When the first European explorers arrived in North America, they found a land filled with unfamiliar flora and fauna. William Bartram, an 18th-century naturalist from Philadelphia, helped identify these unknown species while illuminating the mystique of the New World for curious Europeans.
As a young boy, Bartram picked up his early knowledge of the natural world on collecting expeditions with his father, royal botanist to King George III. His skill at drawing the plant species they found caught the attention of wealthy British financiers and added value to his firsthand encyclopedic knowledge of the colonies’ plant diversity. In 1773, a British physician commissioned Bartram to gather and catalog seeds, roots and plants from across the southeast, hoping to examine the specimens for medicinal use. Bartram set out in March of that year on what would become a four-year, 2,400-mile journey across today’s North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.
As he traveled, he kept extensive notes and made detailed drawings of his findings, which included observations of animal species and Indian cultures as well as 358 botanical species, 130 of which were new to science. This became the foundation for Bartram’s Travels, an account of his expedition later published in 1791. In his book, Bartram vividly described battles with predatory alligators, dramatic river crossings, raging storms, exotic subtropical vegetation, and encounters with alligators. These writings helped guide Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their 1804 expedition and strongly influenced the British Romantic poets and American Transcendentalist writers of the next generation.
Nearly 250 years later, the outdoor community remembers his legacy with the William Bartram Trail (North Carolina to Georgia), North Carolina Bartram Trail (western North Carolina), Bartram Canoe Trail (Alabama), William Bartram Arboretum (Alabama) and the William Bartram Memorial Park (Pensacola, Florida).