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Notes and Documents35 JOHN BARTRAM: GEOLOGIST By Francis D. West* While John Bartram is usually spoken of as the first American botanist (even though there were botanical gardens in the colonies prior to the one he founded at Kingsessing) , it is doubtful that he has ever been credited with being the first American-born geologist ; nor has it been recognized that he proposed certain geological theories and projects usually associated with other and later scientists. Yet contemporaries were aware of his skill and knowledge in this field. Dr. Alexander Garden of Charleston, South Carolina, in a letter to Dr. James Parsons, expressed his admiration for Bartram's understanding of mineralogy: "It is a great pity," he wrote, "he does not understand Mr. Loefling's 'Dissertation on Gems' (written in Latin) for I am persuaded that he is amongst the best qualified men to improve that part of the science. How often have I been pleased, delighted and instructed by many of his lively and strong natural thoughts on gems as to their structure and properties."1 Bartram himself was modest in expressing his observations and theories on geological subjects and did so hesitantly and with an apology. In a letter to Peter Collinson, to whom he sent most of his "observations," he wrote on April 27, 1755: "I am glad my friend Dr. Fothergill hath ye perusal of my notions of ye antecording individual expenses paid from the Kendal Fund for the service of Truth. By this time Fox's vision of future work to be done could be reinforced by rumors or news from places beyond those already reached, as when he wrote to William Ames, "Thou hast a fine circuit in Holland and Germany and under the Prince of Palatine's government, etc.: and there is a seed in Poland that desires Friends" (Epistles, No. 193 corrected , 1660) ; or when he mentioned to Caton and Ames "a seed of God which is to be gathered in Russia, Muscovia, Poland, Hungaria and Swedeland" (Caton to Fox, 25 January 1661, Swarthmore MSS, IV, 273, printed in W. I. Hull, The Rise of Quakerism in Amsterdam, (1938), p. 143; cf. Beginnings of Quakerism, p. 415). * Francis D. West, who died on March 19, 1958, was a direct descendant of John Bartram and the author of many articles on this early American scientist. 1 Undated letter in the British Museum. 36Bulletin of Friends Historical Association deluvian impressions of marine shels in our rocks or any other rambling observations. I hope if I can stand ye test with his trial I shall come out like gold well purified. I had rather undergo now a thorow purging, a long fusion than to have any dross left behind."2 In his "Journey to the Catskill Mountains" Bartram advanced the theory that streams eroded their own valleys instead of finding them already made.3 It should be noted that this manuscript was written in 1753. Nicholas Desmarest is usually credited with this theory as of 1775, although his paper on the subject was not published until 1806. Peter KaIm in his Travels in North America cited in detail nine reasons given by John Bartram in support of the theory that "the greatest part of this country . . . had formerly been under water." KaIm also called attention to Bartram's observation that the shells found in a petrified state in the Northern Mountains were of a different character from those found on the seashore in the same latitude, from which Bartram had concluded that the earth had once been "in a different position towards the sun."4 Benjamin Franklin's query to James Bowdoin in 1788: "Is not the finding of great quantities of shells and bones of animals (natural to hot climates) in the cold ones of our present world some proof that its poles have been changed?" has been thought worthy of notice.5 But KaIm quotes Bartram as having made this very suggestion in 1748. Probably Bartram's most significant observation in this field is one which may be interpreted as proposing a "geological survey." It occurs in a letter written to Alexander Garden on March 14, 1756 and indicates that he formed a pretty...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1504
Print ISSN
0033-5053
Pages
pp. 35-38
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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