William Bartram in America’s Eden

Bartram, like his father, was an eminent naturalist from Philadelphia. J.I. Merritt III describes how his extensive travels in the American South inspired, among others, both Coleridge and Wordsworth.

In May of 1775, two years after his exploration of the American Southeast began, William Bartram rode on to a ridge in the Nantahala Mountains of North Carolina and looked down into what can only be described as an enchanted valley.

Bartram recorded the scene later in his famous Travels: deer grazing in the spring meadow and wild turkeys strutting among the wildflowers, while a company of Indian girls cavorted on the hillside, bathed in the valley stream or lolled in the shade of magnolias, ‘disclosing their beauties in the fluttering breeze’.

The thirty-six-year-old naturalist and his companion, a young trader, watched unseen as the girls chased each other and crushed on their lips and cheeks the wild strawberries they had been collecting. Overcome by the ‘delicious scene’, the two voyeurs crept down the hill in hopes of joining in the frolic of the ‘Cherokee virgins’.

A guard of Indian matrons discovered them and gave the alarm. The virgins scattered. Bartram and the trader ran like satyrs and cut off a group of them, who took shelter in a grove and peeped through the bushes at their panting approach. Something in the whites’ visage must have signalled that their intentions were honourable, for after a few moments the girls stepped into the open and shyly advanced on the two men, holding out baskets of strawberries and ‘merrily telling us their fruit was ripe and sound’.

This scene stands as an outstanding example of Bartram’s philosophy of nature. Apparendy he had never read Rousseau, but his schooling at the Philadelphia Academy had certainly acquainted him with Pope and Addison and the idealized view of uncorrupted nature they shared with the French philosopher.

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