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The Travels of William Bartam

By Stan Stewart, Wildlife Biologist

William Bartram was weary. Days of travel in sweltering July heat had fatigued the horses and men in his caravan. Moreover, they had been tormented from sunrise to sunset every day by hordes of biting flies. The necks and shoulders of the horses dripped blood from the piercing bites, and on a man’s skin the bite was like the prick of a red-hot needle. The cloud of flies was so thick it obscured the path ahead and slowed the company’s progress. Oppressed by the heat and stinging flies, the caravan halted at noon on the crest of a ridge in an airy grove of soaring longleaf pines. Here they found a little respite when a dark cloud veiled the burning sun. Then they were enveloped by a violent thunderstorm and soaked by a deluge of rain. By evening, the tempest passed and they collected pine knots and firewood to light the camp, dry their clothes, and warm them during the night.

The next day was cool and pleasant, and Bartram was cheerful and invigorated. His exertions on this journey were more than worth it to him. William Bartram was the son of John Bartram of Philadelphia. Like his father, he was a botanist who traveled widely. He was on an expedition to explore the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia. Traveling westward across central Georgia, his caravan was now poised to enter the Creek Confederacy. The year was 1777. The territory ahead, across the Chata Uche River, would later become the state of Alabama.

Bartram was delighted with the territory, arriving at the Creek town of Talasse on the Tallapoose River and proceeding west and south to Mobile. In his journal, he recorded scenes of a landscape we would scarcely recognize today. He wrote of expansive green savannas, native meadows, and broad plains of tall grass. He described open groves of “superb terebenthine pines” on the hills. Across south Alabama, he encountered “one vast flat grassy savanna, intersected with narrow forests on the banks of creeks, with longleaved pines scatteringly planted amongst the grass.”

This landscape was shaped by natural events and native cultures. Fires caused by lightning could sweep for miles through grassy savannas, hindered only by stream drainages. Indians also commonly burned woodlands to control brush and maintain open forests for game and hunting. As a result of frequent fire, the forest that existed was often lightly stocked and free of underbrush. Even the name “Alabama” is a Choctaw Indian word meaning “thicket clearers.” Indians also cleared a great amount of land for farming, periodically abandoning old fields and clearing new productive ones. Frequent burning kept the old fields open. When European settlers moved into Alabama in the 1820s, they continued these same practices of shifting agriculture and woods burning well into the 20th century.

This all changed in the 1920s when emphasis was placed on reforestation and fire prevention. Increasing urbanization further precluded fire from the landscape. Current land use and development have dramatically altered the “sylvan scene” recorded in the Travels of William Bartram, and without his account, we would not know how different this land once was.

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