Following Bartram’s Trail


William Bartram



William Bartram

The name of William Bartram first became known to me while reading the book Cold Mountain, a novel set during the Civil War, by Charles Frazier. Bartram’s Travels is the book given to Inman, by his love interest Ada Munro, before he departed with his regiment for the war (Frazier, 1997). It was meant to remind him of home since Bartram, an explorer from an earlier generation, wrote about the western mountains of North Carolina where the novel is set. Bartram’s book played a key role linking the two main characters, Ada and Inman, during their separation. Despite a deep interest in the Colonial American history I had never heard of Bartram before. Curious about Bartram, I purchased the naturalist’s edition of Bartram’s travels and discovered that not only did his journeys cover the mountains of North Carolina but much of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.

The south of Bartram’s time, just prior to the American Revolution, was a wild and exotic country filled with strange and dangerous animals and people. It remained relatively unexplored and except for the accounts of De Soto’s expedition very little was known about the native plants, animals and native peoples of the South. After Florida was ceded to the British as war reparations for Spain’s involvement in the French and Indian War, British settlers moved into the former Spanish territory setting up plantations and trading posts.

Bartram collected thousands of specimens and notes on his journey. When he set out, the Southeast was part of Britain’s colonies in North America and upon his return to Philadelphia in 1777 they were in the midst of a war for independence. This event cut him off from his sponsor, Dr. Fothergill, who received Bartram’s last shipment of specimens and notes from Georgia in 1776 (Bartram, 1958/1998). Most of Bartram’s field journals that list exact locations have been lost, but his samples are now part of the British Museum collection (Cashin, 2000). Dr. Fothergill would die before the end of the conflict between the Britain and her former colonies but this would pave the way for Bartram to publish his work. Bartram’s Travels would continue to capture the imagination years after its publication in 1791 influencing the writing of Romantic authors William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

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