An Outdoor Guide to Bartram's Travels
Although it is not currently possible to travel back in time and witness first-hand what landscapes in the southeast were like centuries ago, the writings of 18th century naturalist William Bartram describe what some of the South's special locales were like in the 1770s. A recent look at the same locales by Charles D. Spornick, Robert J. Greene and Alan R. Cattier of Emory University's library and information technology division provide a sense of what remains and what has been transformed in the interim. Their book, An Outdoor Guide to Guide to Bartram's Travels, receives considerable inspiration from the Bartram Trail Conference in the 1970s, which attempted to establish a national scenic or historic trail and legally protect and preserve sites of considerable aesthetic, cultural or recreational merit. The conference identified more than fifty Bartram heritage sites in seven states, and some progress has since been made in establishing historical markers, gardens and memorial parks.
The authors' stated goal is to present the trail's components into a book, and to provide travel advice for visiting different portions of the trail by foot, canoe, bicycle, car or armchair. The end result is not a typical travel guide, nor a conventional academic book, although it is certainly of interest to travelers and academics. It is essentially a field trip guidebook of Bartram's travels between 1773 and 1777, concurrently discussing the initial voyage, natural history, historical geography, native peoples and their legends, and landscape change. The authors successfully meet their stated purpose using descriptions, [End Page 122] stories and maps in a way that will appeal to most travelers interested in Bartram or specific locales that he visited.
The book is structured in such a way that following the introductory material, the reader could pursue any of several sections, which are organized by voyage chronologically and geographically. These include chapters on Bartram's initial travels in 1773 (mostly coastal South Carolina and Georgia and inland into the Savannah River basin and Okefenokee Swamp), the Voyage to East Florida in 1774 (north peninsular Florida), the Journey to Cherokee Country in 1775 (to Charleston, then through the Savannah River basin up into westernmost North Carolina), the Journey to the Gulf Coast in 1775 (through Georgia, Alabama, coastal Mississippi, and southeastern Louisiana to the Mississippi River), and the return to Philadelphia in 1775 to 1777. Each chapter, except the last, has an overview map of the journey and clear maps drawn for each locale. Within each chapter, there are several sections that begin with narrative characterizing the historic journey and its challenges with quotes from the initial writings and describing these landscapes at present. Through the geographic groupings, and the helpful index, specific sites of interest can be selected for both historical and travel information.
Bartram's return home to Kingsessing near Philadelphia provides an important epilogue about how he was perceived negatively by his father and how different family members participated in a family plant and seed business. Various factors, including self-doubts about the manuscript, delayed publication of The Travels of William Bartram, which eventually appeared in 1791. This delay allowed other naturalists to usurp descriptions of finds from his accounts. Reviews and sales of the book were not favorable in the United States, although the book was successful in Europe. Despite such problems, Bartram's discoveries were considered important in their time, and he was respected by influential figures including scholars and politicians. Many notable individuals visited his family gardens. During the late 1800s, industrialist Andrew Eastwick, with help from Bartram's descendents, purchased and preserved the gardens through the city park system.
Despite considerable local efforts to preserve portions of Bartram's trail and recognize it with historic markers, much has changed in the two and a quarter centuries since those initial voyages. Caseby-case, readers can get a sense of this change, but the authors could have synthesized this in a more powerful way using a detailed table or a summary map characterizing the status of sites. Such an overview of what has been preserved and to what extent, and what has not been preserved and what happened to it since, could be useful to managers, planners and academics or for local activists advocating the importance of preserving an individual site.
The book has a bibliography, but the references used for each site are not specified except in footnotes in each chapter. In some cases, it is unclear whether the site interpretation comes from Bartram himself, a more recent scholarly work or the authors' fieldwork. One example of a confusing description is that of Browne's White Cliffs near Port Hudson, Louisiana. The authors state that "When Bartram visited this area, the cliffs were more than 100 feet tall and were white as a consequence [End Page 123] of the erosion of loess soil found in this section of Louisiana" (p. 343). Contrast that with a geologic measured section of the bluffs about two miles away, where less than 12 feet of loess and mixed loess overlies 65 feet of very light-colored late Pleistocene ancestral Mississippi River deposits including silts, clays and loams (Autin et al. 1988). Both sources may be correct about elevation if the Mississippi River water levels were lower originally or if the original land surface was higher prior to slope failure or bank erosion. However, is it colluvium from loess at higher elevations or the gleyed ancestral Mississippi River deposits that gives the cliffs a white color? More citations would make it easier to distinguish fact from interpretation and to accurately attribute various comments.
All in all, An Outdoor Guide to Guide to Bartram's Travels is a useful resource for people planning to visit a few or many of Bartram's sites. The authors have made a valuable contribution by discussing and illustrating the trail's components with maps and photographs and giving accounts of what Bartram saw and did. Although some might prefer that more synthesis and citations were added, many academics interested in the southeast and its changes will find this book to be a nice addition to their collection.