Botanical Explorers Or Opportunists?

By Rosalie E. Leposky

Throughout South Carolina, Georgia, and North Florida, roadside historical markers delineate for 21st-century auto travelers the trails followed in the 18th and 19th centuries by botanical explorers and collectors John and William Bartram. Most modern tourists are otherwise unfamiliar with their efforts.

John Bartram established the first botanical garden in the United States, the Bartram Botanical Garden, near the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. He knew or corresponded with many of the pre-Revolutionary scientists in the colonies and in Europe, including Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), creator of the Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature that we still use today to classify living things by genus and species. William roamed the South for four years, from 1773 to 1777, collecting specimens and recording his observations of the natural landscape during a journey of 2,400 miles.

Together and separately, John Bartram (1699-1777) and his ninth child, William Bartram (1743-1812), explored and collected plant materials in the American wilderness before the Revolutionary War. Yet today the Bartrams are less well known than later political explorers and writers such as Gustave Auguste de Beaumont de la Bonninière (1802-1866) and his traveling companion, Alexis Charles-Henri-Maurice Cirel de Tocqueville (1805-1859), author of Democracy in America; and William Bartram's contemporary, ornithologist and illustrator John James Audubon (1785-1851).

Seeking Not To Offend?

A new book by Edward J. Cashin, William Bartram and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), describes William Bartram's southern adventures. Cashin notes that the Bartrams depended on British patronage and did not want to offend anyone during the American Revolution, or later when many of William's royalist southern hosts and scientific friends moved to Spanish-held territories or British Caribbean Islands. Perhaps this is why Bartram's writings contain no mention of politics.

Although the Bartrams collected and drew new plants for scientific reasons, they were probably very little different from modern poachers who collect plants or animals and disrupt natural environments for a profit.

According to Cashin, Quaker businessman Peter Collins in London served as William's British agent. If the Bartrams were true scientists and not poachers, they would not have collected and shipped so much plant material, and they would have had only sponsors and not sales agents. To his credit, says Cashin, William did imagine "a garden filled with marvelous plants whose beauty match their creative power."

Dr. John Fothergill, a Quaker with a large private garden that Cashin describes as "second only to Kew Gardens in its variety," sponsored some of William's explorations. "The original report Bartram sent to Fothergill, now in the library of the British Museum of Natural History, is stamped 'Jos. Banks.'" It was not appreciated or used by British experts.

By 1791, when William published his own work, The Travels of William Bartram, many of his discoveries had been credited to others. Still, Cashin says, Travels influenced later natural scientists, including botanist Benjamin Smith Barton, ornithologist Alexander Wilson, conchologist Thomas Say, and geologist Charles Lyell.

Like Audubon in Louisiana, William Bartram visited and stayed with European settlers in far-flung, sparsely settled communities. He also stayed with and befriended members of the Cherokee Nation and other Native Americans tribes. Many locations now claim Audubon and William Bartram's presence.

According to Cashin, William Bartram made several unrecorded yet perhaps important botanical discoveries. How, the reader must wonder, are unrecorded discoveries known about, unless perhaps they are folk tales that have grown up about the the Bartrams.

Cashin also omits at least one significant aspect of his subjects' achievements. Using Pennsylvania as a reference point, William Bartram identified 215 North American bird species and tracked avian migration paths. He also kept the first bird-migration calendar. The State of Pennsylvania credits William Bartram as the father of Pennsylvania ornithology, but Cashin does not mention these pioneering ornithology efforts.

© Ampersand Communications

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