John and William Bartram: Abolition vs. Antislavery

Excerpt from Those We Met Along the Way by Sharece Blakney

  • In the 1680s, the first antislavery petition was created by Germantown Quakers in Philadelphia.
  • United States Congress passed legislation to end the importation of enslaved Africans in 1801. Slavery was abolished in 1865 following the Civil War, freeing roughly 4 million people.
  • Enslaved people from the western coast of Africa brought new techniques for rice cultivation to the Carolinas.

In 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote about his visit to Bartram’s Garden. During Crèvecoeur’s visit, he encountered Black people and asked John Bartram how “do you rule your slaves so well, that they seem to do their work with the cheerfulness of white men?”¹ Bartram replied that, “with us they are now free. I give those whom thee didst see at my table, eighteen pounds a year, with victuals and clothes, and all other privileges which white men enjoy.”² Despite Crèvecoeur’s abolitionist language, there is no archival evidence to support Bartram’s manumission of enslaved people. Also, taking into consideration the source of this information, scholars doubt the accuracy of Crèvecoeur’s account due to his antislavery sentiments.³ Crèvecoeur’s depiction of his encounter with Bartram has been cited numerous times.

In addition to altruistic behavior towards free Black people, biographies of Bartram reference the manumission of an enslaved man, adding to the appearance of abolitionist activism. In a piece written by his son, William, John Bartram “gave liberty to a most valuable male slave, then in the prime of his life, who had been bred up in the family almost from his infancy.” This anecdote was echoed in an 1880 article for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, in which Howard Pyle wrote, “at the time of the old negro’s death, however, he was a freeman, and had been for years, for Bartram was one of the earliest emancipators of slaves in the colony…” Not only does Pyle quote Crèvecoeur in the national magazine, he includes dialogue that he attributes to Bartram’s manumitted slave. According to Francis D. West, a former officer of the John Bartram Association, “a careful study of the life of John Bartram and his finances indicates that he would have had difficulty in taking care of his slaves in such a manner.” The narrative constructed of John Bartram, the abolitionist, was largely built on hearsay.

The validity of Crèvecoeur’s version of events notwithstanding, the role of abolition in John Bartram’s legacy calls into question the use of historical terms. Modern historical scholarship distinguishes between abolitionism and antislavery. While abolitionists and antislavery advocates believed slavery should end, the best route to freedom was a point of contention. Abolitionists called for legislation to abolish slavery. They typically fell into two camps, those who fought for an immediate end to slavery and those who favored gradual abolition laws. The abolition movement also contained an element of racial equality and included Black leaders. Antislavery advocates favored abolishing the slave trade believing that ending the importation of enslaved Africans would cause slavery to phase out. Although the terms are used interchangeably and often conflated, intentional use of one term over the other is important considering antislavery advocacy did not always equate to racial equality.

Historians have yet to find manumission documents to support existing narratives surrounding John Bartram and slavery. However, historical evidence supporting his role as an enslaver can be found in letters to his son William. In 1766, William Bartram set out to become a plantation owner in the British colony of East Florida. William hoped to plant rice on 500 acres of land along the St. James River. Supporting his efforts, John Bartram purchased six enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina and shipped them to William’s East Florida plantation. In a letter to William dated April 6th, 1766, Bartram described the “6 likely negroes” as “Jack a lusty man a new negro 5 foot 8 inches high and ¼: Siby his wife new 5 foot one inch ¾: Jacob 5 foot high and Sam 4 foot 7 inches ½ [sic] also flora a lusty woman not so black as many a cromantee…and Bachus her son is a pretty boy 3 or 4 years old.” A close reading of John’s letter to William reveals more than his participation in the slave trade but his attitude towards the people he held in bondage. Immediately after describing the group of people sent to East Florida, Bartram ends his letter the way it began, with a list of items he sent to William. The newly purchased human chattel were casually mentioned between four good yams and a grindstone.

Bartram’s use of ‘new’ in his description indicates the amount of time the individual had to acclimate to enslavement. In his letter he explains that newly imported slaves are best since they, “as yet not [sic] haveing learnt the mischievous practices of the negroes born in the country and town which the people generally represents as if [sic] thay was all either murderers runaways or [sic] robers, or theeves; [sic] espetially the Plantation negroes.”¹⁰ John Bartram relied heavily on the advice and assistance of friends in Charleston for the purchase of the six enslaved people. Currently, historians have found no archival evidence that Bartram ever manumitted the people he sent to East Florida. Further research is required to locate them in the historical record. The way scholars write about historical figures has evolved with the field of history itself. The ability to present a transparent historical narrative has grown more necessary with time. Early depictions of Bartram coupled with more recent discussions of race and slavery create an opportunity to examine the past through a clearer lens.

After the failure of his East Florida plantation, William Bartram enslaved “a negro woman named Jenny” before transferring ownership to his brother-in-law, George Bartram.¹¹ Later in life, William wrote extensively of his opposition to slavery. According to Joel T. Fry, Bartram’s Garden Archivist, “during and after the American Revolution, the Bartram family in Philadelphia including William Bartram gradually moved to a public antislavery position. There is little currently available to document this change in attitude toward antislavery among the Bartram family.”¹² John Bartram’s three sons (John Jr., James Bartram, and William Bartram) added their names to a petition demanding more stringent enforcement of the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. The signing group called for a ban of ships equipped for the Transatlantic Slave Trade into Philadelphia’s port.¹³ Archival documents certainly support an argument for antislavery advocacy among John Bartram’s descendants. And still, he purchased six people. Building the most complete narrative possible is imperative for posterity, credibility, and accountability. More importantly, we owe it to Jack, Siby, Jacob, Sam, Flora, and Bachus.

Notes

1 Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St. John de, “Letter XI, From Mr. Iw-n Al-z, a Russian Gentleman; Describing the Visit He Paid at My Request to Mr. John Bertram, The Celebrated Pennsylvanian Botanist,” Letters from an American Farmer… Printed for Thomas Davies, London: 1782 [Reprint: Penguin Books, NY: 1981, p. 187-199.]

2 Ibid.

3 Joel T. Fry, “Slavery and Freedom at Bartram’s Garden”, pp. 8. Presented at Investigating Mid-Atlantic Plantations: Slavery, Economies, and Space conference, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, University of Pennsylvania, October 18, 2019.

4 William Bartram, “Some Account of the Late Mr. John Bartram, of Pennsylvania” Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal, vol.1, part 1 (1804), p. 115-124.

5 Howard Pyle, “Bartram and His Garden,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1880. Vol. 60, No. 357, 321-330 – – Fry, “Slavery and Freedom at Bartram’s Garden”, 18.

6 Francis D. West, “John Bartram and Slavery”, The South Carolina Historical Magazine. South Carolina Historical Society, Vol. 56, No. 2 (April., 1955), 115.

7 For more on nuanced differences between abolitionism and antislavery see Gerald Sorin, Abolitionism: New Perspectives in American History (Praeger; 1972).

8 “Letter from John Bartram to William Bartram”, Bartram Family Papers (Collection 36), Letter book 1, page 62. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

9 Ibid. Note: “Cromantee” is a subgroup of the Akan people from southern Ghana. Joseph K. Adjaye, “Time in the Black Experience”, Issue 167 of Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994)

10 “Letter from John Bartram to William Bartram”, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

11 George Bartram was the husband of Ann Bartram referenced in Stories We Know and father of alderman George Bartram. Joel T. Fry, “Slavery and Freedom at Bartram’s Garden”, pp. 13.

12 Fry, “Slavery and Freedom at Bartram’s Garden”, pp. 14.

13 All three sons lived in Kingsessing on neighboring farms stretching from Grays Ferry to present day 56th Street. – – “To the representatives of the freemen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in General Assembly met, the representation and petition of the subscribers, citizens of Pennsylvania.” Call number: Mss.B.P165, Legacy Identifier: Paine 74 P38t, American Philosophical Society.

Related Reading

Fry, Joel T. “Slavery and Freedom at Bartram’s Garden”, Presented at Investigating Mid-Atlantic Plantations: Slavery, Economies, and Space conference, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, University of Pennsylvania, October 18, 2019.

Johnson, Sherry. “East Florida Papers, 1784-1821.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 71, no. 1 (1992): 63-69. Accessed February 13, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/30148187.

Kokomoor, Kevin. “A Re-assessment of Seminoles, Africans, and Slavery on the Florida Frontier.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 88, no. 2 (2009): 209-36. Accessed February 13, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20700282.

Newman, Richard. Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia: Emancipation and the Long Struggles for Racial Justice in the City of Brotherly Love. Baton Rouge, LA; Louisiana State University Press, 2011.

Wasserman, Adam. A People’s History of Florida, 1513-1876: How Africans, Seminoles, Women, and Lower-Class Whites Shaped the Sunshine State. Sarasota, FL: A. Wasserman, 2010.

West, Francis D., and John Bartram. “John Bartram and Slavery.” The South Carolina Historical Magazine 56, no. 2 (1955): 115-19. Accessed February 13, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/27565998.

About Sharece Blakney

Sharece Blakney is an independent historical research consultant. Her research interests focus on American slavery and freedom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, specifically in legal and social history. Her current work, Stories We Know and Those We Met Along the Way, involves the development of the African American community in Kingsessing and Southwest Philadelphia. Previous projects include Charting a Path to Resistance, an interactive mural and mobile app commissioned by the City of Philadelphia. The mural centered on abolitionism, Black women activists, and racial violence in nineteenth-century Philadelphia.

Blakney holds an MA in American History from Rutgers University-Camden and is currently pursuing an MI in Library & Information Science with a concentration in Archives & Preservation at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

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