Whether you call him William, Billy or Willie, 18th century naturalist William Bartram is still making his presence felt in 21st-century Florida.
Bartram would several times visit the Southern colonies before the United States was the United States. In 1791, he would publish his "Travels," a book detailing those journeys and the fauna and flora, people and customs he observed. The book would be the first scientific book to come out of the new United States.
In Florida some of those travels were along the St. Johns River that borders both St. Johns and Putnam counties.
Now a group in Putnam is seeking to expand people's appreciation of Bartram. They see it as both a way to promote ecotourism and a way to give the state's schoolchildren a better understanding about the early naturalist and the early people of the state.
"(Bartram scholar) Charlotte Porter convinced us that William Bartram's 'Travels' in Putnam County is ours — it's our history, our heritage and our nature. In her words: 'Putnam County owns him,'" Putnam County Commission Chair Nancy Harris told a group over the weekend.
For two days Putnam County hosted a scholarly symposium on Bartram, funded in part by a Florida Humanities Council grant. Both the county government and the City of Palatka have chipped in resources and personnel to help the Bartram Trails in Putnam Committee, the group heading up the effort to spread information about Bartram's role in the state's early history.
"I knew (the history) was here, but I never knew how important it all was . We just need to appreciate this," said Sam Carr, who chairs the committee.
With 31 identified places relating to Bartram and his travels in Putnam, the group is offering visitors and the curious a chance to see where William visited. They've come up with biking, hiking, driving and canoeing trails. For those who aren't ready to physically see the places, there's a website that offers photographs, quotes from the book and explanations offering both historical and scientific information about the spots.
They plan to do more including kiosks along the riverfronts in Palatka that tell about Bartram and unobtrusive signs along the waterways that smartphone users can scan as they canoe or kayak past. Brochures and exhibits are also planned.
"We are hoping this is the beginning of something really great, of a public private partnership," Carr said.
Appreciating Bartram isn't new. The emphasis on it in Putnam County is.
Tim Kyser, who heads up the Putnam County Environmental Committee, says the whole project has been "a long time coming together."
The symposium included historians, scientists, environmentalists, nature lovers and a few of the just curious in attendance, giving an indication of Bartram's appeal.
So what makes Bartram special?
As scientist Dean Campbell told the group, everybody at the symposium was talking about "how they came to Billy."
For him, it was first a copy of the book given him by his father when he was 25. But, he said it wasn't the elaborate passages or the poetry of the writing, it was the science contained within.
Campbell, who became part of the St. Johns River Water Management's cleaning up the St. Johns River initiative, found William's book offered accounts of what the river looked like when it was still pristine and thus gave them ideas when starting the cleanup. And he was even more impressed by the journals that William's father, John, wrote. "John appealed to me as a scientist. I can see what he saw."
Bartram first visited the area with his father, John. He later made trips by himself.
Those elaborate passages and poetry of writing did inspire others including English poets Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth in their writing.
His writings on the Indian Nations, the customs and the trading have offered insight into the economic system including the frontier exchange economy and the British empire system.
His descriptions of flora and fauna included discoveries of new plants and led to the naming of several.
His artwork offered a meticulous look at previously unknown species and allowed readers their first glimpse at species native to the area.
Two of the committee members — Ken and Janice Mahaffey of San Mateo — recently returned from a couple of months in Europe. The highlight of their trip? Probably going to London's Natural History Museum, which has an original copy of Bartram's "Travels," a journal and the original of some of his illustrations.
"It was like the Holy Grail," said Janice Mahaffey. "To see the original pen and ink and how meticulously they were done."
"And I was holding the original manuscript," Ken Mahaffey said. "They handed it over to me and I was turning the pages and thinking as I read, 'I know where he's talking about.'"