-1789, Jefferson ordered 56 varieties of American seeds and plants from Bartram’s Garden for his friend and fellow botanist, Madame de Tess√©, aunt of the Marquis de Lafayette.3 During his years as Secretary of State, Jefferson’s memorandum book entries and letters make mention of his visits with William Bartram, particularly in the five months when he rented a home at Gray’s Ferry, across the Schuylkill River from Bartram’s Garden. Correspondence from this period reveals discussions with Bartram regarding the Hessian Fly,4 procuring Kentucky coffee tree seeds for Bartram’s Garden,5 and Jefferson's response to a friend’s inquiry about rare plants: “I expect they will be found only in possession of Mr. Bartram who keeps a curious botanical garden some miles in the country.”6

Jefferson’s records reveal a subscription for a copy of Bartram’s Travels, the culmination of William Bartram’s fourteen-year effort to capture in word and illustrations his expedition to the southeastern United States.7 Bartram’s Travels achieved international fame and catapulted the shy and reclusive man into the forefront of American botanists and naturalists. He was recognized as a pioneer in ethnology, ornithology, etymology, and herpetology. Bartram’s Garden became a place of pilgrimage for scientists seeking Bartram’s knowledge and guidance. Among those who came were Benjamin Smith Barton, Alexander von Humboldt, and Andre Michaux.8 Bartram’s skill as an accurate observer of nature was further enhanced with the publication of Benjamin Smith Barton’s Elements of Botany, containing detailed illustrations created by William Bartram.9

In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson maintained a sporadic correspondence with Bartram on botany, paleontology, and natural history, with Bartram sending seeds and fossils to Jefferson. Bartram’s ill health forced him to reluctantly decline Jefferson’s invitation to serve as botanist and zoologist for the Red River Expedition’s exploration of the Louisiana Territory.10 To Jefferson, he wrote, “This very flattering Mark of Your Goodness & regard for me, has made a deep empression on my Mind, & will not be effaced from a Heart most sincerely attatched.”11 Looking forward to his impending retirement from the presidency, Jefferson thanked Bartram for a gift of Mimosa (silk tree) seeds: “Th: Jefferson presents his compliments to his friend mr W. Bartram and his thanks for the seeds of the silk tree which he was so kind as to send him. these he shall plant in March and cherish with care at Monticello. the cares of the garden and culture of curious plants uniting either beauty or utility will there form one of his principal amusements.”12

Despite precarious health, William Bartram continued his inquiries into natural history and propagation of plants from North America and around the globe. He also continued to mentor the rising generation of American scientists, including the pioneering ornithologist Alexander Wilson and entomologist William Say. While walking in his garden on a hot summer day in July 1823, William Bartram collapsed and died.

- David Thorson, 8/11/2020

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