Our founder, who inspires us to this day
John Bartram (1699-1777) was a third-generation Pennsylvania Quaker, born in nearby Darby and imbued with a curiosity and reverence for nature, as well as a passion for scientific inquiry. Bartram purchased 102 acres from Swedish settlers in 1728, and systematically began gathering the most varied collection of North American plants in the world.
A self-taught man, Bartram had the quintessential “can do” American spirit that continues to inspire us today. His travels—by boat, on horseback, and on foot—took him to New England, as far south as Florida, and west to Lake Ontario. He collected seeds and plant specimens, and established a trans-Atlantic hub of plant exploration through his exchanges with London merchant Peter Collinson. Prominent patrons and scholars in Britain sought out plant from Bartram’s Garden. In 1765, Bartram was appointed the “Royal Botanist” by King George III.
At home, Bartram co-founded the American Philosophical Society with his friend Benjamin Franklin. His garden was a source of inquiry and pleasure for luminaries like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. His seed and plant business thrived, with cataloging lists appearing in London publications as early as the 1750s. His international plant trade and nursery business survived him and continued to thrive under the care of three generations of Bartrams.
Inheriting a passion for botany
Following in his father’s footsteps, William Bartram (1739-1823) continued to explore and describe native American plants. An important naturalist, artist, and author in his own right, William traveled the American South from 1773 to 1776 under the patronage of Dr. John Fothergill. William’s landmark book, Travels, first published in 1791, found an eager audience in Europeans seeking more information about the untamed American landscapes. His drawings and meticulous observations about people and plants made Travels an instant classic of naturalist literature.
A generation of expansion
From 1810 onward, Ann Bartram Carr (1779-1858), a daughter of John Bartram, Jr., continued the family garden. Ann was educated by her uncle William and inherited his skill for illustration and the family passion for plants. With her husband, Colonel Robert Carr (1778-1866), the international trade in seeds and plants continued. During the Carr era, the garden was enlarged and, at its peak, featured ten greenhouses and a collection of over 1,400 native plant species and as many as 1,000 exotics. Financial difficulties led to the sale of the family garden by the Carrs in 1850.
Beginning a public trust
Andrew Eastwick (1811-1879), a wealthy railroad industrialist, preserved the historic garden as a private park on his estate. Upon his death, the expansion of the city and burgeoning industries threatened the garden. A campaign to preserve Bartram’s Garden was organized by nurseryman and writer Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) in Philadelphia and Charles Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. The City of Philadelphia took possession in 1891. Descendents of John Bartram created the John Bartram Association in 1893 and today the site is managed by the Association in cooperation with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.