More Than 200 Years After He Toured Florida, America’s First Great Environmentalist Is Inspiring Locals to Reconnect With Nature

A new generation is discovering the rambling Southern route of William Bartram and his legendary 1791 travelogue

a hand drawn plant with a book with an indigenous tribesman on the cover
Left, Bartram’s illustration of Annona grandiflora, a member of the pawpaw family, which appeared in the naturalist’s 1791 Travels, right. Project Gutenberg

Launching his kayak into the St. Johns River on a nearly cloudless day in northern Florida, a retired environmental engineer named Dean Campbell heads south, leading a tour to Mount Royal, an ancient Indigenous burial mound that is now encircled by a suburban development. Campbell paddles with expert flicks of the wrist, gliding past fields of water lilies and the shell of an abandoned, half-sunk boat. Silver fish leap above the surface, twisting like gymnasts, and a pet peacock screeches from the shore.

We disembark beside a long wooden dock, walking through a neighborhood of neat lawns and towering palm trees until we come to a hill marked with a state historical sign for “The Mount Royal Site.” The mound’s slope is gradual and grassy, its summit shadowed by mature live oaks. Tendrils of Spanish moss tremble in the breeze, and the sand is soft beneath our feet.

Standing along the St. Johns and gazing at Mount Royal, we are following in the footsteps of William Bartram, the American naturalist and writer, who visited this spot several times in the 18th century. In 1773, Bartram left his home in Pennsylvania and embarked on a four-year journey throughout the Southeast that would eventually yield Travels, his sprawling, poetic account of the landscapes, plants, animals and people he encountered in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Part travelogue, part spiritual memoir and part scientific catalog, Travels extols Bartram’s belief in nature’s interconnectedness—and the preciousness of all its creatures. In his introduction, Bartram celebrates the azalea’s “show of mirth and gaiety” and delights in the “sportive” movements of the Venus flytrap; he believed that animals were capable of “premeditation” and “perseverance,” and he wrote with feeling about the “filial affections” of a loyal bear cub.

a painted portrait of a man with white hair
Bartram in an 1808 oil portrait by Charles Willson Peale. Independence National Historical Park Collection

The St. Johns served as the main thoroughfare for Bartram’s travels in Florida as he recorded his impressions of the area’s ferocious alligators “roaring terribly and belching floods of water,” and of freshwater springs “so extremely clear as to be absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether.” His book soon brought wide attention to many unheralded natural wonders in the South, turning the Floridian wilderness into a focus of international scientific fascination and literary inspiration. Bartram’s rambling route has attracted curious scholars, wanderers and artists ever since.

Although Travels was published in Philadelphia, London and Paris in the 1790s, appreciation for Bartram’s work declined during the 19th century, and another major edition in the United States did not appear until 1928. In 1958, the preface to a new edition announced its aim: to “make Bartram live again.”

In the 21st century, a Bartram revival is underway, led by enthusiasts like Campbell, who call themselves “Bartramites” and refer to William as “Billy,” as if he were an old friend. Renewed interest in Bartram’s writing, art and contributions to natural history is fueling new scholarship, a biennial conference and a movement to recognize Bartram’s route nationally. Bartram’s work, and his holistic philosophy of nature, are not only an invitation to imagine a wilder Southern past; they also contain a blueprint for a better future, one where nature is both protected and restored. With climate change and population growth imperiling what’s left of the wilderness of Bartram’s day, that vision has never been more urgent.

The shiny hull of Campbell’s kayak is decorated with a sticker that reads “In the wake of William Bartram,” and he has spent a lifetime studying the river with a well-loved copy of Travels nestled in the bow of his boat. Visiting sites like Mount Royal is special, Campbell says, because “you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re right where he was.” Campbell first learned about Bartram in the 1980s, when he was working for the St. Johns River Water Management District in northern Florida’s Putnam County, where he grew up and where Mount Royal is located. Using Travels, Campbell pieced together the precolonial history of the river, before industry and tourism changed the landscape. Through Bartram’s eyes, Campbell says, he could see what the St. Johns once was—and what it might be again.

William Bartram was born in 1739 to a Quaker family a few miles outside Philadelphia. His father was John Bartram, an accomplished botanist, whom the young William accompanied on expeditions to collect and study plants. William also showed an early talent for drawing. In 1773, at the age of 33 and with funding from a London patron, Bartram led a surveying trip through the Southeast. He lovingly collected plant and seed specimens, documented animal behavior, recorded the customs of Indigenous tribes and illustrated the wildlife he encountered, often drawing them within the context of their habitats, an innovative choice that would influence later artists to move away from the conventional style of showing animals and plants in isolation, divorced from their native context. Travels describes 358 species, 130 of which were new to Western science when he identified them. A few of these species, like Bartram’s ixia, an endangered type of iris endemic to northern Florida, are now named for him. Bartram was thus a trailblazer in a stunning array of disciplines: botany, ecology, zoology, ethnography, ornithology. Soon after Travels was published, in 1791, other American naturalists, including John James Audubon and the entomologist Thomas Say, began to retrace Bartram’s route, eager to corroborate his observations and experience the territories evoked in the book.

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

a drawing of a gopherberry
Bartram’s illustration of Annona pygmaea, sometimes called a gopherberry.  Project Gutenberg

At once a travel narrative and a scientific treatise, “Travels is a weird book,” says Kathryn Braund, a historian who has edited two recent essay anthologies about Bartram. The great author’s idiosyncratic shifts in voice and topic can sometimes be jarring, but his rich observations reward rereading. “No matter what you make of Bartram’s Travels, it is America’s first great literary masterpiece, in my view,” Braund says. Bartram’s writing influenced Romantic poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who praised Travels as a “work of high merit [in] every way,” and the book’s fusion of internal reflection and vivid description became a template for generations of American environmental writers, from Henry David Thoreau to Rachel Carson, says Thomas Hallock, a literary scholar at the University of South Florida who co-edited a collection of Bartram’s letters and unpublished manuscripts. “I can’t imagine [Thoreau’s] Walden without Bartram’s Travels,” Hallock says. “You describe the natural world and then you explain what it means to you, and you come to some moral conviction. That’s the formula that goes back to Bartram.”

You can see this formula in Bartram’s writing about Mount Royal, which begins with imagery and ends with a prayer. Bartram described a large orange grove; palms, live oaks and magnolias; and a “grand highway” and artificial lake, built by the Indigenous people who also built the mound over hundreds of years. “The glittering water pond played on the sight, through the dark grove, like a brilliant diamond, on the bosom of the illumined savanna,” Bartram wrote. In 1848, more than 50 years after Travels was first published, Bartram’s observations about Mount Royal were still being cited in Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, an early Smithsonian publication about Indigenous burial mounds in the Eastern U.S., which credited Bartram as its main source of information about these monuments in the South.

Bartram is known for his evocations of the Southern wilderness, but he also knew the sadness of returning to find a beautiful and sacred place changed by human whims. “That venerable grove is now no more. All has been cleared away and planted with indigo, corn and cotton, but since deserted,” Bartram wrote of Mount Royal, comparing what he found in the 1770s with what he saw in the 1760s, when he was traveling with his father, John. The planter who had apparently abandoned these fields did preserve the burial mound and some of the orange grove, Bartram notes, and he still describes Mount Royal as sublime.

kayaks sit next to an trail map showing key site along a historic trail
In Florida, Putnam County’s Bartram Trail offers a map with more than 30 key sites that Bartram visited and studied in the region.  Bartram Trail Society of Florida

When I ask Dorinda Dallmeyer, who wrote the screenplay for a 2020 documentary about Bartram called Cultivating the Wild, to name her favorite part of Travels, she demurs at first. “That’s just like picking among your children,” she says. Dallmeyer says she loves the moments in Bartram that feel like time travel. Once, she recalled, she was horseback riding in a preserve of longleaf pines in South Georgia, and she thought of Bartram. “I was experiencing there, in those old-growth longleafs, the same thing that he experienced when he wrote about the wiregrass brushing his stirrups,” she says. In this way, Bartram offers readers a means “of injecting poetry into local landscapes,” Hallock says.

Decades ago, working for the water management district to rehabilitate the St. Johns’ damaged ecosystem, Campbell turned to Bartram for guidance in his quest. Reading Travels alongside the detailed journals of William’s father, John, Campbell saw that their observations could be invaluable to scientists who wanted to return the St. Johns to a pre-European equilibrium. The Bartrams’ records are often the oldest documentation of a place’s natural features, and their writing has been used as a baseline for ecological restoration by scientists all over Florida who were inspired by William Bartram, as Campbell was. The Florida Park Service bases its management of Paynes Prairie on Bartram’s words, using Travels as a reference for everything from the topography and water cycles to the wildlife and plants. The 2013 management plan for the park quotes from Bartram’s descriptions of the forests and wetlands to show how these places have changed. Longleaf pine restoration is ongoing at the park now, a nod to the pine forest that Bartram saw.

Despite conservation efforts over the last 50 years, some of the landscapes that Bartram memorialized remain gravely threatened. In Florida, development has altered or swallowed much of Bartram’s route on land and water, and the population boom shows no signs of slowing: The state saw 2.7 million new residents from 2010 to 2020. “People wanting to move here is the greatest threat to the St. Johns. They are literally loving Florida to death,” says Rob Mattson, an environmental scientist who worked for the St. Johns River Water Management District for 17 years, carrying out ecological research and monitoring. Newcomers may be undeterred by Florida’s hurricanes, but recent storms have been disastrous at all levels of life—even for eelgrass, an important food source for manatees. On our kayaking trip, Campbell points out indentations along the shoreline made by manatees dragging themselves onto land in a desperate search for something to eat.

a sepia toned hand drawn map of East Florida
Bartram drew this map of East Florida for his 1791 Travels. Project Gutenberg

Over years of paddling, Campbell matched the various springs, points and bluffs of today’s St. Johns River to the river Bartram described on the page. Later, he introduced his friend Sam Carr to Bartram, and Carr soon joined Campbell in searching for glimpses of the past in the present landscape. Putnam County is one of the poorest in Florida, and its relative lack of development has preserved sites like Satsuma Spring, a hidden sulfur spring that Bartram visited with his father. Seeing (and smelling) Satsuma has moved some Bartram scholars to tears, Carr says, because it is so remarkably intact. “There are so few places where you can have that kind of an experience, where nature is preserved in a pretty close state to what it was when he was here,” Campbell says.

Campbell and Carr, both now retired, realized that Bartram could be useful not only for science; he could also help them change their hometown’s fortunes and protect their beloved river at the same time. They set out to mark the Bartram Trail in Putnam County, hoping to teach residents about the river’s history and attract ecotourists who would appreciate its beauty without harming its wildlife, and they installed interactive signs with QR codes that allow visitors to read Bartram’s words on their phones. In 2016, the National Parks Service recognized the Bartram Trail in Putnam County as a National Recreation Trail.

“I honestly believe that this is an absolute jewel in the state of Florida,” Carr says. In 2014, Carr and Campbell also founded an annual spring festival, the Bartram Frolic, which features boat rides, bike tours, academic presentations and historical re-enactments. During this event, local schoolchildren learn about the river’s ecology and Bartram’s travels through Putnam County.

At Mount Royal, Campbell opens his worn copy of Travels, its pages thick with curling Post-its and scribbled notes. He reads aloud: “Continually impelled by a restless spirit of chief happiness consisted in tracing and admiring the infinite power, majesty and perfection of the great Almighty Creator, and in the contemplation that...I might be instrumental in discovering...some original productions of nature which might become useful to society.” As Campbell reads, a red-winged blackbird swoops down from the trees, eavesdropping.

Bartram’s work has indeed been “useful to society” in ways he could never have foreseen, though the true value of Travels, Hallock says, is it “allows us to act on our best intentions,” to seek harmony with the earth rather than selfish dominion. “When you read Bartram,” he says, “there’s a sense of hope that we can do better.”

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