William Bartram was born in 1739 to Quakers John and Ann Bartram of Philadelphia, the fifth of nine children. His father, John Bartram (1699-1777), so it is told, was plowing his fields one day when his attention was captured by the remarkable beauty of a common daisy. The elder Bartram was inspired to study all plants, eventually gaining the appointment of Royal Botanist by King George III in 1765. John’s own dedication greatly encouraged William’s growing interests in the natural world.
As an adult, William attempted business and farming with little success, and so, in 1773, he set off alone through America’s Southeast, where he and his father had traveled earlier. The sojourn lasted four years. Not only a classic work of American anthropology, geography, and natural history, the Bartram’s Travels became known to such eminent writers as Emerson, Carlyle, and Wordsworth. It remains in print today, and inspires all to follow in Bartam’s footsteps.
After returning to Philadelphia, William helped in his father’s nursery business until his death in 1823. Together, William and John Bartram are credited with identifying over two hundred native plants, and with the discovery of the Franklinia alatamaha tree—named after friend Benjamin Franklin—which they found growing along a Georgia riverbank in 1765. Indeed, their attentiveness to this beautiful flowering tree ultimately saved the species from extinction. Bartram’s Gardens in Philadelphia has extensive information on the Franklinia, including a census “registry” of the location of cultivated trees across the US. More information can be found here.
Bartram’s homeplace has survived; the farm still stands a short distance from Independence Hall, and on its grounds the Franklinia grows in America’s oldest living botanical garden. Our first American president, George Washington—as well as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and other prominent figures of the time—all visited Bartram’s home in Philadelphia, and it is open to the public today. Enjoy a virtual tour of Bartram’s Gardens on their website. There also is a wealth of information about the father and son botanist team and an exhaustive listing of books and articles about the Bartrams at the Bartram Trail Conference website.