William Bartram (1739 – 1823)

Written By Jonathan Martin

The son of a prominent naturalist, John Bartram, and Ann Mendenhall Bartram, William Bartram became one of the first naturalists of early America. His Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida became an important classification of the flora and fauna of the American Southern wilderness. Born on February 9, 1739, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, William Bartram died on July 22, 1823, at his family’s Ashwood plantation in Bladen County.

A gifted child, William was educated in Philadelphia, and he was such an artistic young man that Benjamin Franklin noticed Bartram’s talent. According to historian Thomas C. Parramore, “Franklin proposed that William become an engraver, but he was apprenticed instead to a Philadelphia merchant in 1756.”  In 1761, he moved to his family’s estate in Bladen County to open a business and to study the local area around the Cape Fear River. Parramore writes that, “White Lake in Bladen County was known as Lake Bartram when he [Bartram’s grandfather] owned much land in the vicinity.”

For four years, William worked assiduously yet failed to develop a profitable business. During this time, his father asked him to join his commissioned exploration. With the commission of King George III, the father and son duo explored the region and documented the geography, plants, and other natural traits of Florida. William returned to Philadelphia was his father after the journey. William again tried working as an area merchant but he nearly bankrupted himself by 1770.

Lacking the gift of entrepreneurial savvy, Bartram hoped to return to exploring and telling others about his observations. Opportunity arrived in 1773 when John Fothergill asked Bartram to travel through the American South and collect natural objects for Fothergill’s botanical garden, the largest in England at the time. In March of 1773, William Bartram set out on his trek through the Southern wilderness, and his Travels was the naturalist’s detailed account of the journey.

His exploration of North Carolina may provide the most interesting aspects of Bartram’s travels. In 1776, Bartram meandered through the present-day Nantahala National Forest in Macon County, and he encountered the Cherokee. In his Travels, Bartram describes his meeting with Chief Atakullakulla and a small warrior band. In addition, the explorer details over forty Cherokee villages that he passed through.

Bartram returned to Philadelphia after briefly stopping by Ashwood in the late 1770s. After his return to his hometown, the naturalist compiled his notes in a book that was later called Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida. The book was published in 1791 and its descriptions of the animals, plants, Native Americans, and geography of the American South intrigued most of the eighteenth century culture of America and England. According to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, William Bartram’s account of the wilderness of early America inspired the writings of the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Chateaubriand.