John Bartram, Botanist

Despite the loss of his parents and a rather limited formal education, John Bartram quickly became a person of consequence in his community. His circle of friends contained many of the leading citizens of Philadelphia, including Benjamin Franklin with whom he founded the influential American Philosophical Society in 1743. Bartram had actually first proposed a learned society in Philadelphia four years before, but had been unable to find an adequate number of people or sufficient resources to allow its formal establishment.(3) Bartram was a farmer by profession, but his interests went well beyond commercial agriculture.

Exactly when John Bartram acquired his great interest in botany is unclear. In a letter to Peter Collinson of 1764, Bartram states: "I had always since ten years old, a great inclination to plants, and knew all that I once observed by sight, though not their proper names, having no person nor books to instruct me.”(4) In a biographical sketch of his father published in 1804, William Bartram said that john’s interests had grown from his use of herb medicines in treating neighbors too poor to afford, or not able to travel to, Philadelphia doctors.(5) Certainly, John’s frequent references to the medicinal qualities of certain plants gives support to this claim. The most frequently quoted explanation of Bartram’s conversion to botany, however, is from Crevecoeur’s account of a visit with John Bartram published in The Letters of An American Farmer, 1782. In this account, John pauses from his plowing long enough to observe a daisy growing wild in his field: “What a shame, said my mind, that thee shouldst have employed so many years in tilling the earth and destroying so many flowers and plants, without being acquainted with their structures and uses.”(6)

However his interests were first awakened, John Bartram began his botanical exploration and collection at about the time of his first wife’s death from an unidentified epidemic in 1727.

In the following year, John bought a small house and a hundred and seven acres of land in Kingsessing on the bank of the Schuylkill (about three miles from Philadelphia). He married his second wife, Ann Mendenhall, and began a major expansion of the house, the masonry of which he executed himself in 1729. In a five acre plot of ground between his new house and the river, John began his famous botanical garden, frequently cited as “the first in America.”(7)

In 1732, John Bartram came into correspondence with Peter Collinson, a wealthy London cloth merchant and fellow Quaker with a keen interest in botany.(8) The contact was an auspicious one for both men. Collinson desired seeds, bulbs, and cuttings of American plants and was willing to pay for them. He benefited greatly from Bartram’s diligent field work. Bartram, in turn, received advice, encouragement, money and, best of all, a constant supply of books on the subject of natural history. (See Supplement 1) Although the two men never met, they carried on a lively correspondence for more than thirty-six years until Collinson’s death in 1768.(9) Whenever he could take time from his farming duties, usually after the fall harvest, Bartram went into the wild, collecting plants for his English patron and himself. Word of Bartram’s collecting quickly spread in Europe, and soon Collinson was acting as Bartram’s agent for a variety of other important patrons. These included Philip Miller, who wrote the popular Gardener’s Dictionary; Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections helped to form the British museum; Lord Petre, a noted plant collector; the Earls of Bute, Leicester and Lincoln; the Dukes of Argyle, Richmond, Norfolk, Marlborough and Bedford; Queen Ulrica of Sweden; and Peter Kalm, the Swedish plant explorer and student of Linnaeus.(10) So great did the interest in American plants become, that in addition to those mentioned, Collinson was able to list more than fifty subscribers to whom Bartram supplied material.(11) “Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the Swedish taxonomist responsible for developing the basis of scientific classification used today and himself a recipient of many Bartram specimens, called John “the greatest natural botanist in the world.”(12) It is evident that many of his contemporaries agreed.

Eventually, thanks to Collinson’s persistent lobbying efforts through the Duke of Northumberland and others, Bartram’s scientific labors received official recognition and encouragement in the form of an appointment as botanist to King George III in 1765.(13) The appointment, with its accompanying annual stipend of fifty pounds, enabled Bartram to make a long-hoped-for collecting expedition “to the Floridas, which had come under British dominion in 1763. Accompanied by his son William, John traveled through present-day North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, where he focused his primary attention on the St. Johns River near St. Augustine. [A detailed account of the fate of Bartram’s journals from this trip can be found in Francis Harper’s publication on that subject in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, (Vol. XXXIII, Part I, December, 1942). His specimens were sent to Collinson and to the King of England.]

John’s activity after the Florida trip was somewhat curtailed by poor health, but he remained alert and productive until his death in 1777, allegedly precipitated by his concern for the safety of the botanical garden which he considered threatened by advancing British troops. Although the exact number will probably never be known, John Bartram is believed to have been responsible for the introduction of between 150 and 200 new American plant species to Europe, from the time of his first seed shipment to Peter Collinson in 1734 until his death.(14) It was a remarkable accomplishment by any standard.

Footnotes

3. This information provided by Dr. Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., librarian of the American Philosophical Society.

4. Letter to Peter Collinson, May 1, 1764, from: William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall, Philadelphia 1849, facsimile edited by Joseph Ewan, New York, 1967 p. 263. It is interesting to note that this story is true, John’s interest dates from the year his father left for North Carolina.

5. William Bartram, “Some Account of the Late Mr. John Bartram of Philadelphia,” Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal, I Part 1, 1804, pp. 115–124. Parts of this biographical sketch are quoted in Darlington’s Memorials, op. cit., pp. 38–43.

6. The Crevecoeur account is reprinted in full in Darlington’s Memorials, op. cit., pp. 45–57.

7. The claim that Bartram’s garden was first is not accurate, but it was certainly among the first and quickly superseded all others in the Philadelphia area. Moreover, it is the oldest botanical garden in America to have remained intact to the present time. The current misunderstanding over the garden’s temporal priority may have evolved from 18th and 19th century reports describing Bartram’s garden as “first” in the colonies, meaning best or most important, not necessarily the earliest. For a discussion of other botanical gardens in America, see V. P. Hedrick, A History of Horticulture in America to 1860, New York, 1950. For more information on the Bartram’s garden itself, see Emily R. Cheston, John Bartram; His Garden and His House, Philadelphia, 1938.

8. For more information about Peter Collinson, see: Norman Brett-James, Life of Peter Collinson, London, 1925; Lewis W. Dillwyn, Hortus Collinsonianus, Swansea, 1843; George Edwards, “Peter Collinson,” Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, London, 1968; A. B. Rendle, “An Account of the Introduction of American Seeds into Great Britain by Peter Collinson,” Journal of Botany, 1925; E. G. Swem, Brothers of the Spade; Correspondence of Peter Collinson of London and John Custis of Williamsburg, Virginia, Barre, Massachusetts, 1957.

9. Much of this correspondence was published by William Darlington in his invaluable Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall, op. cit.

10. Paul W. Meyer, “A Proposal For the Interpretation of John Bartram’s Garden,” unpublished Masters Thesis, The University of Delaware, 1977, p. 3; and Ernest Earnest, John and William Bartram, op. cit., pp. 35 and 76.

11. Ernest Earnest, John and William Bartram, op. cit. p. 35.

12. The original source of this quotation has been obscured by the frequency with which it has been cited in histories of American botany and biographical sketches of Bartram.

13. For Collinson’s letter of April 9, 1765 informing Bartram of his appointment, see Darlington’s Memorials, op. cit. p. 268.

14. Paul Meyer, unpublished thesis, op. cit. p. 5.

previous page next pgae