William Bartram – Botanist and Traveler

Driving around the South, you might have come across markers labeled Bartram’s Trail or William Bartram Trail. These markers, placed by the Bartram Trail Conference, commemorate the path that William Bartram, a botanist-traveler, took nearly 250 years ago. William Bartram was born in 1739 in Philadelphia to a Quaker family. William’s father, John Bartram, was Royal Botanist to George III, and he made several expeditions through the American colonies collecting plant specimens to send to the king. William Bartram decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, and in the 1770s, he traveled throughout the southeast, describing the landscape, cataloging plants, and writing about his experiences. His writings, vivid in description, can be read for both their academic and for their literary value.

Bartram traveled through what later became St. Tammany Parish, and sailing westward from Pearl River Island at the entrance of the Rigolets, he described his journey:

winding through salt sedgy marshes, into Lake Pontchartrain, along whose North shores, we coasted about twenty miles, having low, reedy marshes, on our starboard: these marshes were very extensive between us and the far distant high forests on the main, when at evening the shore becomes bolder, with sandy elevations, affording a few dwarf Oaks, Zanthoxilon, Myrica and Rham frangula. We came to in a little bay, kindled a fire, and after supper betook ourselves to repose; our situation open, airy and cool, on clean sand banks; we rested quietly, though sometimes roused by alarms from the crocodile, which are here in great numbers, and of an enormous bulk and strength.

By ‘crocodile’, Bartram probably meant alligator, as the cold-intolerant American crocodile is rarely seen north of the subtropic regions in southern Florida. Of course, taxonomy was still a young science in the 1770s.

Bartram continued traveling along the north shore, traversing by what are now the towns of Mandeville and Madisonville:

NEXT day early we got under way, pursuing our former course, nearly West ward, keeping the North shore several leagues; immediately back of this high sandy strand; (which is cast up by the beating surf and winds, setting from sea ward, across the widest part of the lake) the ground suddenly falls, and becomes extensive flat Cypress swamps, the sources of creeks and rivers, which run into the lake, or Pearl River, or at other places, the high forests of the main now gradually approaching the lake, advance up to the very shore, where we find houses, plantations and new settlements: we came to at one of them charmingly situated, sat sail again, and came up to the mouth of the beautiful Taensapaoa, which takes that name from a nation of Indians, who formerly possessed the territories lying on its banks, which are fertile and delightful regions.

Bartram published his travels in 1791. His picturesque writings inspired the Transcendentalists and the Romantic poets. His Travels give us a detailed glimpse of the South long ago.

There is also a children’s novel featuring our subject here. The Lost Kingdom by Matthew Kirby follows the young William Bartram traveling with his father in search of the mythical “Welsh Indians” of Prince Madoc. The Lost Kingdom blends fantasy with historical fiction, as this story features an airship, lightning caught in a jar, and a ravenous bear-wolf at the eve of the French and Indian War.

The Travels of William Bartram

Travels of William Bartram

The Lost Kingdom