The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 7. William Bartram

Coleridge, who found pleasure in Carver’s descriptions, doubtless set a higher value upon Bartram; he says in Table Talk: “The latest book of travels I know, written in the spirit of the old travellers, is Bartram’s account of his tour in the Floridas. It is a work of high merit every way.” The poet almost certainly refers, not to A Journal Kept by John Bartram of Philadelphia, Botanist to His Majesty for the Floridas; but to the volume of Travels by his son, William Bartram. Yet it is difficult to mention the son without reference to the father, whom Linnæus called the greatest self-taught botanist in the world. John Bartram, born in 1699, when almost seventy years old explored the St. John’s River in Florida, accompanied by William, who in turn made a second journey to the region in 1773, “at the request of Dr. Fothergill, of London,” the English naturalist being zealous “for the discovery of rare and useful productions … chiefly in the vegetable kingdom.” Both father and son corresponded with European scientists, including Gronov and Dillen, but more particularly with Peter Collinson, through whom the elder Bartram came into relations with virtually all the distinguished naturalists of his time. The botanic garden for which the father began to collect in 1730, and which is now within the limits of Philadelphia, was justly famous. Here, it is said, Washington and Franklin were wont to sit and talk just prior to the Revolution; and Bartram’s Garden is still an object of interest as the first establishment of its kind on this continent. From a local guide is extracted this description of its founder:

  • He was one of an early incorporated company to bank the Schuylkill and the Delaware, by which means he rescued, out of extensive swamps, arable land, and pasture for many cattle and horses; his crops of wheat challenge the farmer of to-day; he fertilized his orchard in an ingenious way that was a “miracle in husbandry.” Besides, he was stone-manson; his interesting old house he built with his own hands, quarrying the stone on his estate in a remarkable manner; see, also, in the Garden the watering-trough and the ciderpress, cut out of solid rock. And his record is fuller yet; he had to study Latin for his botany; he was enough acquainted with medicine and surgery to be great help to his poorer neighbors; he delineated a plan for deep-sea soundings more than a hundred years before the Challanger expedition. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable. His joy in the revelations of nature was unbounded. What wonder that he was astonished when people complained that they were tired of time!
  • His son William, called by the Seminoles “Puc-Puggy” (Flower-Hunter), was born at Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, 1739, he and his twin-sister taking fifth place in the succession of children. He grew up with the Garden, accompanied his father on collecting tours, travelled himself, and published his Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, as well as “the most complete and correct list of American birds prior to the work of Alexander Wilson”; he lived in Philadelphia, unmarried, a student of science, caring for the Garden until his death in 1823. A professorship was offered him in 1782 by the University of Pennsylvania, but failing health led him to decline it. His manuscript work on the Indians was published by the American Ethnological Society in 1853.

    The Travels reveal the enthusiasm of a man still young, with an eye that nothing escapes, not without poetical imagination or philosophical vision, and with a deep reverence for the Creative Spirit which he feels in all about him. The volume is divided into four Parts. In the first, the Introduction, he recounts the voyage by packet from Philadelphia to Savannah, whence he proceeds to the “Alatamaha” River. The second describes East Florida, and the ascent of St. John’s River in a small canoe. On reaching Lake George, “which is a dilatation of the River St. Juan,” his vessel “at once diminished to a nutshell on the swelling seas.” The Indian whom he engaged to assist him on the upper river becoming weary, Bartram continues on alone, to encamp at an orange grove, to battle with alligators, and to observe “a large sulphureous fountain.” Descending again, he is robbed by a wolf, and so, after sundry adventures, arrives at the lower trading-house. He than “proceeds on a journey to Cuscowilla,” where he meets with a friendly reception from the “Siminoles,” and from there goes to view the “great bason” or sink, whose subterranean waters swarm with fish. In Part III, having returned to Charleston, he sets out for the Cherokee territories and the “Chactaw” country, going as far the Mobile, from which, turing back, he accomponies a band of traders to visit the Creeks. Again in the company of traders, he sets off for Georgia; from Augusta he revisits Savannah, whence he makes a “short excursion in the South of Georgia,” adding to his collection, and gathering seeds of “two new and very curious shrubs.” At Charleston he began the overland journey northward through Virginia; he crossed the River Susquehanna on the ice, “next morning sat forward again towards Philadelphia,” and in two days more arrived at his father’s house on the banks of the River Schuylkill, having been absent nearly five years.

    Though collecting as a botanist and observing as an ornithologist, Bartram thus far has mainly been occupied with the Indians. In Part IV he discusses their persons, charecter, and qualifications, noting that they have the “most perfect human figure,” their government and civil society, their dress and amusements, property and occupations, marriage and funeral rites, and their language and monuments. The ready pencil of the naturalist provided the engraver with drawings of botanical and zoological subjects throughout the volume. The frontispiece represents “Mico Chlucco the Long Warrior, or King of the Siminoles,” whose dancing crest of splendid feathers flashes again in Wordsworth’s Ruth

    A bare survey does scant justice to the richness of form and colour in Bartram’s pages. At one time he is struck with “the tall aspiring Gordonia lasianthus.” “Its thick foliage, of a dark green colour, is flowered over with large milk-white fragrant blossoms, on long slender elastic peduncles, at the extremities of its numerous branches, from the bosom of the leaves, and renewed every morning”—the “budding, fading, faded flowers” of Ruth. Or again we see the solitary dejected “wood-pelican,” alone on the topmost limb of a dead cypress; “it looks extremely grave, sorrowful, and malancholy, as if in the deepest thought”—an image used by Wordsworth in Book Third of The Prelude. Of the “Alatamaha” Bartram says: “I ascended this beautiful river, on whose fruitful banks the generous and true sons of liberty securely dwell, fifty miles above the white settlements.” Allured by the “sublime enchanting scenes of primitive nature,” and by “visions of terrestrial happiness,” he wandered away to a grove at the edge of a luxuriant savannah:

  • How happily situated is this retired spot of earth! What an elysium it is! where the wandering Siminole, the naked red warrior, roams at large, and after the vigorous chase retires from the scorching heat of the meridian sun. Here he reclines and reposes under the odoriferous shades of Zanthoxylon, his verdant couch guarded by the Deity; Liberty, and the Muses, inspiring him with wisdom and valour, whilst the balmy zephyrs fan him to sleep.
  • The apostrophes and redundant descriptions, which the rigorous German translator pruned away, did not prevent Zimmermann from calling Bartram’s volume one of the most instructive works of the time. The faults of an unpractised writer are relieved by a constant cheerfulness, candour, and animation; “cheerful,” “cheering,” and “social” are favourite epithets. The words “animate,” “animating,” “vibration,”and the like, give a clue to his Neoplatonic and Hartleian philosophy, which subtly recommended him to contemporary European poets:

  • If, then, the visible, the mechanical part of the animal creation, the mere material part, is so admirably beautiful, harmonious, and incomprehensible, what must be the intellectual system? that inexpressibly more essential principle, which secretly operates within? that which animates the inimitable machines, which gives them motion, impowers them to act, speak, and perform, this must be divine and immortal?
  • There is a motion and a spirit in the environment itself: “At the reanimating appearance of the rising sun, nature again revives”; “the atmosphere was now animated with the efficient principle of vegetative life”; “the balmy winds breathed the animating odours of the groves around me.” “At the return of the morning, by the powerful influence of light, the pulse of nature becomes more active, and the universal vibration of life insensibly and irresistibly moves the wondrous machine. How cheerful and gay all nature appears.” In Bartram the “feeling for nature” is quite as distinct as the idea of the “natural” man. The social philosophy of the time is more apparent in Créveœur.

    In a letter to Richard Henderson on the subject of immigrants, Washington writes (19 June, 1788):

  • The author of the queries may then be referred to the Information for those who would wish to remove to America, and [sic] published in Europe in the year 1784, by the great philosopher Dr. Franklin. Short as it is, it contains almost everything that needs to be known on the subject of migrating to this country.…
  • Of books at present existing, Mr. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia will give the best idea of this part of the continent to a foreigner; and the American Farmer’s Letters, written by Mr. Crèvecœur (commonly called Mr. St. John), the French consul in New York, who actually resided twenty years as a farmer in that State, will afford a great deal of profitable and amusive information, respecting the private life of the Americans, as well as the progress of agriculture, manufactures, and arts in their country. Perhaps the picture he gives, though founded on fact, is in some instances embellished with rather too flattering circumstances.