Naturalist William Bartram took notes rich in sensory and reflective detail on his 18th-century journey through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, capturing flora, fauna and humanity
John Bartram, billed as America’s first professional botanist, had a son named William in 1739. William closely followed in his father’s footsteps by fully understanding botany. He also demonstrated his ability to draw and write the details of his observations. He decided in 1765 to document plant life in the new territory of Florida acquired by the Spaniards.
His explorer streak honed, William set out again in 1773 on a nearly four-year journey of botany that involved collecting seeds and specimens, drawing comprehensive drawings of flora and fauna, and making notes on the habitats, growth patterns, etc. But William focused just as much on the people as on the culture. His intuitive writings take us with him on well traveled trails, on top of a mount borrowed on the equestrian trails of Aboriginal peoples, or inside canoes on rivers and streams.
He personally and enthusiastically shares each time he approaches a new species: “The Cupressus disticha [bald cypress] … his majestic stature is surprising; and approaching it, we are struck with a kind of awe, at the sight of the majesty of the trunk, raising its cumbersome top to the heavens.
But William doesn’t just appreciate nature, he shamelessly attributes the Creator. “The world, as the glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator, is furnished with an infinite variety of lively scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasurable, equally free for the inspection and enjoyment of all its creatures.”
He often thanks God when he considers perils, such as thunderstorms or aggressive alligators. “I presume now, with a high feeling of gratitude, to offer my heartfelt thanks to the Almighty, the Creator and the Custodian.”
And, while William might have embellished and boasted when he finished his arduous journey, he instead presented his book in 1791 as a literary hybrid of natural history, travelogue and religious allegory that is childlike in wonder and humility. For example, his fascination with encounters with American Indians has never been denied. “They all shouted in chorus, took me by the hand in a friendly way… and laughing out loud, said that I was a sincere friend of the Siminoles [Seminoles].” “The prince is the chief of Whatoga [Cherokee]a man universally loved, … and venerated for his exemplary virtues.
William left us his story so that even in modernity we can travel with him to a less adulterated America at any time.
The original title of Bartram’s book was almost 50 words. In the more than two centuries of multiple printings, the title of the book has been shortened to “Voyages de William Bartram” or “Bartram’s Travels”.
“Travels of William Bartram”, edited by Mark Van Doren (Dover Publications, 1955).
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.