Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Darby, Delaware County
Author of books such as Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and Other Matters Worthy of Notice (1751).
John Bartram of Darby was America’s first botanist. Born in 1699, he was self-taught in botany and came to find respect through commissions made by Peter Collinson, a London merchant. Bartram would go on to record scientifically numerous plant forms for the first time. He became Royal Botanist to George III in 1765. He died in 1777.
John Bartram was born on March 23, 1699, in Darby, Pennsylvania (now a suburb of Philadelphia). His parents were Elizabeth Hunt Bartram and William Bartram, both Quakers. In 1723, Bartram married Mary Morris and had two sons. In 1727, Mary Morris died and, two years later, Bartram married Ann Mendenhall, with whom he had four daughters and five sons.
Mainly self-taught, Bartram’s interest in botany was so intense he hired a tutor in order to learn Latin and to read botanic texts and the works of botany’s premier figure, Carl Linnaeus. Bartram had little time and few opportunities to devote to his interests because of family and financial troubles. Bartram’s first opportunity came from a London wool merchant and botanist by the name of Peter Collinson. Collinson paid Bartram to collect specimens of new plants for shipment to England. Through his connection with Collinson, Bartram was able to network and acquire friends and correspondents among leading figures of the 18th-century scientific community.
Bartram’s personal wish to explore the American wilderness was soon realized when he made numerous ventures into the wilderness despite the trouble with Native Americans, trouble which resulted from agitation during the French and Indian War. Throughout his lifetime, Bartram worked successfully as a physician, pharmacist, stonemason, builder, and even lawyer, despite little to no professional training or education. Bartram also became an extraordinary master of general information. Bartram owned more than 100 acres of land along the Schuylkill River at Kingsessing, near Philadelphia. On his estate, Bartram farmed, cut stones, and built his own house. In 1729, he started what was believed to be one of the first and most popular botanical gardens in colonial America. Today it is part of the Philadelphia park system. He also traveled in the western part of the state, exploring the region with Conrad Weiser in 1743.
Indisputably the first native-born American botanist, Bartram was considered the best “natural botanist” of his time by the great Linnaeus. His accomplishments included performing the first hybridizing experiments in America and becoming the first advocate of deep-sea surroundings. Bartram was also a life subscriber to the then newly formed Library Company of Philadelphia. An original member of Benjamin Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, Bartram was urged by Franklin to write a natural history of the New World. In 1764, Bartram remarked in a letter that he had “in thirty years’ travels, acquired a perfect knowledge of most, if not all the vegetables between New England and Georgia, and from the sea-coast to Lake Ontario and Erie.”
Bartram made numerous attempts at writing with mixed results. His lack of vocabulary and education in proper grammar made him poorly prepared for such ventures. His writings were highly criticized by friends and correspondents. Bartram, aware of his writing limitations, was reported to have told Collinson in 1754 that he preferred to write “not according to grammar rules, or science, but nature... Good grammar and good spelling, may please those that are more taken with a fine supernatural flourish than real truth; but my chief aim was to inform my readers of the true, real, distinguishing characters of each genus, and where, and how, each species differed from one another, of the same genus.” Disappointed with the illiteracy of Bartram’s manuscripts, Collinson stated in the prefatory remarks that the works appear “without the author’s knowledge” and that he “thought himself [Collinson] not at liberty to make any material alteration...”
Despite these limitations, Bartram achieved a remarkable level of acclaim and respect in the wider world. In 1765, King George III appointed him as Royal Botanist. Four years later, he was elected to the Royal Academy of Science in Stockholm.
Today, Bartram’s writings are regarded as displaying a fascinating mode of perception that more than made up for his writing limitations. Bartram discovered the best way to write was to make the reader participate in his text. However, John Bartram’s writing and fame were surpassed by that of his son William, whom he had from his marriage to Ann Mendenhall. William’s 1791 Travels proved superior to any of his father’s works and was able to secure him a position as a far better writer and an equally respected naturalist. Unlike his father, however, William was highly appreciative of the Native Americans, becoming the first real student of Native Americans and accepted as one of their own.
John Bartram died on September 22, 1777.
Personal Observations, Contributions, and Essays
“An Essay for the Improvement of Estates, by Raising a Durable Timber for Fencing and Other Uses,” found in limited copies of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard Improved. Philadelphia: Franklin & Hall, 1949.
Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, Rivers, Productions, Animals, and Other Matters Worthy of Notice. London: J. Whiston & B. White, 1751.
Thomas Short, Medicina Britannica: Treatise on Such physical Plants as Are Generally to be Found in the Fields or Garden in Great Britain; introduction, notes, and an appendix by Bartram. Philadelphia: Franklin & Hall, 1751.
“An Extract of Mr. Win [sic] Bartram’s Observations in a Journey up the River Savannah in Georgia with His Son, on Discoveries,” Gentleman’s Magazine, 1767: 166— 168.
Journal Entries and Letters
Excerpts on rattlesnake teeth, salt-marsh mussels, wasps, dragonflies, and aurora borealis, in Philosophical Transactions. Royal Society of London, 41: 358-359, (1742); 43: 157-159, (1745); 46: 278-279, 323-325, 400-402 (1750); 52: 474 (1762); 53: 37-38, (1763).
Journal entries for 19 December 1765 to 12 February 1766, An Account of East Florida, with a Journal, Kept by John Bartram of Philadelphia, Botanist to His Majesty for the Floridas; upon a Journey from St. Augustine up the River St. John’s, written by William Stork. London: Nicoll, 1767.
Letters, 1734-1768, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall, edited by William Henry Dillingham. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston 1849.
“Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida from July 1, 1765, to April 10, 1766,” edited by Francis Harper, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new series 33: 1-120 (1942).
“John Bartram.” American Authors 1600-1800: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature. Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, eds. New York: HW Wilson Company, 1938.
Scheick, William J. “John Bartram.” The Gale Literary Database: Contemporary Authors Online. 2001. 2001. <http://www.galenet.com>.