William Bartram’s “Magnificent” Forest

Portrait of William Bartram.  In his classic Natural History book, Travels, this author and botanist gave us valuable information about the original ecology and landscapes of southeastern North America, many of which either no longer exist or occur as extremely rare remnants.  He traveled through South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi,  Louisiana, and North Carolina in the 3 years prior to the American Revolution.

A passage from William Bartram’s Travels inspired my trip to the Congaree National Park last week.  I longed to see a forest of giant trees, the kind that used to commonly occur in the southeast until European settlers raped the land.  Though the Congaree has the largest trees in North America east of the California redwoods, the largest trees there are only half the size of the ones Bartram measured in a forest in east central Georgia.  This incredible stretch of woods was 7 miles long (the width is unreported) and existed in  what today is Taliaferro County.  Here’s Bartram’s description of this forest:

Leaving the pleasant town of Wrightsborough, we continued eight or nine miles through a fertile plain and high forest, to the north branch of the Little River, being the largest of the two, crossing which, we entered an extensive fertile plain, bordering on the river, and shaded by trees of vast growth, which at once spoke of its fertility.  Continuing some time through these shady groves, the scene opens, and discloses to view the most magnificent forest I had ever seen.  We rise gradually a sloping bank of twenty or thirty feet in elevation, and immediately entered this sublime forest; the ground is a  perfectly level green plain, thinly planted by nature with the most stately forest trees, such as the gigantic black oak (Q. tinctoria) Liriodendron, Juglans nigra, Platanus, Juglans exalta, Fagus sylvatica, Ulmus sylvatica, Liquid-amber styraciflua, whose mighty trunks, seemingly of an equal heighth, appeared like superb columns…

(I assume “thinly planted by nature” and “level green plain” meant grass grew between the trees.  For those not up to Latin names for trees, the forest consisted of black oak, tulip, black walnut, sycamore, shell bark hickory, beech, elm, and sweetgum.”)

…To keep within the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would, I fear, fail of credibility; yet, I think I can assert, that many of the black oaks measured, eight, nine, ten, and eleven feet in diameter five feet above the ground, as we measured several that were above thirty feet girt, and from whence they ascend perfectly strait, with a gradual taper, forty or fifty feet to the limbs; but, below five or six feet, these trunks would measure a third more in circumference, on account of the projecting jambs, or supports, which are more or less, according to the number of horizontal roots, that they arise from: the Tulip tree, Liquidamber, and Beech, were equally stately…


Painting by Philip Juras.  Bartram inspired this artist to create 68 landcape paintings based on descriptions from his book, Travels.   This painting is of a piedmont woodland opening, much like what Bartram describes in his passage on the “magnificent” forest, though I think the trees aren’t as big. Philip Juras’s portfolio will be on display at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta from May 28-August 14.  I can’t wait to see them in person!

The composition of William Bartram’s magnificent forest puzzles me.  The forest was dominated by “thinly planted” black oaks which implies a forest dependent upon frequent fires for oaks and grasses to grow. Oaks and grasses are fire tolerant but shade intolerant.  However, the other species of trees in this fores are fire intolerant, yet shade tolerant.  I asked Marc Abrams, a forest ecologist from Penn State, about this curious composition of trees.  He explained that Bartram’s description was of a lower slope mixed mesophytic forest with the exception of the black oaks which don’t fit into this kind of forest because it is not pyrogenic.  He had no definitive answer as to how this forest developed.  Reading the next paragraph in Travels, however, gave me an idea.

Not far distant from the terrace, or eminence, overlooking the low grounds of the river, many very magnificent monuments of the power and industry of the ancient inhabitants of these lands are visible.  I observed a stupendous conical pyramid, or artificial mount of earth, vast tetragon terraces, and a large sunken area, of a cubical form, encompassed with banks of earth; and certain traces of a large Indian town, the work of a powerful nation, whose period of grandeur perhaps long preceded the discovery of this continent.

This impressive forest apparently was adjacent to an ancient Indian town, probably a large one.  If I recall my archaeology correctly, the mound-building Indians abandoned their towns between 1300AD-1500AD.  Bartram’s magnificent forest may have been this town’s hunting grounds which they managed by periodically burning it to maintain a grassy oak savannah favorable for game such as deer, buffalo, and turkey.  After the Indians abandoned the area, the fire intolerant/shade tolerant species, first establishing themselves alongside the abundant creeks, colonized this woodland, but the black oaks remained, living to a great age, and thus explaining their size.  Black oaks can live to be 250 years old.  The passage was written in 1773; the moundbuilders abandoned the town some time in the previous 150 years, so this stretch of woods was still an oak forest, but eventually was on the way to becoming a forest dominated by shade tolerant beech, sycamore, and elm.

European settlers probably clear cut this forest between 1830-1860 after they kicked the Indians out of the state but before the Civil War stifled the economy.  They also probably ploughed, flattened, and destroyed  the Indian mounds. I’ll have to take a day trip and explore this area some time this summer and see if I can find any remnants of what Bartram saw.


An addendum to last week’s blog entry–The natural history of the Congaree

Last week, I wrote that as far as I knew there had been no palynological studies determining the age of the Congaree Swamp.  To prove myself wrong, I google searched and did find one–“Palynology and Paleoecology of Late Pleistocene to Holocene, organic rich, paleomeander/rim swamp deposits in South Carolina, and Georgia” by Art Cohen, et. al. from the Geological Society of America 38 (7) Oct. 2006.  Scientists took cores in a place known as Muck swamp within the Congaree.  The oldest zone dated to 21,000 BP, and they found pollen and macrofossils of water lillies, diatoms, algae, spruce, and an evening primrose flower related to a species found in Alaska.  They interpeted this to mean that Muck Swamp was an oxbow lake during this time period.  It must have been an important refuge for waterfowl because during this cool arid climatic stage, wetlands were scarce.  A younger, undated zone contained pollen of oak, hickory, chestnut, and walnut.  They interpet this zone to be a marsh, but it seems more like an upland hardwood forest to me.  Zone 3, dating to about 3500 BP contained pollen of pine, sweetgum, alder, cypress, tupelo, and magnolia. Cypress was the last of the modern day representatives to colonize (or perhaps recolonize) the swamp.

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6 Responses to “William Bartram’s “Magnificent” Forest”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    Hey, I like the post. Life back then was fascinating. Wanted to add my own speculation as to what led to the development of the forest Bartram saw. First let me point out that sweetgum, poplar, and sycamore are comparable in shade tolerance to loblolly pine; ie not very tolerant. I’m sure your on to something drawing the connection between the indian town and the forest Bartram saw. The distinction I would make with your theory is this: the mound building people were more farmers than hunter-gatherers, it’s this charateristic that enabled them to settle down in one spot and build a town. They farmed maize just outside the town and hunted further away in the forests that may take day or more to reach. Bartram was probably walking as much through the indians abandoned cornfield as much as their hunting grounds. P.S. Don’t be so harsh on the European settler’s; imagine the Magnificant forests that would return after our 250 year absence.

    • markgelbart Says:

      After I wrote that post I read A Guide to Travels. Apparently, Indians had abandoned that region 50 years previously. Indians continued to use fire to manage the wildlife habitat.

      Frances Harper, when trying to retrace Bartram’s route, said that passage evoked melancholy because it described a type of forest that no longer existed. He couldn’t find any sign of the Indian mounds and believed Bartram was confused on this point. There may have been no mounds in this area and Bartram confused it with some he found somewhere else.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that natives ever abandoned fire as a managment tool. As to Harper’s conjecture that Bartram was confused about where or if he saw the city, you might as well call into question the details of Bartram’s description of the forest. Also I wish I knew if all the species were intermingled or were the oaks on the hills and the fire-intolerant species on the lower slopes? I can’t figure out how species with such differing life histories would develop homogeneously.

    • markgelbart Says:

      It wasn’t just conjecture. Frances Harper spent decades retracing Bartram’s route and reading old manuscripts, letters, and Bartram’s own field notes. He knew for a fact that much of what Bartram stated regarding distances and dates were incorrect. This doesn’t mean his descriptions were false. In fact, just the opposite. Frances Harper has great respect for Bartram as a botanist.

      Frances Harper edited “The Naturalists Edition of Bartram’s Travels.” He adds copious details and explanations of what Bartram was referring to.

      If you go to the library and check the book out, you’ll understand what I mean.

  3. Georgia’s National Champion Trees | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] the black oaks William Bartram observed in a 7 mile long forest he traveled through in 1775 (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/william-bartrams-magnificent-forest/)  Some of those trees measured 11 feet in diameter.  Loggers destroyed most of Georgia’s […]

  4. Fossorial Spiders in Georgia | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] Bartram described walking through a “magnificent” slope forest in his Travels. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/william-bartrams-magnificent-forest/ ). A forest such as Bartram described no longer exists in Georgia, but even logged over 2nd growth […]

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