Heritage/History Lifestyle

History Feature: A Journey Through Time

Retracing William Bartram’s Route

(Main) Jones Knob along the Bartram Trail. Photo courtesy of The Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy. (Upper left overlay) William Bartram

By Lauren Stepp

The year was 1775 and the north Georgia hills blazed scarlet red and rusty orange with licks of buttery yellow.

William Bartram startled at the sight. The forest was surely on fire, he thought. But as he coaxed his gelding closer, he realized the inferno before him was no inferno but rather a dazzling display of Rhododendron calendulaceum—flame azalea.

“This is certainly the most gay and brilliant flowering shrub yet known,” Bartram later swooned.

The son of John Bartram of Philadelphia, the Royal Botanist to King George III, Bartram grew up sketching creeping vines and fluttering birds during remote expeditions with his father. However, it wasn’t until his 30s that he decided to strike out on his own, roving the southeastern backcountry in search of plants.

His 2,400-mile voyage is chronicled in Bartram’s Travels, a publication still in print today. Rife with vivid language and detailed drawings, the book is positively transportive. But if readers want a more immersive experience, they should lace up their hiking boots and hit the Bartram Trail (BT).

Officially designated as a National Recreational Trail in 1968, the BT is a 110-mile footpath winding through Georgia and WNC. According to Brent Martin, executive director of The Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy, the trail loosely follows the 18th-century naturalist’s route through the mountains from Russell Bridge near Clayton, Ga., to Cheoah Bald near Robbinsville, NC. “Bartram’s descriptions of the area are all we have from this period and are interesting to keep in mind as one walks the trail,” says Martin.

The botanist offers a lyrical account of his ascent of the Nantahala Mountains (then called the Jore Mountains). After resting on the “most elevated peak,” Bartram “beheld with rapture and astonishment, a sublimely awful scene of power and magnificence, a world of mountains piled upon mountains.”

This literary style, says Martin, was ahead of its time. “No one else in America was writing such rhapsodic and descriptive prose,” he says. “Bartram could be described as America’s first creative nonfiction writer, as he combined his own observations and feelings in a first-person narrative while including scientific observations creatively.”

But Bartram documented much more than the natural world. He was one of the first white men to approach Native Americans with no firearms, bibles or ulterior motives. “He was only curious about the plant world around them as well as the landscape and their customs and humanity,” says Martin, adding that he was known to the Seminoles as Puc Puggy (The Flower Seeker).

In his journals, Bartram logged 358 plant species—from the dwarf pawpaw to the oakleaf hydrangea. But none offered a “greater shew of splendour” than the flame azalea. “The clusters of the blossoms cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hill sides [sic], that suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hills being set on fire,” Bartram writes.

To learn more about William Bartram, visit BlueRidgeBartram.org.

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