Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

An unusual man, of seemingly boundless talent and insatiable curiosity, John Bartram (1699-1777) was many things to many people. Although primarily regarded as a botanist, he might also have been considered a paleontologist, an archaeol­ogist, a geologist, a limnologist, a conchologist, an ethnologist, and so on. Like Thomas Jefferson, he was a prime example of that rare, almost unique, combination of practicality and intellectualism. Much like Benjamin Franklin, he was a diligent correspondent, constantly communicating with his counterparts on the Continent and importing books and treatises on many subjects, particularly science, history, literature, and religion. He befriended William Penn’s erudite secretary James Logan, Philadelphia’s preeminent physician Benjamin Rush, and luminaries of the period, including Virginia’s William Byrd II, John Mitchell, and John Clayton, as well as Alexander Garden of South Carolina, Cadwallader Colden of New York, and Jared Eliot of Massachusetts, who later wrote the first American book on agriculture. And much like his son William, he was the quintessential explorer, fascinated by the uncharted world around him.

John Bartram was the first American­-born colonist recognized by leading European scientists not only for his discoveries, but for the generosity with which he shared news of his findings. He attracted the attention of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the brilliant Swedish botanist and originator of the system of taxonomic classification, who described him as “the greatest natural botanist in the world.” He regularly corresponded with at least fifty European scientists, among them Peter Collinson and John Fothergill, wealthy Quakers living in London, who would prove to be extremely important to his and his son William’s botanical work.

Bartram’s ancestors emigrated from Derbyshire, England. His grandfather arrived before founder William Penn, settling in Darby (in what is now Delaware County) in 1682. John Bartram’s mother Elizabeth died when he was an infant, and several years later his father remarried and the family moved to North Carolina. Ignoring the advice of fellow settlers, the family moved out beyond the area of protection and into Indian territory in search of land suitable for farming. John’s father was scalped. John and his stepmother were captured but later escaped and John was sent to live with his grand­mother on the family farm in Darby. Upon her death the property was to become his.

Bartram had received limited formal education at the Darby Friends School. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a farmer but avidly pursued his hobby, botany. He was young when he inherited the family farm, but he quickly became recognized as a man of sub­stance. In 1723, he declared his intention of marrying Mary Maris of the Chester Monthly Meeting of Friends, which was approved by the Darby Meeting to which he belonged.

In 1727, great storms and floods ravaged southeastern Pennsylvania, followed by an epidemic during which Mary Maris Bartram died. The following year, Bartram purchased at sheriff’s sale a tract of one hundred and two acres and a small five-acre parcel at Kingsessing on the Schuylkill River, about three miles downstream from Philadelphia, just below Gray’s Ferry. The property’s location gave him easy access to Philadelphia to transact business, to visit the library, to meet with Benjamin Franklin and learned friends and, later, to attend the meetings of the American Philosophical Society, of which he and Franklin were founders in 1743. On his newly acquired property stood a small stone house built by Swedes at about the time of Penn’s arrival in 1682. Bartram married Ann Mendenhall of the Concord Meeting in 1729, and it is her and John’s names that are carved in a stone under the eaves of the southwest end of the addition he made to the original house two years later.

Bartram’s chief occupation was running his farm – and for a most practical reason. By his first wife he had two sons, of which only Isaac had survived infancy; between 1730 and 1748, he and Ann had nine children, eight of whom had survived infancy. With such a sizable family he needed a decent livelihood. He also owned several slaves, who he freed and paid wages as well as providing them with living quarters.

He acquired land whenever it became available and expanded his farm until it exceeded three hundred acres. He sold several small tracts at substantial profit and purchased several lots in Philadelphia as investments. In his later years he profited by exporting seeds, plants, and cuttings to Europe. He made time to continue exploring and collect­ing, traveling greater distances as he became more financially secure.

By being able to produce thirty-five to fifty percent more crops per acre than his neighbors, Bartram demonstrated his skill in tilling the soil. His methods presaged present-day agricultural practices, such as crop rotation, fallow field, ditching to divert drainage, and using compost with manure and gypsum. He persuaded farmers along the Schuylkill River to join him in reclaiming swamp lands to make into meadows.

There exist several stories citing what first stimulated Bartram’s interest in botany. He was known to act as a doctor in prescribing herbs for neighboring farmers unable to travel to Philadelphia to see a physician, and for those who could not afford a doctor’s services. Due to the murder of his father by American Indians, and because they interfered at times with his explorations, Bartram disliked them. Yet somehow he managed to learn a great deal about their herbal lore, had great respect for it, and utilized it. His son William claims this as the source of his father’s fascination with botany. In The Letters of an American Farmer, published in 1783, agriculturist and author Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur (1731-1813) offered a highly romanticized version of the beginning of Bartram’s love affair with flora.

One day I was very busy holding my plow (for thee seest that I am but a simple plowman) and being weary I ran under the shade of a tree to repose myself. I cast my eyes on a daisy, I plucked it mechanically and viewed it with more curiosity than common country farmers are wont to do; and observing therein many parts, some perpendicular, some horizontal. 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! This seeming inspira­tion suddenly awakened my curiosity for these were not thoughts to which I was accustomed.

John Bartram’s own version, con­tained in a letter to Peter Collinson in May 1764, differs from Crevecoeur’s and his son’s accounts. “I had always, since ten years old,” he wrote, “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.” Despite the opposition of his first wife to “botanical study,” he traveled to Philadelphia seeking the advice of a bookseller who supplied him with several books on botany and a Latin grammar.

Across the Atlantic, Collinson’s growing affluence made it possible for him to compete with the nobility in the hobby of collecting exotic horticultural specimens, resulting in his becoming a patron of John Bartram. Their relation­ship lasted thirty-five years and encouraged Bartram’s acquaintance with a large number of correspondents. It was the sheer number of correspondents that made it possible for Bartram to ship, over time, about two hundred different American species of plants new to England and the Continent. In return, he acquired many exotic specimens that he added to his garden.

In Europe, botany fascinated many. The earliest reports on plant sexuality made to the Royal Society in London by Nehemiah Grew about 1682 attracted much attention. By 1717, Richard Bentley claimed success in hybridization, which earned him respect and admiration. Philip Miller, curator of the famous Chelsea Physic Garden, reported on pollinization by bees, claiming his share of accolades. But it was a treatise by “the American” – a report by farmer John Bartram – read before the Scientific Society of Leyden in Germany that aroused unprecedented excitement. He had methodically set out to pollinate a flower of one color with that of another color in the same species, produced seed and progeny with the color characteristics of both parents, and a range of mixtures of both colors. Bartram’s particularly acute sense of detail and his ability to clearly describe each step produced a scientific report that made it possible for others to replicate the experiment. Europeans were ecstatic with Bartram’s ability to prove what had been until then only theory. From this beginning his reputation grew and spread, enhancing Collinson’s efforts in attracting even more patrons eager for Bartram’s new world exotics.

Peter Collinson played a key role in gaining for Bartram the notice of English and European scientists. It was Collinson, who after several years of cajoling the Crown, gained for Bartram the post of King’s Botanist in America under George III. The stipend of fifty pounds a year was not munificent, but it did enable Bartram to underwrite the expenses of his varied explorations. Not only did Collinson promote his protege abroad, but he knew many of the important natural scientists in the colonies, to whom, through correspon­dence, he introduced him. Collinson presented to Bartram a veritable parade of individuals of great wealth and fame, including Hans Sloane, president of the Royal Society and physician to the king; Daniel Solander of the British Museum; explorer and ornithologist Mark Catesby; Dutch botanist John Frederic Gronovius; and Sweden’s Queen Ulrica. Many wealthy individuals, particularly British, found it fashionable to be amateur horticulturists and were enlisted as patrons to buy seeds and cuttings from Bartram. When the Earl of Bute died, the inventory of his estate counted two hundred and twenty thousand seedling trees, mostly American, in his extensive nursery. Many had been supplied by John Bartram.

Even nature conspired, albeit unwit­tingly, to aid Bartram’s cause. Much of Europe-including two-thirds of Great Britain – had been denuded of a wide variety of bees and flora by the last glaciation ten thousand years before. North America had not been so exten­sively touched by the Ice Age and retained countless species unknown to Europeans. Today, much of Europe’s landscape illustrates the result of the introduction of about five hundred species of plants from America. Bartram played a great role, because not only did he contribute two hundred new species but he sent large quantities of seeds over many years.

In America, John Bartram’s trip to the headwaters of the Schuylkill River in 1736 was probably the first truly scientific exploration carried out in North America. He not only collected plants, seedlings, and cuttings but he made extensive notes for a report he sent to Collinson. His keen eye missed little. He studied timber, soil characteristics, mountains, streams for mill power, quarry sites with various types of stones and mineral deposits, lime outcroppings, rivers with potential for good fishing, drainage, fossils, and any geological formation he believed to be significant. His map of the river’s course so impressed contemporaries in London that they gave it to a leading cartograph­er in order to redraw the map of eastern Pennsylvania. In spite of Bartram’s prejudice against Indians, the account he gave of a trip he made in 1743 with Indian expert and treaty maker Conrad Weiser and Lewis Evans, a surveyor and map maker, to the Six Nations at Oswego, New York, is comprehensive and objective. Anthropologists still consider his observations the best eyewitness accounts of American Indian culture of the period.

Bartram’s contributions to science went far beyond botany. He disproved a commonly held theory that swallows hibernated in the ocean waters. He disabused Christopher Witt of his opinion that he owned ancient petrified snake’s eggs, which had been purchased from a swami in the Near East. (Actually, Witt’s “treasures” were calcified bones of a horse that had been long buried.) Bartram had a theory, proven more than fifty years later, that marble was formed by the compression of mud and slime. Among his other theories – and one not accepted by geologists for many years­ – Bartram contended there were mountains on the ocean floor, just as they existed on land masses. He also claimed that fossil shells found on mountain tops meant that such land had at one time been submerged. His theories never failed to provoke much amazement and, naturally, some suspicion.

After a long and illustrious career, John Bartram died at the age of seventy­-eight on September 22, 1777, shortly after the defeat of the American forces at the Battle of the Brandywine. He had been greatly concerned about his garden being ravaged by British troops. The property was later occupied by the British, but no damage was done.

Like his father, William Bartram (1739-1823) was widely recognized by Europe’s cognoscenti. Father’s and son’s lives had been inextricably bound by their interests, their far-flung explo­rations, and their passion for sharing news of discoveries and studies. Unlike his father, however, he had distinct advantages. The younger Bartram enjoyed a formal education, studying at the Philadelphia Academy (now the University of Pennsylvania) for four years, beginning in 1752. He had access to his father’s selective library. He met many important, stimulating individuals who visited his father, and with whom he was able to converse freely on an diverse array of subjects.

William, at the age of thirty-eight, returned to his father’s farm in 1777, after a series of explorations either launched or encouraged by his father, to find his brother John operating the garden as a nursery business. Both the garden and the house had been willed to John. William had received his patrimo­ny in the various enterprises he and his father had undertaken, which he thoroughly understood and gracefully accepted. William outlived his brother, who died in 1812. After his death, William continued to live on the proper­ty, working for his niece Ann, who had inherited the property.

While working together, the brothers organized the nursery and in 1784 issued a broadside offering the rare and unusual, as well as selected forms of more common plants. Visitors steadily streamed to the garden, as they had during their father’s lifetime. Among the more notable was a delegation of representatives to the Continental Congress, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Manasseh Cutler, and James Rutledge. The Continental Congress formally recessed to allow the group to visit. For knowledgeable individuals, the garden had garnered an impressive reputation as the repository of both native and exotic plants that John Bartram found to be important.

As time passed, William was being called upon frequently by Benjamin Smith Barton, professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, to help with practical advice and to illustrate his book on botany. Barton and several faculty members used the Bartram garden for field study. Although his contributions to the study of natural sciences were substantial, William received little credit.

Thomas Jefferson, who for a time owned a house on the Schuylkill River, visited frequently and became a friend to William. He purchased plants and forwarded orders from France. George Washington is known to have made purchases on at least two occasions. When Jefferson later served as president, he asked William to explore the West, but he declined. He had traveled extensively and considered himself too old to undertake such rigorous travels.

Although William enjoyed a propi­tious start in life – by the age of fifteen his talents were widely recognized – he was hampered by disappointments and failures. Nothing he attempted seemed to promise self-sufficiency. His father supported him in all things, but his son’s fate continually worried him. Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia and John Fothergill in London tried to be helpful. Franklin offered suggestions for meaningful employment, while Fothergill commissioned William to procure and ship seeds and artifacts from the southern colonies and partly subsidized the cost of William’s four years of travels that provided the material for his famous book, The Travels of William Bartram in Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia, pub­lished in Philadelphia in 1791.

Less heralded and certainly less financially secure than his father, William Bartram might not have earned a satisfactory livelihood, but he did distinguish himself in several areas. He was one of the few white men who could identify Indian tribes. He was well-versed in the classics. In one of his letters to Peter Collinson, his father wrote, “William was being kept busy with French and Latin.” He added, however, that “botany and drawing are his darling delights, I’m afraid he can’t settle to any business else.”

The ambitious John Bartram bears some responsibility for his son’s love of drawing. He encouraged his young son by asking qualified individuals to critique his early drawings. The most prestigious of these critics was C. D. Ehret, the preeminent botanical illustra­tor in England. By the time William turned eighteen, he was rendering drawings of American birds for English ornithologist George Edwards. Eventually, William Bartram emerged as one of the first of American authorities on native birds.

William had sketched one hundred and forty-three species of birds for himself, but the fate and present-day whereabouts of these drawings remain unsolved mysteries. Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), considered America’s first ornithologist, moved to a property on the Schuylkill to be near the Bartrams. Wilson, both in correspondence and through publications, made a point of giving entire credit to William for teaching him to identify and to draw birds. In the meantime, John Bartram constantly worried that William would never be able to earn a living by draw­ing. From time to time there were attempts to establish William in business until the final effort, in 1766, as operator of an indigo plantation in North Carolina failed abysmally.

It was in April 1773 that William Bartram set sail on a packet from Philadelphia to Charleston, South Carolina. He spent much of his first year of this trip in the Carolinas and Georgia, after which he traveled further south to Florida. It was in the eastern section of Florida that he created some of the most striking of his many images.

During an excursion on Georgia’s Altamaha River – retracing a trip he and his father had made years earlier – he once again encountered the Franklinia altamaha, a species of tree his father had discovered in 1765 and named to honor their friend Benjamin Franklin. This was the last time the Franklinia altamaha was seen growing in the wild; the seeds carefully collected by William are the source for all the plants in existence today. During this trip William also found Indian mounds that his father astutely observed could have been the farthest north that the Mayans traveled. John Bartram speculated that the Mayans, finding obstacles to traveling further north by land, had crossed the Gulf of Mexico instead.

William offered, as had his father earlier, many revealing stories of American Indians, but their accounts differ greatly. The younger Bartram’s observations were sensitized by his deeper understanding of Indian culture and his appreciation of the problems of a different civilization displacing them. He accurately assessed the Cherokees and the Creeks whom he had met during his travels. Indians respected him; they affectionately called him Puc Puggi, meaning “the flower man,” an appella­tion bestowed on him by the king of the Seminoles.

Even though the lives and work of the Bartrams did not conflict with their contemporaries, they possessed their own vision of society not always in accord with popular thinking. They were individualists. They were intellectuals. They were sophisticates. They were citizens. They were patriots. And as naturalists, they looked at the world with knowledge acquired through their firsthand experiences and their experiments.

Fortunately (and incredibly) the intellect and curiosity which hallmarked their lives is documented by Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, which exists to this day. Now designated a National Historic Landmark, Bartram’s Garden derives much of its significance from John Bartram’s own personality, his great font of knowledge, and his fame abroad. In addition to his superb and extensive collection of native American flora, he augmented his garden with many exotic specimens sent by his European counter­parts and correspondents.

Like the history of the Bartrams, the history of their garden is just as fascinat­ing. Bartram descendants Ann and Robert Carr sold the property in 1850 to Andrew Eastwick, a wealthy industrial­ist and longtime admirer of the grounds. Eastwick, who used the gardens as a country estate, built a thirty-four-room villa on the grounds (which burned in 1897), but preserved the Bartram family’s mansion and gardens as a tribute to the country’s first botanist. Led by a member of city council, Thomas Meehan, who had once been employed by Eastwick as gardener, the City of Philadelphia purchased the property from Eastwick’s estate in 1891 as a public park for residents not served by the expansive Fairmount Park. Two years later, Bartram descendants held a reunion on the forty-four acre property to commemorate the two hundred and tenth anniversary of the family’s arrival in America. They also established the John Bartram Association – at first open only to family members – to work in cooperation with city officials to preserve their accomplished ancestor’s twenty­-room house and botanical garden. Officially incorporated in 1907, the John Bartram Association attracted members dedicated “to associate ourselves together for the purpose of caring for and preserving the property formerly owned by John Bartram and known as the first American Botanical Garden, by interesting the public in the welfare of this historic spot and by endeavoring to provide for its future preservation.”

Among the eighteenth century specimens which still grace the garden are the rare Franklinia altamaha, the oldest Ginko biloba (ginko tree) in America, and Cladrastis kentuckea (American yellow wood), presented to William Bartram in the 1780s by Francois Andre Michaux, author of American Silva. A plot of twelve acres located between the house and the river represents the botanical garden begun by John Bartram in 1731 and continued by his heirs to the mid­-nineteenth century. In beds near the house grow several hundred species of native American plants collected and propagated by the Bartrams, as docu­mented by their voluminous writings and plant catalogues.

What John Bartram and his family, most notably William, have sown has truly grown into a living American legacy.


Historic Bartram’s Garden, administered by the nonprofit John Bartram Association, is America’s oldest botanical garden. The grounds are open free of charge to the public; admission is charged for tours of the mansion and buildings. For additional information about visiting hours, special events and programs, and travel directions, write: Historic Bartram’s Garden, Fifty-Fourth Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19143; or telephone (215) 729-5281 or TDD (800) 654-5984.


For Further Reading

Adams, Percy G. Crevecoeur’s Eighteenth Century Travels in Pennsylvania and New York. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961.

Bartram, John. A Journey from Pennsylvania to Onondaga in 1743, by John Bartram, Lewis Evans [and] Conrad Weiser. Barre, Mass.: Imprint Society, 1973.

____. Travels in Pensilvania and Canada. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966.

Bell, Whitfield J., Jr. Early American Science, Needs, and Opportunities for Study. Williamsburg: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1955.

Earnest, Ernest P. John and William Bartram, Botanists and Explorers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.

Ewan, Joseph, ed. William Bartram: Botanical and Zoological Drawings, 1756-1788. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1968.

Harshberger, John W. Botanists of Philadelphia and Their Works. Philadelphia: Privately printed, 1899.

Van Doren, Mark., ed. Travels by William Bartram. New York: Dover Press, 1966.


L. Wilbur Zimmerman of Bryn Mawr received his bachelor’s degree from LaSalle College. A graduate of Temple University Dental School, he practiced dentistry for fifty years. He became interested in John Bartram in 1940 after reading Ernest Earnest’s John and William Bartram, published that year by the University of Pennsylvania Press. With his late wife, Mary, he made six trips to Mexico and Guatemala between 1955 and 1970 in search of exotic plants. He served as president of the John Bartram Association for six years. In addition to serving in various capacities for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, founded in 1827, he served as chairman of the organization’s international­ly renowned Philadelphia Flower Show in 1974 and 1975. His articles have appeared in American Orchid Society Bulletin, Journal of Biological Photography, Australian Orchid Review, Green Scene, and Outdoor Photography.