A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design

John Bartram

[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]
Revision as of 21:40, April 29, 2015 by R-Asleson (talk | contribs)

John Bartram (March 23, 1699 – September 22, 1777) was an American-born farmer, botanist, horticulturalist, and explorer, who made significant contributions to the collection, dissemination, and study of indigenous North American flora and fauna.


The son of a Quaker farmer in rural Pennsylvania, John Bartram lacked access to education and books, but possessed from an early age a “great inclination to botany & natural history,” which he pursued through exploration and independent study that included teaching himself Latin. [1] In his late twenties, Bartram relocated from the Pennsylvania countryside to the outskirts of Philadelphia, the epicenter of the American scientific community. In September 1728 he purchased 102 acres of improved farm land three miles from Philadelphia on the lower Schuylkill River, adding an additional 142 acres in 1735. [2] After building a small stone farm house and establishing a kitchen garden, Bartram laid out a large garden of six or seven acres on a sloping terrace leading from the house down to the river, with additional land reserved for an orchard, greenhousess, and framing. [3] During the same period, Bartram was pursuing his interest in botany. He collected specimens for his friends Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Breintnall (d. 1746), who were then experimenting with nature prints made by inking leaves, ferns, and grasses and directly transferring the impressions to paper. [4] The prints greatly interested botanical enthusiasts in Europe—among them, Peter Collinson, a Quaker cloth merchant in London who was also an avid amateur botanist and member of the Royal Society of Arts in London. Collinson received 130 of the impressions in October 1733, [5], along with Breintnall’s recommendation that Bartram would be “a very proper person” to furnish him with actual seeds and plants from the colonies. “Being a native of Pensilvania with a numerous Family,” Breitnall observed, “The profits ariseing from Gathering Seeds would enable him to support it.” [6] With that, Bartram and Collinson embarked on a 35-year friendship and business partnership conducted exclusively through correspondence. [7]

Bartram began sending North American seeds to Collinson in 1736, and was soon filling orders for nuts, tubers, live plants, and dried specimens. Collinson not only advised Bartram on the best methods for packing and shipping his specimens, but also supervised his botanical education, instructing him to send duplicate samples so that he could “gett them named by our most knowing Botanists and return them again—which will improve thee more than Books.”[8] In May 1737 Collinson returned 208 of these specimens to Bartram, with identifications made by Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684-1747), professor of botany at Oxford. [9] Collinson connected Bartram with several other eminent members of the European scientific community, including Philip Miller, director of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, Carolus Linnaeus, professor of medicine and botany at Uppsala, and Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), president of the Royal Society. [10] Through Collinson, Bartram also provided seeds and live plants to members of the British nobility and gentry who were creating American gardens at their country seats. [11] Bartram’s British correspondents frequently recompensed him with books, rather than money, enabling him to assemble a much valued natural history reference library. For example, in exchange for specimens he received from Bartram, Lord Petre sent him the supplement to Phillip Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary in 1739, Dillenius having sent him the first volume two years earlier. [12] They also exchanged seeds with him, allowing him to bring an encyclopedic botanic variety to his own garden. In 1736 Collinson sent him a collection of “60 sorts of Curious seeds” that he and Phillip Miller had assembled for him, and from Lady Petre the seed of a rare pear tree that flourished at his garden. [13].

By 1740 he had established “a Settled Trade & Business” in the provision of seeds and plants to England, with Collinson acting as his middleman. [14] To meet the demand for exotic North American trees and shrubs among owners of important English gardens and professional nurserymen and gardeners, Bartram assembled seed boxes containing 100 specimens, chiefly of trees and shrubs, distributing them through Collinson’s connections to many dozens of subscribers. [15] As a further boost to this business, Collinson published Bartram’s seed catalogue in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1751, touting it as “the largest Collection that has ever before been imported into this Kingdom.”<Armstrong, 2004, 25.> Bartram was simultaneously supplying a growing European market for live plants from North American, as well as increasing demand for exotic specimens among American gardeners in Philadelphia, Charleston, New York. [16] In 1761, he complained to Collinson of the seemingly insatiable desire for novel curiosities. “Do they think I can make new ones? I have sent them seeds of almost every tree and shrub from Nova Scotia to Carolina; very few are wanting: and from the sea across the continent to the lakes… and if I die a martyr to Botany, God’s will be done.” [17] Rising demand required expanded production. “I must inlarge my nursery garden,” Bartram informed a friend in August 1769. [18]

In addition to plants, cuttings, and roots from his own garden, Bartram sent his English contacts seeds gathered on his expeditions up and down the East Coast. After scouring the colonies for rare and useful plants, Bartram sent reports on plant life and natural phenomena he observed in his travels to Collinson and Franklin in London and they, in turn, shared these reports with the Royal Society, which occasionally published them in the Transactions. [19] Bartram began his travels in the early 1730s. Thereafter, with the exception of a four-year hiatus from 1746 to 1749, he traveled virtually every year from 1735 until 1766. [20]

In addition to hunting for natural specimens, Bartram toured gardens. Following an itinerary suggested by Collinson and armed with his letters of introduction, Bartram traveled through Maryland and Virginia in the autumn of 1738, where he noted that even the best gardens (such as those of William Byrd and John Clayton) lacked a variety of plants and were “poorly furnished with Curiosities” in comparison with Philadelphia’s gardens, enriched through exchanges with England, France, Holland, and Germany). [21] Through Collinson, Bartram met Cadwallader Colden, with whom he conducted a long correspondence and visited several times at his New York estate, Coldengham. There, in the spring of 1755, Bartram made the acquaintance of Dr. Alexander Garden of Charleston, who sought him out in Philadelphia a few months later and spent several days exploring the surrounding countryside in his company. [22] Bartram returned the favor in 1760, making his first trip to North and South Carolina. While visiting Garden in Charleston, he met several owners of important gardens, among them Elizabeth and Thomas Lamboll, ___, and Martha Daniell Logan, a keen gardener and horticulturalist, and author of the Gardeners Kalender. The latter encounter resulted in a lengthy exchange of letters, as well as seeds, roots, and bulbs—several of which Logan obtained from the gardens of her Charleston neighbors. [23] “I was with her about five minutes, in much company,” Bartram acknowledged in a letter to Peter Collinson in 1762, “Yet we contracted such a mutual correspondence, that one silk bag of seed hath passed and repassed full of seeds three times since last fall.” [24]


  • July 18, 1739, Bartram, John, describing Westover, seat of William Byrd II, on the James River, Va. (1992: 121) [25]
“Col Byrd is very prodigal in Gates roads walks hedges & seeders [cedars] trimed finely & A little green house with 2 or 3 [orange] trees . . .”

"Mr. John Bartram is an Englishman, who lives in the country about four miles from Philadelphia. He has acquired a great knowledge of natural philosophy and history, and seems to be born with a peculiar genius for these sciences.... He has in several successive years made frequent excursions into different distant parts of North America, with an intention of gathering all sorts of plants which are scarce and little known. Those which he found he has planted in his own botanical garden, and likewise sent over their seeds or fresh roots to England. We owe to him the knowledge of many scarce plants, which he first found, and which were never known before."

"I have met wt very Little new in the Botanic way unless Your acquaintance Bartram, who is what he is & whose acquaintance alone makes amends for other disappointments in that way.... One Day he Dragged me out of town & Entertain'd me so agreably with some Elevated Botanicall thoughts, on oaks, Firns, Rocks & c that I forgot I was hungry till we Landed in his house about four Miles from Town....

"His garden is a perfect portraiture of himself, here you meet wt a row of rare plants almost covered over wt weeds, here with a Beautiful Shrub, even Luxuriant Amongst Briars, and in another corner an Elegant & Lofty tree lost in common thicket — on our way from town to his house he carried me to severall rocks & Dens where he shewed me some of his rare plants, which he had brought from the Mountains &c. In a word he disdains to have a garden less than Pensylvania [sic] & Every den is an Arbour, Every run of water, a Canal, & every small level Spot a Parterre, where he nurses up some of his Idol Flowers & cultivates his darling productions. He had many plants whose names he did not know, most or all of which I had seen & knew them — On the other hand he had several I had not seen & some I never heard of."

  • June 24, 1760, Bartram, John, in a letter to Peter Collinson, describing his plans for the Bartram Botanic Garden and Nursery, vicinity of Philadelphia, Pa. (quoted in Darlington 1849: 224) [28]
“Dear friend, I am going to build a greenhouse. Stone is got; and hope as soon as harvest is over to begin to build it, to put some pretty flowering winter shrubs, and plants for winter’s diversion; not to be crowded with orange trees, or those natural to the Torrid Zone, but such as will do, being protected from frost.”

  • December 3, 1762, Bartram, John, describing Charleston, S.C. (quoted in Darlington 1849: 242–43) [28]
“I can’t find, in our country, that south walls are much protection against our cold, for if we cover so close as to keep out the frost, they are suffocated.”

“He [John Bartram] was, perhaps, the first Anglo-American who conceived the idea of establishing a BOTANIC GARDEN for the reception and cultivation of the various vegetables, natives of the country, as well as exotics, and of travelling for the discovery and acquisition of them.
“* The BARTRAM BOTANIC GARDEN, (established in or about the year 1730,) is most eligibly and beautifully situated, on the right bank of the river Schuylkill, a short distance below the city of Philadelphia. Being the oldest establishment of the kind in this western world, and exceedingly interesting, from its history and associations, — one might almost hope, even in this utilitarian age, that, if no motive more commendable could avail, a feeling of state or city pride, would be sufficient to ensure its preservation, in its original character, and for the sake of its original objects. But, alas! there seems to be too much reason to apprehend that it will scarcely survive the immediate family of its noble-hearted founder, — and that even the present generation may live to see the accumulated treasures of a century laid waste—with all the once gay parterres and lovely borders converted into lumberyards and coal-landings.”




  1. John Bartram to Alexander Catcott, May 26, 1742, quoted in The Correspondence of John Bartram 1734-1777, ed. Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1992), 193-94, view on Zotero; see also Joel T. Fry, John Bartram’s House and Garden (Bartram's Garden), Historic American Landscape Survey, HALS No. PA-1, 2004, 20-22,view on Zotero; Alan W. Armstrong, “John Bartram and Peter Collinson: A Correspondence of Science and Friendship” in Nancy Everill Hoffmann and John C. Van Horne, eds., America’s Curious Botanist: A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram, 1699-1777, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 249 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2004): 23-42, view on Zotero.
  2. Fry, 2004, 27-28, view on Zotero.
  3. Fry, 2004, 4, 7, 18, 22, view on Zotero.
  4. Armstrong, 2004, 28, view on Zotero.
  5. “Extracts from the Gazette, 1733,” The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 1 (January 6, 1706 through December 31, 1734), ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1959, p. 349 n.6, view on Zotero.
  6. Peter [Pehr] Collinson, ‘Forget Not Mee & My Garden’: Selected Letters 1725-1768 of Peter Collinson, F.R.S., ed. Alan W. Armstrong (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2002), xxvi, view on Zotero.
  7. Fry, 2004, 23, view on Zotero; Stephanie Volmer, Planting a New World: Letters and Languages of Transatlantic Botanical Exchange, 1733--1777, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, 2008), 64- 112, view on Zotero.
  8. Peter Collinson to John Bartram, quoted in Armstrong, 2004, 30, see also 31-33,view on Zotero.
  9. Armstrong, 2004, 30, [https://www.zotero.org/groups/54737/items/itemKey/T5AMSHET view on Zotero.
  10. William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall: With Notices of Their Botanical Contemporaries (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1849), 92, 123, 165, 302, 324, 371-72, 380-90, view on Zotero; Armstrong, 2004, 23, 27, view on Zotero; Alfred E. Schuyler, "On the Discovery of Helonias Bullata L. (Swamp-Pink) and the Source of the Specimens in the Linnaean Herbarium," Pennsylvania Legacies, 4 (November 2004), 10-13, view on Zotero; Hazel Le Rougetel, "Philip Miller/John Bartram Botanical Exchange," Garden History, 14 (spring 1986), 32-39, https://www.zotero.org/groups/54737/items/itemKey/V27SVXWI view on Zotero]; Sarah P. Stetson, "The Traffic in Seeds and Plants from England’s Colonies in North America," Agricultural History, 23 (January 1949): 50-55, view on Zotero.
  11. Douglas Chambers, The Planters of the English Landscape Garden: Botany, Trees, and the Georgics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 110-19, view on Zotero; Mark Laird, The Flowering of the Landscape Garden: English Pleasure Grounds, 1720-1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 63-78, view on Zotero; Armstrong, 2004, 24, 27, 29, 30, 38, view on Zotero; Alfred E. Schuyler and Ann Newbold, "Vascular Plants in Lord Petre’s Herbarium Collected by John Bartram," Bartonia, 53 (1987), 41-43, view on Zotero.
  12. Darlington, 1849, 95-96, 135; see also 103, 303-05, 323, view on Zotero.
  13. Quoted in Fry, 2004, 35; Boyd, James, A History of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 1827-1927 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, 1929), 1151-52
  14. Volmer, 2008, 41; Fry, 2004, 26l; Correspondence of John Bartram 1992, 117
  15. For various estimates of the number of subscribers, see Fry, 2004, 24-25; Patriot-Improvers, 50; Volmer, 2008, 39; Armstrong, 2004, 30, 38; Laird, Flowering of the Landscape Garden, 80.
  16. Fry, 2004, 37; Meyer, Paul W., ‘A Proposal for the Interpretation of John Bartram’s Garden’ (unpublished Masters of Science Thesis, University of Delaware, 1977), 92.
  17. Darlington, 232.
  18. John Bartram to John Fothergill, August 12, 1769, quoted in Fry, 2004, 37.
  19. Fry, 1996, 51.
  20. For timelines and annotated maps documenting Bartram’s travels, see Nancy Everill Hoffmann and John C. Van Horne, eds., America’s Curious Botanist: A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram, 1699-1777, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2004), xviii- xxvi view on Zotero.
  21. John Bartram to Peter Collinson, June 11, 1743, quoted in Correspondence of John Bartram, 1992, 215-16. See also Darlington, 88-89, 113, Fry, 2004, 25, 34-35.
  22. Hoffmann, Nancy Everill, and John C. Van Horne, eds., America’s Curious Botanist: A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram, 1699-1777, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society 249 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2004), XX; see also Armstrong, 2004, 36.
  23. Martha Daniell Logan, “Letters of Martha Logan to John Bartram, 1760-1763,” ed. Mary Barbot Prior, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 59 (1958), 38-46 view on Zotero.
  24. John Bartram to Peter Collinson, May 22, 1761, quoted in William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall: With Notices of Their Botanical Contemporaries (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1849), 230-31, view on Zotero.
  25. John Bartram, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777, ed. by Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992), view on Zotero.
  26. Peter [Pehr] Kalm, Travels into North America: Containing Its Natural History, and a Circumstantial Account of Its Plantations and Agriculture in General, with the Civil, Ecclesiastical and Commercial State of the Country, the Manners of the Inhabitants, and Several Curious and Important Remarks on Various Subjects, trans. John Reinhold Forster, 3 vols. (London: John Reinhold Forster, 1770), 1, view on Zotero.
  27. Cadwallader Colden, "The Letters and Papers of Cadwallader Colden", vol. 4 (1748-1754), Collections of the New-York Historical Society (1920): 471-72, view on Zotero.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 William Darlington, Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall: With Notices of Their Botanical Contemporaries (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1849), view on Zotero.

Retrieved from "https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=John_Bartram&oldid=9427"

History of Early American Landscape Design contributors, "John Bartram," History of Early American Landscape Design, , https://heald.nga.gov/mediawiki/index.php?title=John_Bartram&oldid=9427 (accessed December 2, 2023).

A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

National Gallery of Art, Washington