William Bartram was a famous naturalist in the 18th century. He traveled in the southeastern region of the United States from 1773 to 1777, and made drawings and notes from his travels. Even thought he’s not really taught in schools, I knew of him since the highway to my house in high school was along the “William Bartram History Trail” – marking a portion of his journey.
I decided to check out the book after hiking Rabun Bald…which lies along the “William Bartram National Scenic Trail” – a hiking trail from the Chattooga River to North Carolina. The guy was apparently pretty important.
William Bartram’s Travels is an account of his exploration through present-day Georgia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina between 1773 and 1777. It includes detailed descriptions of various plants and animals he encountered on his journey through what were then still largely unexplored wildernesses.
These writings are often accompanied with drawings or paintings depicting such creatures as bears, deer, alligators, panthers (or mountain lions), rattlesnakes etc., which made it unique in its day – but also extremely important now since it details so much natural history that is gone now that Georgia and the southern Appalachians have been settled, cut over, industrialized, and suburbanized..
Bartram traveled for about six years, mostly on foot, sometimes by boat or canoe.
What I Liked
I *loved* being able to read first hand descriptions of landscapes that, even though they were settled and influenced by humans (mainly the Cherokees and Creeks), they were much, much less populated than they are now with a lot more sheer acreage not impacted by humans. It’s really cool to read about how the land that you live on looked & appeared to an explorer way back in the day. He traveled all through land that I live & visit all the time.
I liked that he was really descriptive and almost funny with his writing. He comes across as a really smart guy, but also someone that would be cool to travel with.
I liked that he comes across as a full on inspiration. I don’t think I can ever complain again while hiking in North Georgia knowing that William Bartram did it with no modern gear, no guaranteed supplies, no existing knowledge of the land, and no significant assistance from pack animals or large guiding parties.
I liked how the book filled in the nuance and complexity of what the US was like in the 1770s. Most history that is imagined and taught in schools makes the world out to be so black and white and obvious. On the ground living in the 1770s was impossibly hard to imagine. Reading Travels made it a bit more accessible.
What I Did Not Like
The book is still written like a guy from the 1770s. Also, the version that I read has very few notes or annotations to convert any of his names to modern names (scientific or common). Some parts are very hard to read. Also, I only understood some of his travels because I know the area. A reader unfamiliar with North Georgia and South Carolina would probably be lost and bored.
It’s really easy to see how things are and just skip over the “how stuff physically happened in real life” part. On a modern map, every single feature is named and mapped. All the different species have distribution maps. Somebody had to explore and document all that. It’s good to occasionally read something that reminds you of all the people who did the hard, boring work in the past.