Following Bartram: Explorer's seventh cousin follows his famous trail to Putnam County

  • Lydia Bartram, right, shows some family artifacts to Linda Crider at the Bartram Inn in Palatka.
    Lydia Bartram, right, shows some family artifacts to Linda Crider at the Bartram Inn in Palatka.
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She always felt a pull to nature, a pull to Florida. She never really understood why until a visit to St. Augustine last year.

That’s when she started to follow the trail.

Someone at the historical society there recognized Lydia Bartram’s last name. She had asked for some information about William Bartram.

“I told them who I was and they said, ‘We’ve never met a Bartram before. This is wonderful. This is great,’” she said.

“I was talking with one of the historians there asking questions, trying to find the historic highway and figure out where things are, and he said, ‘Oh, then you need to go to Palatka.’”

She asked questions about Palatka. Lydia Bartram had lived in South Florida for years and is a distinguished childhood educator. But she had never branched up to Palatka.

The historian told her, “You have to go there. Do you know they celebrate your ancestor’s birthday?”

She visited and discovered more than she ever imagined about her famous relative. That’s right. Lydia Bartram is William Bartram’s cousin – seven generations removed on her father’s side of the Bartram family tree.

Lydia Bartram literally followed the trail to her ancestor’s legacy in Palatka and Putnam County. It’s here where William Bartram explored Florida in the 1700s. 

William Bartram initially explored this area with his father, John, in 1765. John Bartram was botanist for the king of England, who commissioned their expedition to explore East Florida and report on their findings.

They traveled along the St. Johns River exploring its natural beauty. William Bartram returned nearly a decade later for another tour of the river and its wildlife. That visit would lead to his publication of “Travels,” in 1791, a book filled with his vivid descriptions and illustrations exposing Florida’s beauty to people throughout the world.

Nearly 250 years later, Lydia Bartram made her way to Putnam County, where the Bartram Trail marks 32 historic sites of her cousin’s journey in a canoe. She learned about stops beginning with Palmetto Bluff, winding through Rollestown, Dunns Creek and Bear Island. She also read about William Bartram’s travels to Spalding’s Lower Store, Georgetown and beyond.

After visiting St. Augustine, Lydia Bartram continued to learn more about the Bartram Trail by contacting Linda Crider – owner of the Bartram Inn in Palatka.

“I was camping in Ocala National Forest over Christmas and snuck over here and was looking around,” Lydia Bartram said. “I spoke with Linda  and told her I didn’t know all this existed. She told me I had to come to her play and be a special guest here. So here I am.”

Crider hosted a series of one-act plays for small audiences last week at the Bartram Inn, where Lydia Bartram saw the travels of her ancestor acted out.

Sam Carr, president of the Bartram Trail Society of Florida, later took her kayaking along the river to show her some of the sites.

Her journey has unraveled more history about the Bartram family tree, collecting some unique items of her own. That includes an original 1808 Harper’s Bazaar article on John Bartram and his house in Philadelphia. She shared some of her collection with Carr, who was instrumental in researching and marking the Bartram Trail.

“We’ve shared a lot of information,” Lydia Bartram said. “What he’s done, I’m very impressed and very thankful of what he’s been able to do. It’s just exciting to find my way to Florida and after all these years find this ancestral connection.”

From childhood, Lydia Bartram knew she had a famous last name. Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, her father said she had some famous ancestors. As she grew older, education and career pursuits occupied her time instead of researching the Bartram connection.

“I just never really thought much about it,” said Lydia Bartram, who is director of the Karen Slattery Educational Research Center for Child Development at Florida Atlantic University. “I grew up in nature, in the country and basically, just like William Bartram. I grew up in the woods and running around in the forest, going through creek beds and climbing trees.”

Now it’s easy for her to see her love for nature comes, well, naturally.

“For never having met him, I feel such a spiritual connection to him for what he stood for and what he did,” she said. “When I did all the research and started to realize who he was, I was like, ‘Wow, I know who I am now.’ Why I have this way of looking at the world and the beauty of nature, for the explorer mind and wanting to just discover new things.”

What has impressed her most about William Bartram’s accomplishments as an explorer?

“The desire to explore uncharted territories and going to areas not even knowing what you’re going to see,” she said. “Just the bravery and the commitment to keep learning. That’s definitely in me.

“I feel like the world has a lot to teach us if we just listen. Nature can heal and can teach. You just have to put yourself out there and watch the power happen.”

She also pointed to Bartram’s documentation of his discoveries while traversing the waters of the St. Johns River and its surrounding land.

“Documenting everything he saw in itself is just incredible,” she said. “His documentation has helped people recreate the history of what it used to be like here and trying to map out the Bartram Trail. I think that is such a contribution to the world in thinking about what Florida was like before it was developed.”

She wonders if William Bartram ever realized the mark he would leave on the world.

“I feel like we’re put on the Earth to do something and he was realizing his life’s calling,” she said. “I wonder if he realized what he was doing was so important to the history and to preserve such important ecosystems in the area.”

After a couple days touring Palatka, Lydia Bartram said she loved the area. It’s strange, but she feels like she’s been here before. She plans to come back to celebrate William Bartram’s birthday in April.

“I’ve told Linda already to get a room ready for me.”

Fittingly, the Bartram Trail will lead her back to Palatka.

 

Wayne Smith is the editor of the Palatka Daily News. His email is wsmith@palatkadailynews.com.