The Botanical Explorations of William Bartram in the Southeast
By David H. Rembert, Jr.
Department of Biology, University of South Carolina
William Bartram described 358 binomials (species) in his Travels and mentioned these at least 950 times. One hundred and thirty of these were new to science at the time. Numerous Bartram species were described and published by others between the time Bartram collected and described them in his journal and prior to the publication of his Travels (1791). These were described in publications by Linnaeus (several editions of his 1753 work), Humphry Marshall in his Arbustum Americanum (1785), Thomas Walter in his Flora Caroliniana (1788), and William Aiton in his Hortus Kewensis (1789). For example, William Aiton, in his three volume work, described 5500 species many of which had made their way to Kew Gardens by way of Collinson and Fothergill, the patrons of John and William, respectively. And for reasons not entirely clear, many of the Bartram species of 1791, published by others at subsequent times, e.g., Andre Michaux (1803), carry the later author as the authority.
Dr. John Fothergill, the patron of William Bartram, agreed to support the travels of W. Bartram in the southeast in return for specimens, drawings, and a Journal of his observations. Fothergill prevailed upon Dr. Lionel Chalmers of Charleston, S.C. to act as his agent in supervising the activity and payment of 50 pounds per annum to Bartram for his efforts.
As agreed. Bartram sent drawings and collections back to London to Fothergill with the understanding that Dr. Daniel Solander of the British Museum would identify the specimens and publish descriptions. Solander had just returned from a three year circumnavigation of the world with Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks and he was otherwise occupied with the plant collections from the South Pacific which included the collections made along the east coast of Australia. By 1780 Fothergill was dead and Solander followed him within two years.
Poor William, after his return to Philadelphia in January, 1777, from his four glorious years of collecting and observing in the southeast, was left to wonder what had become of his treasure that seemed to have disappeared in London. This undoubtedly inspired him to write the following to Mr. Robert Barclay in 1788:
“I collected these specimens amongst many hundreds others about 20 years ago when on Botanical researches in Carolina, Georgia and Florida [,] duplicates of which I sent to Doctor Fothergill; very few of which I find have entered the Systema Vegetabilium, not even in the last Edition.
The number of specimens that I sent were submitted to the examination of Doctor Solander which by returns I received from the Doctor (the nos. corresponding with those of my duplicates) appear'd most of them to be either New Genera or Species; soon after Doctor Solander deceas'd & Doctor Fothergill soon after followed him. I have never learn'd what became of the specimens.
These remains with some more than I have kept by me to this time, which I cheerfully offer for the inspection and amusement of the curious, expecting or desiring no other gratuity than the bare mention of my being the discoverer, a reward due for traveling several thousand miles mostly amongs't Indian Nations which is not only difficult but dangerous, besides suffering sickness, cold & hunger. But with a perfect Sense of gratitude I with pleasure acknowledge that Noble Fothergill liberally supporting me whilst in his employ with ample pecuniary assistance.”—Wm. Bartram, Nov. 1788.
The 247 Bartram plant specimens remaining in British Museum (Natural History) today include the 38 specimens Bartram sent to Robert Barclay in 1788. These specimens were purchased by Sir Joseph Banks after the death of Fothergill and they subsequently became the property of the Museum.
Bartram was born on February 9, 1738 in the family home along the Schuylkill River just west of the city of Philadelphia; a home that John Bartram, his father, had purchased in 1728. The purchase price was forty pounds and it included 102 acres. Today the property has been reduced to 27 acres. The nucleus of this house was built in 1689 by Swedes and John Bartram improved the property in 1730 by adding a kitchen and a second floor chamber. In 1770 he enlarged the house, making it two rooms deep, and in 1820 his granddaughter added one story wings to either side and included dormer windows.
After a pleasant childhood, which included a formal education, William Bartram traveled to eastern North Carolina near Cape Fear to live with his Uncle William at his home called Ashwood. It was in 1765 that his father, John, sailed for Charleston, South Carolina, and, travelling overland up to Ashwood, collected the young William to begin a botanical collecting expedition. This expedition in 1765 was financed by King George III and it was designed to enhance the knowledge of Florida, an area that had recently been acquired by the English in the Treaty of Paris following the French and Indian War in 1763. John Bartram was to make a collection of plants and keep a journal concerning the area and send these back to England. John decided to take his son, William, along on this adventure and they traveled in Georgia and Florida making observations and plant collections.
John Bartram returned to Philadelphia in 1766 and son William followed the next year. It was not until the spring of 1773 that Wliliam organized a return to the southeast. this time financed by Dr. John Fothergill. The journey began in March, 1773, with a sea voyage from Philadelphia to Charleston. Early that spring, William Bartram made his way to Savannah and very soon began his adventures with a trip to the southwest of Savannah into the Altamaha River Valley. And it was on April 23/24, that he made his first observation of Franklinia altamaha. He makes reference in his journal that this was a plant that he had seen with his father eight years earlier in 1765.
William Bartram could not have seen this plant in flower during this period. He must have seen it later in the summer in 1773 or maybe in 1774 or 1775. In any event he collected seeds and cultivated the plant in his garden along the Schuylkill River across from Philadelphia. He made a fine painting of the plant and it now hangs in the British Museum of Natural History in the Department of Botany. This painting was sent along with four others in 1788 to Robert Barclay. The other paintings were of Pinckneya pubens, Oenothera grandiflora and Hydrangea quercifolia. Only the painting of Franklinia survives today.
William describes a plant collected in the same area named by John Ellis for James Gordon of London. This plant is Gordonia, the loblolly bay. This genus is very closely related to Franklinia and some believe that Franklinia is in fact just another species of the genus Gordonia.
James Gordon of London was a premier gardener in mid 18th century. He is the individual that was first able to germinate the seeds of the new Rhododendron species being introduced into England from southeastern United States. He is also the first man to germinate the seeds of the maidenhair tree or Ginkgo biloba (native species of China). Gordon is the individual that propagated for the first time the Cape Jasmine introduced to London from South Africa. This plant was named Gardenia for Alexander Garden of Charleston.
Also at the same time William Bartram identified Franklinia in the Altamaha River Valley of Georgia, he discovered a plant that he placed in the genus Bignonia. This plant today is known as the Georgia Fever Tree or the Feverbark tree and was correctly identified by Andre Michaux in his publication in 1803. Michaux named the plant Pinckneya for Charles Coatsworth Pinckney of Charleston. This plant was a very important species during the Civil War and it was used as a substitute for quinine, being very closely related to the Chinchona tree of Peru. It is from this Peruian species that we get the extract quinine for the treatment of malaria.
In 1774 William Bartram continued his travels and moved south into Florida. He made his way up the St. Johns River and collected many plant species and included journal entries of his observations. He also travelled into central Florida near the Alachua Savannah (Payne's Prairie) where he made additional plant collections and discoveries.
Bartram found many plants associated with this part of Florida. There are two sabatias in particular that Bartram found, although he placed them in the genus Chironia. In the one case Wilbur described a new species in the genus Sabatia and gave it the specific epithet bartramii. This species is today known as the Savannah Pink. The other species found in the Florida area, Sabatia grandiflora, was correctly identified in the 19th century by Asa Gray and transferred into the appropriate genus by John Kunkle Small. Small was the 20th Century botanist who wrote The Flora of the Southeastern United States in 1930. Bartram collected both of these plants and described them in the Travels; but, for reasons indicated, is not the authority. Bartram also found the Tar flower in Florida for the first time and produced a description in his journal. This has been correctly identified today as Befaria racemosa. And yet another plant species collected and described by Bartram is referred to today as Elliottia racemosa. This was named for Stephen Elliott, the nineteenth century South Carolina botanist, who in 1824 wrote a two volume work on the flora of South Carolina and Georgia. Elliott described many species in his Flora, some of which Bartram had described earlier in his journal and in his Travels. For example, Elliott is the authority for Gerardia fasiculata, a plant that Bartram had first described. This species is in the British Museum in the Bartram collection along with two other species collected by Bartram. One is Jussiaea lectocarpa named by Thomas Nuttall and commonly referred to as the Willow Primrose. The other species collected by Bartram but correctly named Pinguicula lutea by Thomas Walter in his publication Flora Caroliniana (1788). This species is commonly called butterwort. Actually there are three species of butterwort named by Walter in his scholarty book on the Carolina flora.
Bartram left Florida to return to South Carolina. In 1775 he made an extended visit up the Savannah River past Augusta and into the Pickens/Oconee County area of South Carolina. From there Bartram proceeded into northern Georgia, then turning north into North Carolina near Highlands, he moved west into Cherokee County. While in northern Georgia, specifically in Rabun County about three miles north of Clayton, Georgia, Bartram discovered a magnolia which he described as having auriculate leaves. This auriculate leaf magnolia fascinated Bartram and he found it only in these high foothills.
In 1786 an Englishman named John Fraser came to Charleston and travelled north into Berkeley County to the Santee River where he met with Thomas Walter. Walter at the time was working on his plant descriptions which were to become the basis of the Flora Caroliniana published in 1788. John Fraser travelled into the Piedmont to make collections of plants that Walter had not seen. In 1787 in the foothills of South Carolina in northern Pickens County, John Fraser collected the magnolia that William Bartram had seen in northern Georgia twelve years earlier. Thomas Walter described the species in his 1788 publication and it became Magnolia fraseri, named to honor the travels of John Fraser. Bartram discussed this plant three years later when he published his TraveJs in 1791 but by then it was too late and history now records it as the Fraser magnolia. This specimen is located with the collection in the Walter Herbarium in the British Museum of Natural History along with another plant that also has a fascinating history.
The other plant in Walter's Herbarium was identified as Juglans, a walnut. This designation written on the specimen sheet is not in the hand of Walter or Fraser. The plant specimen is actually an Aesculus, a buckeye. This plant was described by Thomas Walter in 1788 and its description appears in the Flora. But Walter never left South Carolina and there has never been a collection of this species in South Carolina. In the Travels of 1791 William Bartram described this buckeye with stoloniferous growth found in the shade along stream banks as being from southern Alabama.
In 1983 while on sabbatical studying in the British Museum of Natural History, l found the type specimen of this plant misidentified as noted above. The specimen matches its description in Walter’s Flora. When I got back to South Carolina in January of 1984,1 began inquiring about the known collections of this plant. Rather quickly it came to my attention that a population had been found about 1978 by some canoe enthusiasts on the Savannah River on the South Carolina side about 400 yards south of the Interstate 20 bridge along a stream bank not far from where Bartram may have travelled. Bartram missed the population during his travels in the area but Fraser must have collected the plant in 1787 on June 1st when he was in the area with Andre Michaux.
On June 1, 1984, I went to the site and sure enough there was the population of Aesculus parviflora, a species described by William Bartram from southern Alabama. In 1788, years after William Bartram had travelled in this area of South Carolina, and years after he had described the plant in his journal entry for Alabama, Walter's Flora Caroliniana was published in London. (Remember Bartram's Travels were not published until 1791.) Hence Thomas Walter is given credit as the authority of Aesculus parviflora, the bottlebrush buckeye.
In 1775, as William Bartram travelled across Georgia to southern Alabama, he discovered a plant in Crawford County (south central Georgia) which he referred to as a Hydrangea with oak-like leaves. He has an excellent description of this in his journal and he is in fact given credit for the naming of this plant, Hydrangea quercifolia. In this publication of 1791 there is a drawing of a leaf and flowers of this species.
Then finally, l’d like to make a comment about a plant that he discovered on a river bluff in southern Alabama in 1775. He referred to this plant as being not unlike the auriculate magnolia that he had seen in Rabun County, Georgia, three miles north of Clayton. He gave a description in his manuscript as follows:
“I shall observe that I discovered in the Creek Nation and west of Georgia a species of Magnolia (auriculate) very different from Mr. Fraser's. The leaves of which were very large, near two feet in length, the flowers, white, very large, and fragrant, and the strobile or seed vessel, 4.5" in length of a fine crimson color.”
Bartram failed to give a name to this plant, however, and in June of 1795 in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, Andre Michaux found the same plant and gave it the name Magnolia macrophylla in his publication in 1803, hence Michaux not Bartram is the authority.
I’d like to close with a quote from William Bartram’s Travels which I think speaks to Bartram's overall philosophy in what he was doing:
“I am continually impelled by a restless spirit of curiosity in pursuit of new productions of nature, my chief happiness consists in tracing and admiring the infinite power, majesty, and perfection of the great almighty Creator, and in the contemplation, that through divine aid and permission, I might be instrumentai in discovering, and introducing into my native country, some original productions of nature, which might become useful to society.”