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Bartram, Johnlocked

  • Frank N. Egerton

Bartram, John (1699–1777), botanist and explorer in America, was born on 23 May 1699 on a farm at Marple, Pennsylvania, near Darby, the elder of two sons of William Bartram (d. 1711), farmer, and his first wife, Elizabeth (d. 1701), daughter of James Chambers Hunt and his wife, Elizabeth. His parents were Quakers, and his father had emigrated as a child in 1681 with his parents from Derbyshire. John received a limited education in the Darby Quaker school for about four years. After remarrying in 1707, Bartram's father took his second wife and their children in 1711 to live in eastern North Carolina, where he died in an American Indian attack. John and his brother James had been left behind in Pennsylvania with his grandmother. John's un-Quaker-like hostility toward American Indians might have arisen because of his father's fate.

On 25 April 1723 Bartram married Mary Maris (d. 1727), a Quaker. Bartram's grandmother died on 14 July 1723 and he inherited her 200 acre farm at Kingsessing, near Philadelphia, with buildings, livestock, orchards, equipment, and almost £100. In 1728 he bought additional land. He and Mary had two sons, one of whom died at the age of four. After Mary's death, he married on 10 October 1729 Ann Mendenhall (1696/7–1784). With his own hands he built their stone house. They had five sons and four daughters. His sons Isaac and Moses became apothecaries, John inherited the farm, and William Bartram (1739–1823) followed in his father's footsteps as botanical explorer and author.

As a child Bartram was interested in science, and by the age of twelve he focused on medical botany. While a farmer he developed America's first botanical garden. He became acquainted with Joseph Breintnell in Philadelphia, whose hobby was making ink impressions of leaves. Bartram helped him collect and identify them. Breintnall sent a set of leaf impressions to his London correspondent, Peter Collinson, a fellow Quaker and leading figure in the Royal Society. However, Collinson was interested in more than leaves. He wanted to locate an American who would collect live plants or seeds for him, and Breintnall recommended Bartram. They began corresponding in 1733, and they exchanged several letters per year until Collinson died in 1768. They were the best of friends, but never met, as neither ever travelled abroad.

In exchange for botanical specimens and letters Collinson sent Bartram books, advice, and various other kinds of assistance, including introductions to other British collectors and American naturalists. Collinson published seven of Bartram's letters in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society between 1734 and 1757, six being zoological observations and the seventh on the aurora borealis seen in Philadelphia. Collinson also published another of Bartram's letters, on plant experiments, in the Gentleman's Magazine of September 1755.

As Bartram's acquaintances increased, he began making botanical journeys to different parts of British America, supported by British patrons and sometimes staying with other American naturalists. In 1736 he journeyed to the sources of the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania; and in 1738 he travelled for five weeks in Virginia, including into the Blue Ridge Mountains, covering 1000 miles and spending only one night in each town. He also made shorter trips into the pine barrens of New Jersey, the cedar swamps of Delaware, and the Catskill Mountains of New York state. In 1742 Benjamin Franklin and some other Philadelphians solicited subscriptions to enable Bartram to collect plants full time. However, James Logan, a powerful Quaker in Pennsylvania politics and agent of the Penns, who on other occasions was a helpful patron to Bartram, opposed the project and it failed. In 1743 Bartram accompanied Conrad Weiser, Indian agent, and Lewis Evans, cartographer, on an expedition into Iroquois lands. Weiser's protection allowed them to penetrate much further west than earlier travellers and provided Bartram with much new material for observation and collection. They left Philadelphia on 3 July and Bartram returned to his farm on 19 August. He kept a journal on 'the inhabitants, climate, soil, rivers, productions, and other matters worthy of notice', which Collinson published in London in 1751. Bartram's handwriting was unclear and the publisher was careless; the published version contains misspelt names and other errors. In September 1753 he returned to the Catskills, this time taking his son William (Billy), aged fourteen. He was the one child who fully shared his father's enthusiasms for nature and exploration. Billy added a new dimension to these trips with drawings of plants, animals, and scenes they encountered. Two years later Bartram also took Billy on a trip to Connecticut. The Seven Years' War inhibited travel for several years, but in the spring of 1761 he sailed alone to Charles Town (Charleston), where he visited Dr Alexander Garden and collected South Carolina plants. On the return voyage he was able to stop and visit relatives near Wilmington, North Carolina. In autumn 1761 he decided it was safe to visit western Pennsylvania. In spring 1765 Collinson had Bartram appointed botanist to George III, with an annual stipend of £50. This enabled him to plan a collecting trip with Billy through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, lasting from July 1765 until April 1766. It was his longest and last journey, a daring wilderness exploration at the age of sixty-six, and he contracted malaria. He kept a lengthy journal that was partially published in 1767 and completely in 1942.

Bartram was a close observer and an independent thinker. In 1739 he suggested organizing a society for the study of nature and arts, and in 1743 Benjamin Franklin organized the American Philosophical Society, which lasted a few years. Bartram was a founder member both then and when it was revived in 1769. Although loyal to his Quaker congregation, he was critical of Quaker ideas on pacifism and on the divinity of Jesus. The Society of Friends disowned him in 1757; yet he continued attending Quaker meetings and was buried in the Darby Friends burial-ground. In 1770 he carved above a window of his house his belief: ''Tis God alone, Almighty Lord, The Holy One, by me ador'd.'

Bartram's achievements were widely recognized not only by prominent British and American naturalists but also by his election in 1769 to the Swedish Vetenskapsakademien (Royal Academy of Sciences). (He had provided much assistance to the Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm on his visit to North America between 1749 and 1751.) In 1772 he received a gold medal from the Society of Gentlemen in Edinburgh. A number of the items he collected and sent to his associates in the Royal Society, including several American Indian artefacts, can still be seen at the British Museum. He died at his home, Kingsessing Farm, on 22 September 1777.


  • E. Berkeley and D. S. Berkeley, The life and travels of John Bartram: from Lake Ontario to the River St John (1982)
  • The correspondence of John Bartram, 1734–1777, ed. E. Berkeley and D. S. Berkeley (1992)
  • T. P. Slaughter, The natures of John and William Bartram (1996)
  • J. Bartram, Diary of a journey through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida from July 1, 1765, to April 10, 1766, ed. F. Harper (1942)
  • J. Bartram, Observations on the inhabitants, climate, soil, rivers, productions, animals, and other matters … from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario (1751)
  • R. P. Stearns, Science in the British colonies of America (1970)
  • Chain of friendship: selected letters of Dr. John Fothergill of London, 1735–1780, ed. B. C. Corner and C. C. Booth (1971)
  • W. Bartram, ‘Some account of the late Mr John Bartram, of Pennsylvania’, in ‘John and William Bartram's America’, ed. H. G. Cruickshank (1957) [repr. in John and William Bartram's America: selections from the writings of the Philadelphia naturalists, ed. H. G. Cruickshank (1957), 21–7]
  • R. M. Cutting, ed., John and William Bartram, William Byrd II, and St John de Crevecoeur: a reference guide (1976)


  • Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, papers
  • American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, collections
  • Hist. Soc. Penn., papers, etc.
  • NHM, lists of plants
  • NHM, letters to John Fothergill
  • RS, letters to Royal Society

Wealth at Death

left a prosperous farm and a library