"" Writer's Wanderings: America's Early Travel Writers

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

America's Early Travel Writers

“The attention of a traveler, should be particularly turned, in the first place, to the various works of Nature, to mark the distinctions of the climates he may explore, and to offer such useful observations on the different productions as may occur.” William Bartram, Travels, 1791

Travel and travel writing in the 1700s was quite a bit different than it is today. A while ago, I ran across an account by Mark Twain of his transatlantic cruise and touring of Europe in the 1860s. It was truly interesting to read about crossing the Atlantic in a side wheeler. A few weeks ago I received our Colonial Williamsburg Journal and found a great article on early American travel writers (Seeing America First by Anthony Aveni, Summer 2013). The article gave me new insight into what those first travel writers were interested in reporting.

The article mentions Thomas Jefferson and William Bartram whose observations and meticulous note taking helped to establish the beginnings of American botany, geology, meteorology, etc. Bartram started collecting specimens at a young age probably to impress his father and help with the establishment of the first botanical garden in America in Philadelphia. Bartram’s travels through the colonies are chronicled in Travels through North and South, Georgia, East and West Florida published in 1791.

Aveni shares a quote from Bartram that shows how he viewed the world: “a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator, who furnished it with an infinite variety of animated muted scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creatures.” How very different from Darwin’s perspective on his travels just a couple generations later.

Depending upon how you view Thomas Jefferson, you can see his intellectual side as well as the scientific side in his writings about his travels. His Notes on the State of Virginia written during the Revolution not only speak of the geological area but also of natural phenomena and nature’s species he found in exploring the area.

What a contrast these two are to today’s travel writers who talk more of adventure, unusual people, and of course the places to go and see and stay and, let us not forget, to eat.

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