William Bartram and the Nature of Florida

There’s something about explorers who ventured into the New World that always grips my imagination. Maybe it’s because men could leave home for years, move from place to place, free to be the souls they were born to be. As a woman, I could never have done that. Nor would it be easy today, either.

One of those explorers, William Bartram, traveled in my part of Florida – north central – around 1774, as part of a four-year journey across much of what is now the American South. He left Philadelphia in March 1773 for Charleston. By the spring of 1774, Bartram found himself on Amelia Island. From there, he trekked to points along the St. John’s River. Britain at that time governed Florida, from 1763 to 1783, and so Bartram could move freely through the wondrous, almost primeval landscape.

That journey seems to have awakened something spiritual in him, his words anticipating – and influencing – elements of the Romantic Movement.  However, reading sections of his Travels often raises the hair on my neck, especially when he shares his experiences with alligators.

Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake, The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder. When immediately from the opposite coast of the lagoon, emerges from the deep his rival champion. They suddenly dart upon each other. The boiling surface of the lake marks their rapid course, and a terrific conflict commences.

But it’s Bartram’s hurricane experience that speaks most to me, in these post-Irma days of debris and damage. The danger passed, but not the memory.

Being heretofore so closely invested, by high forests and deep swamps of the great river, I was prevented from seeing the progress and increase of the approaching tempest, the terrific appearance of which now at once confounded me; how purple and fiery appeared the tumultuous clouds! swiftly ascending or darting from the horizon upwards; they seemed to oppose and dash against each other, the skies appeared streaked with blood or purple flame overhead, the flaming lightning streaming and darting about in every direction around, seems to fill the world with fire; whilst the heavy thunder keeps the earth in a constant tremor. I had yet some hope of crossing the lake to the plantation [Beresford] in sight.  … The high forests behind me bend to the blast, and the sturdy limbs of the trees crack; I had by this time got up a breast of the grove or hommock [sic], the hurricane close by, pursuing me, I found it dangerous and imprudent in the highest degree to put in here, as the groves were already torn up, and the spreading limbs of the Live Oaks were flying over my head, and carried about in the air as leaves and stubble …

I would invite him to dinner any time. He and I would have much in common, I fear.

© 2017 C. Bertelsen

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6 comments

  • Thank you, Anita! Just this morning I was thinking about another piece I need to write about the Bartrams, and this information will help a great deal.

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  • I don’t think they received much formal education, but then I think those Bartram men were largely self-educated, too. I was involved with a grant program looking at the Bartram women, and there were just so few records, but John Bartram’s granddaughter was very much involved with expanding the gardens.

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  • That is certainly dramatic! I think he was a person who was constantly seeking and questioning.
    I wish though that the Bartram women had left more records.

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