By Evelyn C. McDonald
Arts & Culture Reporter
January 5, 2021
History is all around us and we don’t often realize it until it is called to our attention. William Faulkner said it well when he wrote, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” If you were asked to name the first American naturalist, you might say Audubon or perhaps John Muir. You might not say William Bartram and yet he predated Audubon by 30 years or more. It wasn’t until 1867 that Muir set foot on Amelia Island.
The Bartram Garden Club on the island has determined to honor Bartram’s memory by renovating the historical marker that celebrates his visit to the island. You may have passed the marker many times as you walked along the downtown waterfront. It was originally set up by the Rose Garden Club in 1981. The Bartram club expects to install the refurbished marker at the end of January in the same location.
William Bartram, born in Pennsylvania to British parents, was the first American naturalist in the British colonies. The 18th century was the era of citizen scientists who explored and recorded the world around them. Initially with his father John Bartram, William traveled through the British colonies observing and recording nature. He developed a love of nature that remained with him and carried him from the Carolinas to Florida in the south and Alabama to the west.
In the Carolinas in 1774, Bartram decided to go south to the St. Johns River. As his ship sailed south, it met up with a ship going north. Travelers on the other ship spoke of fighting in the river area. The captain of Bartram’s ship decided to turn back but Bartram asked to be put ashore on Cumberland Island. From there he took a boat across to Lord Egmont’s indigo plantation at the north end of Amelia Island. A marker at Egan’s Creek park commemorates this plantation. A casualty of the Revolutionary War, the plantation was destroyed by the Georgia militia in 1776.
Egmont had recently died and John Egan (presumably where Egan’s Creek gets its name) was the plantation overseer. Egan took Bartram around the island to see plants and birds as well as the native Indian mounds on the island. They sailed down the Amelia River to the St. Johns where Bartram procured a boat and continued his journey down that river to central Florida.
Bartram’s work was extensive and his drawings rivaled any in their beauty and precision. He contributed information and illustrations that were used by European naturalists. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and their website is a good source for examples of the work Bartram did.
Bartram published a book of his work, Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, etc. Additional information on William Bartram can be found on the Florida Museum’s website. Both the University of Virginia and the University of Georgia have produced books on Bartram as well as modern editions of his Travels.
The Bartram Garden Club, chartered in 2016, is devoted to creating an appreciation of the natural world around us. They believed that William Bartram exemplified this feeling. They applied for and received a grant to support half of the cost of the marker restoration.