William Bartram Essay - Critical Essays

Bartram, William


William Bartram 1739-1823

American naturalist, essayist, and travel writer.

Bartram was an eighteenth-century American naturalist and explorer who spent four years classifying the flora and fauna and chronicling his adventures in the uncharted wilderness of the southeastern region of the United States. This region now comprises North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Collected in Bartram’s Travels (1791), these insights present a unique combination of scientific inquiry, exotic travelogue, and religious fervor. Written in a florid, exuberant prose style, the work fired the imagination of countless European readers who had a romantic notion of life on the American frontier and influenced the pastoral imagery employed by such Romantic poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey. The Travels is now recognized as an important historical and cultural work which documents an untrammeled American landscape prior to its settlement and development.

Biographical Information

Bartram was born February 9, 1739, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the son of the celebrated botanist, John Bartram, who had cultivated the first Botanic Garden in North America and who had established a thriving commercial business selling rare and exotic plants and seeds to horticulturists in Europe. Early on, William demonstrated an interest similar to his father’s in botany and scientific discovery. He accompanied his father on several horticultural expeditions into the frontier region where he nurtured his skill at sketching images of the plants and animals that they discovered in the region. Despite his skill at drawing natural objects and his interest in botany, Bartram did not distinguish himself in his formal education at the Philadelphia Academy. By 1756, the elder Bartram had removed William from school and placed him in the apprenticeship of a Philadelphia merchant. Demonstrating a growing restlessness, Bartram did not remain an apprentice for long, nor did he accept the offer of family friend, Benjamin Franklin, to become an apprentice in his engraving business. In 1761, with the financial backing of his uncle, Colonel William Bartram, Bartram opened up a trading depot at Cape Fear, North Carolina. This venture lasted a few years before failing. To ameliorate Bartram’s losses, his father offered him a position on his imminent scientific expedition to the Florida territory which recently had been acquired by the British in the Peace of Paris of 1763. After the expedition, Bartram decided to remain in Florida and start an indigo and rice plantation. Like the Cape Fear venture, this enterprise failed, leaving him in desperate financial straits. In these years of uncertainty, Bartram worked on the family farm and considered other business ventures in North Carolina and Florida.

In 1772, Bartram received a commission from English botanist and family friend, Dr. John Fothergill, to explore southeastern American territories and produce specimens, seeds, and drawings of the rare and exotic plants of the region. This expedition, which lasted from 1773 until 1777, formed the basis for Bartram’s Travels. Despite the scientific success of Bartram’s wilderness adventure, the onset of the Revolutionary War interrupted the exchange of horticultural specimens for his financial backing. Further, Bartram had contracted a fever in Alabama which permanently impaired his eyesight. In 1777, he returned to Philadelphia where he convalesced and helped maintain the family gardens. Largely due to his extended foray into the Florida wilderness, Bartram had established a reputation akin to his father’s as one of America’s foremost botanists. In 1782, he was offered a position as professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, but he declined due to his poor health. Four years later, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society, an organization which had been founded by his father and Franklin, among others. In 1791, after some fifteen years of collection and revision, Bartram published his Travels. The work extended his fame from America to Europe where it became an immediate success in England before being translated into German, Dutch, and French. Bartram spent his later years corresponding and consulting with other scientists in the botanical community. In the early nineteenth century, President Thomas Jefferson offered him a position on the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana territory, but once again poor health forced Bartram to decline. Instead, he stayed home and helped to cultivate the family Botanical Garden. Bartram died while walking in his garden on July 22, 1823.

Major Works

Bartram’s Travels has been viewed as a product of the confluence of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment pursuit of rational, scientific order, and the imminent nineteenth-century Romantic concept of the sublime beauty of nature. While it was Bartram’s objective to catalogue and classify all manner of flora, fauna, and terrain with an eye toward the future exploitation and agricultural utilization of the land, nevertheless he was repeatedly overcome by a wondrous joy at each new discovery in the uncharted wilderness. Further, Bartram’s passion was underscored by his Pennsylvania Quaker upbringing in which one identifies the omniscient role of God the Creator in all that occurs in the natural world. As a result, Bartram’s rational observations about such natural phenomena as the complex symmetric shapes of plants and the instinctive habits of animals are always tempered by the reminder that God’s hand in the natural order is an act which can only elicit incomprehensible wonder in humans. But such an abject faith in God’s work also reveals an ominous undercurrent which runs throughout the Travels. The book abounds with images of hunting and warfare which characterize the wilderness as an environment of incessant conflict. Whether he is documenting his struggle for survival against Florida alligators, the eating habits of spiders, or the hostile relations between white settlers and native Indians, Bartram’s idealistic descriptions of the wilderness as an Edenic paradise are leavened by the fact that a closer examination of nature reveals it to be a violent, inhospitable place.

Critical Reception

Although it was initially intended to be a scientific report to Bartram’s patron, Dr. Fothergill, the Travels quickly became a classic in the burgeoning literary traditions of American naturalism and travel literature. Bartram’s graphic and eloquent descriptions of the unspoiled and forbidding American wilderness excited countless leisure readers across Europe. Physical scientists were drawn to his detailed identification and classification of theretofore unknown plants and animals. Indeed, Bartram’s compilation of some 215 native birds was at that time the most comprehensive documentation of the species. In the centuries since its publication, the Travels has endured as an important scientific, literary, and historical record of the southeastern United States prior to its settlement and development. N. Bryllion Fagin has focused on Bartram’s artistic approach to writing the Travels, maintaining that the author’s rhapsodic literary style and exuberant enthusiasm vitalizes his descriptions with a painter’s eye for graphic detail. Robert D. Arner has identified several dichotomies in the thematic structure of the work—such as poetry and science, wilderness and civilization, cultivated land and pristine nature—which reveal Bartram’s ambivalence about his project. Bruce Silver has discussed Bartram’s careful examination of nature without the modern limitation of imposing a strict level of impartiality on his observations, concluding that the author’s insights—suffused with religious, aesthetic, and utilitarian convictions—give his descriptions a compelling philosophical dimension. Several commentators have analyzed the influence of prominent eighteenth-century concepts in Bartram’s Travels. While Hugh Moore has noted the remarkable fusion of Romantic and Rationalist ideas in the work, John Seelye has pointed out the author’s wholehearted belief in the divine providence of nature. In recent years, scholars have underscored these philosophical and religious sentiments in the Travels. Pamela Regis has demonstrated how Bartram employed two distinct descriptive techniques—the identification of natural history and the presentation of sublime beauty—to reveal two complementary aspects of creation. In addition, Charles H. Adams has interpreted Bartram as an ironist who recognizes in his natural discoveries the transience and insignificance of humankind in the long history of the planet. Further, Thomas P. Slaughter has asserted that Bartram adopts the persona of “philosophical pilgrim” who has a revelation that all of nature is collectively infused with God’s spirit. According to the critic, this realization creates a tension in Bartram between his utilitarian desire to see the cultivation of nature and his teleological belief that God’s creation should remain unspoiled.

Principal Works

Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee country, the extensive territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the country of the Chactaws (prose) 1791; also published as Travels of William Bartram: Naturalist's Edition [enlarged edition] 1958

“Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians, 1789” (essay) 1853

*Travels in Georgia and Florida, 1773-74: A Report to Dr. John Fothergill (prose) 1943

*This is an official report on the expedition that also produced Bartram's prose work Travels.


N. Bryllion Fagin (essay date 1933)

SOURCE: Fagin, N. Bryllion. “The Art of Bartram.” In William Bartram: Interpreter of the American Landscape, pp. 101-123. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1933.

[In the following excerpt, Fagin provides an important reassessment of Bartram's Travels, noting unique stylistic techniques and describing underpinnings of his philosophy. Fagin also briefly notes the influences on Bartram as well as the effect he had on later writers.]

Throughout this study Bartram's “style” has received incidental mention. This has been inevitable because of the amount of attention it has attracted from both literary and scientific commentators. English reviewers noted his...

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Robert D. Arner (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Arner, Robert D. “Pastoral Patterns in William Bartram's Travels.Tennessee Studies in Literature 18 (1973): 133-45.

[In the following essay, Arner explores Bartram's account of his travels in terms of his personal discoveries and the impact the work had on future American literature.]

Like many of the classic works of American literature, William Bartram's Travels is structured around a three-part pastoral pattern that begins with the naturalist's withdrawal from society, focuses upon an encounter with nature, usually intensely personal and fraught with ambiguities, and ends either with the explorer's return to civilization or with some...

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Bruce Silver (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Silver, Bruce. “William Bartram's and Other Eighteenth-Century Accounts of Nature.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39, no. 4 (1978): 597-614.

[In the following essay, Silver argues that critics have overlooked the contribution of Bartram to the naturalist literary tradition. Also investigated is how the Travels characterize the natural world.]

Despite the intellectual productivity of our Bicentennial year, too little was said about colonial Americans whose contributions to our culture were not tied to the decision and struggle for independence. William Bartram (1739-1823), the apolitical son of the Quaker botanist John Bartram (1699-1777), is among...

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Hugh Moore (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Moore, Hugh. “The Southern Landscape of William Bartram: A Terrible Beauty.” Essays in Arts and Sciences 10, no. 1 (1981): 41-50.

[In the following essay, Moore argues that Bartram's Travels is powerful and effective because of the writer's ability “to write as a Romantic poet with a sense of wonder, feeling, and imagination and as a scientific Rationalist like his father.”]

William Bartram's Travels (1791) is perhaps the most comprehensive work from early America. It is a pioneering and inclusive natural history of the new world—its botany, zoology, geology, ethnology—with observations on agricultural, industrial, and commercial...

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John Seelye (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Seelye, John. “Beauty Bare: William Bartram and His Triangulated Wilderness.” Prospects: The Annual of American Cultural Studies 6 (1981): 37-54.

[In the following essay, Seelye claims that Travels was originally intended as a record of scientific observations, but a closer look reveals a humanistic tone that is based on the divine providence of nature.]

In September 1753 the American botanist John Bartram set out with his young son Billy from their farm on the banks of the Schuylkill for the Catskill Mountains for the purpose of gathering seeds and plant samples. The journey ended at the Hudson Valley home of Cadwallader Colden, surveyor-general of...

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L. Hugh Moore (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Moore, L. Hugh. “The Aesthetic Theory of William Bartram.” Essays in Arts and Sciences 12, no. 1 (March 1983): 17-35.

[In the following essay, Moore argues that Bartram is a prime example of a writer trying to describe nature within the context of eighteenth-century aesthetic theory.]

From its publication in 1791, William Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida has been praised for its scientific and literary merit. Francis Harper and Joseph Ewan, among others, have demonstrated the value of Bartram's contributions to zoology, botany, and ethnology, the precision of his observations, and the logic of his...

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Christopher Looby (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Looby, Christopher. “The Constitution of Nature: Taxonomy as Politics in Jefferson, Peale, and Bartram.” Early American Literature 22, no. 3 (1987): 252-73.

[In the following essay, Looby discusses the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Charles Willson Peale, and Bartram in relation to their views on the relationship between the natural order and the social order.]

Natural history,” Benjamin Rush wrote, “is the foundation of all useful and practical knowledge.” He made this remark in 1791, in the context of designing the proper education for the citizens of the new American republic. “By making natural history the first study of a boy, we imitate the...

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Douglas Anderson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Anderson, Douglas. “Bartman's Travels and the Politics of Nature.” Early American Literature 25, no. 1, (1990): 3-17.

[In the following essay, Anderson examines the lessons Bartram attempts to teach his reader in Travels, lessons that nature can teach society about its social and political organization.]

William Bartram's Travels (1791), like so many of the most interesting products of the Anglo-American sensibility in the eighteenth century, challenges the reader's capacities of adjustment. It presents itself at various times as a travel journal, a naturalist's notebook, a moral and religious effusion, an ethnographic essay, and a...

(The entire section is 6191 words.)

Pamela Regis (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Regis, Pamela. “Description and Narration in Bartram's Travels.” In Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crèvecoeur, and the Rhetoric of Natural History, pp. 40-78. Northern Illinois University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Regis examines Bartram's use of narrative as a mode for employing two different description techniques for the external world.]

As an instance of the literature of place, William Bartram's Travels represents large portions of the territories of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to readers eager for images of the New World they had never seen. Using the rhetoric and method of natural history,...

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Charles H. Adams (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Adams, Charles H. “Reading Ecologically: Language and Play in Bartram's Travels.The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 32, no. 4 (summer 1994): 65-74.

[In the following essay, Adams argues that previous characterizations of Bartram have been too narrow, and that in Travels the author creates a world that mirrors the natural one.]

In Part III of his Travels (1791), William Bartram describes a spot on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River near Augusta called Silver Bluff, the property of a trader named George Golphin. “Silver-Bluff is,” he says, “a very celebrated place,” mainly because of the...

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Joshua David Bellin (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Bellin, Joshua David. “Wicked Instruments: William Bartram and the Dispossession of the Southern Indians.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 51, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 1-23.

[In the following essay, Bellin analyzes Bartram's view of native Americans and their use of land compared to the European settlers.]


On June 1, 1773, William Bartram witnessed the Treaty of Augusta, in which Creek and Cherokee Indians, constrained by trade debts, ceded two million acres of land to the Crown.1 While accompanying government agents and tribal chiefs on the surveying mission, Bartram noted a...

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Gregory A. Waselkov (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Waselkov, Gregory A. “Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida. …” In William Bartram on the Southeastern Indians, edited by Gregory A. Waselkov and Kathryn E. Holland Braund, pp. 25-32. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Waselkov examines the evolution of the manuscript of Bartram's Travels and its general reception.]

William Bartram's Travels has been dubbed “the most astounding verbal artifact of the early republic.”1 Indeed, Bartram's work, which “presents itself at various times as a travel journal, a naturalist's notebook, a moral and...

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Thomas P. Slaughter (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Slaughter, Thomas P. “Perspectives.” In The Natures of John and William Bartram, pp. 177-96. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

[In the following essay, Slaughter claims that, while Travels is a complicated work that has many facets, there is one message that Bartram wanted to voice more than any other: “all of nature is one … and infused with the spirit of its creator.”]

Is William Bartram's Travels poetry, readers have asked, fiction, or science? Are the author and the “philosophical pilgrim” the same person or different ones sharing the same name? Is the story true, readers have always wanted to know, or did the author alter the...

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Thomas Hallock (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Hallock, Thomas. “‘On the Borders of a New World’: Ecology, Frontier Plots, and Imperial Elegy in William Bartram's Travels.South Atlantic Review 66, no. 4 (fall 2001): 109-33.

[In the following essay, Hallock traces the development of Bartram's Travels, noting its integration of contemporary artistic modes as well as its internal contradictions, and concludes by characterizing the work as one of America's first outstanding pastoral projects.]

such attempts I leave for the amusement of men of Letters

—William Bartram1

As the movement in any pastoral away...

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Further Reading


Lowes, John Livingston. “Introduction.” In The Travels of William Bartram, edited by Francis Harper, pp. xvii-xxxv. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.

Provides an overview of Bartram's life and career.


Branch, Michael. “Indexing American Possibilities: The Natural History Writing of Bartram, Wilson, and Audubon.” In The Ecocriticism Reader, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, pp. 282-97. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Compares early romantic ideas about nature in the New World.

Curtis, S. E. G. “A Comparison...

(The entire section is 422 words.)