John Bartram

John Bartram (1699-1777) was the first native-born American botanist. He achieved considerable inter national fame as a collector of botanical specimens.

John Bartram was born on March 23, 1699, near Darby, Pa. He spent his youth farming, which may have sparked his interest in plants. His attempts to learn botany by purchasing books brought him to the attention of some Philadelphians, most notably James Logan, who encouraged him in the more systematic pursuit of that science. In 1728 Bartram purchased a plot of ground near Kingsessing, just below Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River, where he laid out a botanical garden and built a stone house. This garden, which survives in part to this day, was a mecca for visiting botanists throughout his lifetime and afterward.

Probably through Logan, who was William Penn's secretary, Bartram came into contact with a fellow Quaker, Peter Collinson, the London naturalist who acted as a patron to several American scientists. Their correspondence after 1733 provides many insights into the circumstances of the adoption of new plants in the respective countries. Collinson arranged for Bartram to collect specimens for him in America, providing partial support for the relatively poor American. The relationship between the two scientists was very close, and Collinson thought of Bartram as his pupil. Bartram's contact with Collinson brought him to the attention of Carl Linnaeus and other European naturalists, and Bartram established, through his collection of seeds and plant specimens, a substantial European reputation before he was well known in America.


Collecting New World Specimens

Bartram made several long-range collecting expeditions, some of them financed partly by European naturalists. He traveled 1100 miles across the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1738, explored the Catskill Mountains in 1755, and in 1760 traveled through the Carolinas. He was, however, forced to farm and to practice medicine locally in order to support his large family. Only in 1765, when Collinson got him an appointment as botanist to the king, was he assured of a steady income of any sort. Bartram was very honest and blunt, and he told Collinson that the £50 he was to receive for the post was not enough.

His European reputation brought Bartram to the notice of other American naturalists, particularly Cadwallader Colden of New York and Alexander Garden of South Carolina. Although some correspondence and cooperation occurred between these American botanists, Garden and especially Colden (who had mastered the Linnaean system of classification) felt that Bartram lacked the systematic skills to go beyond simple collecting. Bartram seems to have been attracted to the field by a love of plants and living, growing things, rather than from any abstract sense of scientific accomplishment. He possessed excellent powers of observation but never became a systematic specialist in the modern sense of the word. His interests ranged also to geology, and he suggested a geological survey of the country to determine the potential usefulness of various parts of the North American continent. He also suggested a general western exploration expedition similar to that later accomplished by Lewis and Clark.

Bartram regretted his lack of opportunity to further his education and training in the sciences in the New World, and he became one of the founding spirits of what developed into the American Philosophical Society, America's first scientific society. Disagreement over the founding of this organization in 1743 may have contributed to Bartram's estrangement from his onetime sponsor James Logan. The Philosophical Society was not permanently founded at this time, and most of the support for Bartram's work continued to come from Europe, indicating that the Colonies were not yet strong enough to support a scientific establishment on their own.

Bartram was a person of very independent character, a complete individualist who, though he was willing to carry out projects for Peter Collinson, took little direction from others. Read out of a Quaker meeting for his unwillingness to acknowledge the divinity of Christ, he nevertheless carried his deep convictions to the point of freeing his slaves and rehiring them as paid servants. As for Native Americans, however, a frightening experience near Pittsburgh made him less tolerant. Thus, his humanitarianism, like his career, was individualistic rather than consistent.


His Significance

Bartram published journals of his travels, the most important of which was Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soil, etc … Made by John Bartram in His Travels from Pennsylvania to … Lake Ontario (1751). The most significant part of his work was actual collecting of specimens for Collinson and others. In his celebrated garden he began some work with hybrid plants which, though not systematic, stimulated interest. The garden itself and Bartram's home became a focal point for botanical activity in the Colonies. His lack of knowledge of systematic classification seems, curiously, to have bothered his ambitious American friends more than it did the European scientists. Though some have suggested that he was in effect a "creation" of the gifted Londoner Collinson, at the time of his death, on Sept. 22, 1777, Bartram was regarded by Linnaeus as the greatest contemporary "natural botanist" in the world

Bartram married Mary Morris in 1723, by whom he had two sons. On her death in 1727, he married Ann Mendenhall, by whom he had five sons and four daughters. Much of his energy was devoted to supporting this large family.


Further Reading on John Bartram

A selection of writings by John and William Bartram is available in Helen Gere Cruickshank, ed., John and William Bartram's America: Selections from the Writings of the Philadelphia Naturalists (1957). The standard biography of Bartram is Ernest Earnest, John and William Bartram, Botanists and Explorers (1940), replacing the older William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphrey Marshall: With Notices of Their Botanical Contemporaries (1849). A popular account can be found in Josephine Herbst, New Green World (1954). General background is in Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary America, 1735-1789 (1956).

Additional Biography Sources

Berkeley, Edmund, The life and travels of John Bartram from Lake Ontario to the River St. John, Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida, 1982.