Travels of William Bartram

Reading this book alongside a book about fracking provides a jarring juxtaposition—compare the gloriously clear waters and abundant nature of 1770’s Florida with the contaminated wells and airborne chemicals of 2010’s Pennsylvania. We have lost so much in so short a time.

William Bartram traveled around Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida between 1773 and 1778, resulting in this delightful book of his reminisces in 1791. The book influenced Coleridge and it’s said to have given him many of the gorgeous images that were later woven into Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was a source for Wordsworth as well, “likewise an enthusiastic reader of travel literature; ‘She was a phantom of delight’ and ‘Ruth’ both distinctly show its influence…” Bartram was a trained naturalist and goes into ecstatic shock over the varieties of flora and fauna around him, listing the trees and shrubs and flowers and insects in long breathless paragraphs.

He hitches onto a surveying party of whites who have wrested land from the native Creek and Cherokee after tense negotiations in Augusta (GA): “the merchants of Georgia demanding at least two million of acres of land from the Indians, as a discharge of their debts, due, and of long standing…” Naturally the natives wanted to do no such thing, but eventually the chiefs gave in after lavish presents were given. Of the whites, everyone is described as exceedingly “polite”—I must have counted 10 uses of the word in a few paragraphs. Manners appear to be of utmost importance, as well as letters of introduction from important people.

The text is littered with occasional gems, like “I accidentally discovered a new species of caryophyllata (geum odoratissimum); on reaching to a shrub my foot slipped, and, in recovering myself, I tore up some of the plants, whose roots filled the air with animated scents of cloves and spicy perfumes.” I’m extremely jealous of the unspoiled vista he was taking in, describing huge trees, woods thick with birds, untouched swamplands.

Amazing descriptions of alligators swarming him, the river choked with fish and alligators “in such incredible numbers, and so close together from shore to shore, that it would have been easy to have walked across on their heads.” The prose is intense:

During this attempt, thousands, I may say hundreds of thousands, of [fish] were caught and swallowed by the devouring alligators. I have seen an alligator take up out of the water several great fish at a time, and just squeeze them betwixt his jaws, while the tails of the great trout flapped about his eyes and lips, ere he had swallowed them. The horrid noise of their closing jaws, their plunging amidst the broken banks of fish, and rising with their prey some feet upright above the water, the floods of water and blood rushing out of their mouths, and the clouds of vapor issuing from their wide nostrils, were truly frightful. This scene continued at intervals during the night, as the fish came to the pass.

He’s attacked several times by the gators:

As I passed by Battle lagoon, I began to tremble and keep a good lookout; when suddenly a huge alligator rushed out of the reeds, and with a tremendous roar came up, and darted as swift as an arrow under my boat, emerging upright on my lee quarter, with open jaws, and belching water and smoke that fell upon me like rain in a hurricane. I laid soundly about his head with my club and beat him off; and after plunging and darting about my boat, he went off on a straight line through the water, seemingly with the rapidity of lightning, and entered the cape of the lagoon.

Snakes, mosquitoes, gators, orange groves, pine forests, old Indian roads, frogs, lizards, turtles, turkeys, manatees, fish, squirrels, stinging flies, hurricanes and more. Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole Indians sneak in and out of his pages. Bartram mentions the “temporary husbands” of the Indian women sleeping with white men, along with the women’s trick of obtaining rum:

They had the fortitude and subtilty by dissimulation and artifice to save their share of the liquor during the frolick, and that by a very singular strategem; for, at these riots, every fellow who joins in the club has his own quart bottle of rum in his hand, holding it by the neck so sure, that he never looses hold of it day or night, drunk or sober, as long as the frolick continues; and with this, his beloved friend, he roves about continually, singing, roaring, and reeling to and fro, either alone or arm in arm with a brother toper, presenting his bottle to every one, offering a drink; and is sure to meet his beloved female if he can, whom he complaisantly begs to drink with him. But the modest fair, veiling her face in a mantle, refuses, at the beginning of the frolick; but he presses and at last insists. She being furnished with an empty bottle, concealed in her mantle, at last consents, and taking a good long draught, blushes, drops her pretty face on her bosom, and artfully discharges the rum into her bottle, and by repeating this artifice soon fills it: this she privately conveys to her secret store, and then returns to the jovial game, and so on during the festival; and when the comic farce is over, the wench retails this precious cordial to them at her own price.

I do like their supposed custom of marriage, marrying only for a year’s time and then renewing the marriage after a year if desired.

He notes that “the Cherokees are extremely jealous of white people travelling about their mountains, especially if they should be seen peeping in amongst the rocks, or digging up their earth.”

Lovely description of the Cherokee language: “very loud, somewhat rough and very sonorous, sounding the letter R frequently, yet very agreeable and pleasant to the ear.”

Includes lists upon lists of birds seen, towns and villages of the Cherokee nation, towns and their corresponding Indian language spoken, and of course all the flowers/shrubs/trees/insects/wildlife seen.

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Mentioned in Lauren Groff’s Florida