Three generations of botanists with a lasting impact on American gardens.
Known today as a father of American botany, John Bartram established his farm and garden here in 1728 and systematically began gathering the world’s most varied collection of North American plants.
The legacy continued with his sons John Jr. and William and his granddaughter Ann. The Bartram family gained international renown in the 1700s and 1800s for their efforts collecting, propagating, and writing about native North American plants that were undescribed by European botany, including many plants that remain popular today in gardens and landscapes around the world.
John Bartram (1699–1777)
Born on March 23, 1699, in Darby, Pennsylvania, John Bartram was a third-generation Pennsylvania Quaker, imbued with a curiosity and reverence for nature as well as a passion for scientific inquiry. In 1728, Bartram purchased 102 acres of farmland and 10.5 acres of marshland along the Tidal Schuylkill River from Swedish settlers. Upon establishing his farm, he began building his stone house, with his initial garden likely laid out across six or seven acres on a terraced slope leading from the house to the river.
Bartram was married twice, first in 1723 to Mary Maris (1703–1727). They had two sons together, Richard and Isaac; only Isaac survived infancy. After Mary’s death during an epidemic, Bartram married Ann Mendenhall (1703–1789) in 1729. They had nine children between 1730 and 1748: James, Moses, Elizabeth (who died as a child), Mary, twins William and Elizabeth, Ann, John Jr., and Benjamin.
In 1735, Bartram made his first recorded plant-collecting trip to “the Jerseys and Schuylkill mountains.” His continued travels — by boat, on horseback, and on foot — took him to New England, as far south as Florida, and west to Lake Ontario. Through conversations with native peoples and correspondence with other botanists in the Americas and Europe, Bartram learned about the seeds and plant specimens he collected, assessing how best to cultivate them at home in Philadelphia and how to share his learnings with others. Fellow plant enthusiasts aided his efforts, supporting his continued plant-collecting travels or sharing their own specimens with him as curiosities. In 1760, Bartram built the property’s first greenhouse, warming it with a Franklin stove to house tender species.
Encouraged by London merchant Peter Collinson, Bartram established an international trade in native North American seeds and plants packed carefully in wooden “Bartram’s Boxes.” For five guineas, clients received a container of generally 100 or more varieties of seeds, as well as occasional dried plant specimens and other natural curiosities like bird nests and rocks. Despite the dangers of a sea voyage to tender seeds, including seawater, rats, and theft, many arrived safely to their destinations, where they established a new palette of American colors and shapes within European gardens and landscapes.
Fueled by contemporary European interest in North America, Bartram’s nursery business thrived, with his hand-written cataloging lists circulating in London publications as early as the 1750s. Many North American plants that are now familiar around the world were exported by the Bartram family during this period, including magnolias, mountain laurels, azaleas, rhododendrons, sugar maples, black gums, viburnums, and sumacs. Prominent European patrons and scholars sought out specimens from Bartram’s Garden for their own collections, and in 1765, Bartram was appointed the “Royal Botanist” by King George III, a post he held until his death. 1765 and 1766 also marked Bartram’s last major travel to the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, accompanied by his son William.
At home, Bartram co-founded the American Philosophical Society with his friend Benjamin Franklin, and his garden was a source of inquiry and pleasure for Americans of means like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. He also assisted Carl Linnaeus’s student Pehr Kalm during his extended North American collecting trip. By the mid-18th century, Bartram owned three adjacent farms in Kingsessing totaling close to 300 acres, and he retained the ancestral farm in nearby Darby, which was around 140 acres. Research suggests that Bartram operated all these tracts as individual farms. In addition to his botanic garden, which remained on the slope between his house and the river, he mixed different types of agriculture across his various properties in a way that was typical of the then-rural areas around Philadelphia: dairying, small numbers of sheep and horses, and growing wheat and a mix of other small grains and field crops in rotation.
A popular but unsupported account of Bartram’s later years portrayed him as an abolitionist, with some contemporary writings referencing an unnamed Black individual living at Bartram’s Garden during this period. Research is ongoing to identify and learn more about this individual, but archival evidence reveals Bartram’s role as an enslaver. In 1766, Bartram purchased six enslaved Black people in Charleston, South Carolina, and shipped them to East Florida, where his son William was endeavoring to establish a rice plantation. In a letter to William, Bartram described the people he had enslaved casually, listing their names and sharing brief descriptions amidst inventories of items he sent to William. Thus far, the six people Bartram enslaved — Jack and his wife, Siby; Jacob; Sam; Flora and her young son, Bachus — have not been located further in the historical record, and no archival evidence has been found to indicate that Bartram freed them.
Bartram died at home in Kingsessing on September 22, 1777, and was buried at the Darby Friends Cemetery. His estate and nursery business survived him and continued to thrive under the care of his sons John Jr. and William and John Jr.’s daughter Ann.
William Bartram (1739–1823)
A well-known naturalist, artist, ornithologist, and author in his own right, Bartram’s son William Bartram devoted his life to collecting and describing native American plants while also experimenting with various unsuccessful business ventures of his own.
Noted for his skill in botanical and ornithological illustration even as a young man, William was apprenticed by his father to a Philadelphia merchant in 1756. In 1761, he moved to his uncle’s estate in the present-day county of Bladen, North Carolina, on the Cape Fear River in hopes of establishing himself as a merchant with financial support from his father. The business did not succeed, and William joined his father for the older man’s last major plant-collecting journey in 1765 and 1766. William then tried unsuccessfully to become a plantation owner in the British colony of East Florida, aiming to cultivate rice on 500 acres of land along the St. James River through the labor of enslaved Black people purchased for him by his father. Researchers have not yet located further records of the six people enslaved by the Bartrams in East Florida.
After the plantation failed, William returned to Philadelphia, but fled to the Carolinas by 1770 after amassing further debts. In 1772, William enslaved a Black woman named Jenny who had previously been enslaved by North Carolina planter Thomas Robeson, who was married to William’s cousin Mary. Just 13 months later, William transferred Jenny to his brother-in-law, George Bartram, on the same day that William began the long southern voyage for which he is most famous today.
From 1773–1776, William journeyed through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida — land inhabited then largely by indigenous peoples — under the patronage of Dr. John Fothergill. In 1791, William’s landmark book, Travels, was first published, describing those earlier journeys. His drawings and written descriptions of both plants and people found an eager audience in Europeans seeking more information about the American continent.
There are indications that William’s attitudes towards slavery changed as he aged. Sometime in 1780, William joined several of his brothers and a cousin in signing a petition to the state assembly calling for a halt to the outfitting of ships for the slave trade in Pennsylvania, and in the mid-1780s William wrote a strident anti-slavery address quoting the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, and contemporary abolitionists as he predicted calamity for the young United States if slavery was not ended.
Late in life, William remained active in the family nursery business, tutored nieces and nephews, and maintained detailed records of bird migrations, plant life, and the weather.
Image Credit: Engraved portrait of William Bartram by T. B. Welch (1832), based on oil portrait by Charles W. Peale (1808).
Ann Bartram Carr (1779–1858)
A daughter of John Bartram, Jr., Ann Bartram Carr assumed management of the family estate and nursery business from her father in 1810, together with her husband, Colonel Robert Carr (1778–1866). Called Nancy by her family, she was educated by her uncle William and inherited both his skill for illustration and the family passion for plants.
During the Carr era, the Garden was enlarged as a commercial nursery, the better to serve new middle-class American audiences for whom gardening was becoming an accessible pastime. Census records from 1820, 1830, and 1840 also list a free Black family living with the Carrs in the Historic Bartram House. However, because census records before 1850 only include Colonel Carr’s name as the head of the household, the identities of the free Black family remain unknown.
At its peak under Ann’s management, the Garden featured ten greenhouses and a collection of over 1,400 native plant species and as many as 1,000 exotics, many under glass. Financial difficulties led the Carrs to sell the property to Andrew Eastwick in 1850.
Image Credit: Portrait of Ann Bartram Carr from The Philadelphia Press (1896).
Bartram History Blog
September 5, 2023
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