A small but eclectic group of gardeners, nature lovers, historians, literary scholars, birders and environmentalists gathered Friday in the Plains area of Zachary for a marker dedication ceremony in honor of Philadelphia naturalist William Bartram.
Bartram traveled by foot, horse and canoe through eight southern states in the 1770s: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The Friends of Hilltop Arboretum, in cooperation with the Bartram Trail Conference in Georgia, has spearheaded the Bartram Trail Project locally by celebrating the 240th anniversary of Bartram’s visit to Louisiana with marker dedication ceremonies held Sept. 8-13.
The first of the marker dedications was held at the LSU Hilltop Arboretum on Sept. 8, followed by the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden on Sept. 9, the Mississippi River Levee path on Sept. 10, Plains Presbyterian Church on Sept. 11, St. Francis Chapel in Pointe Coupee on Sept. 12, and finally, the rededication of the original marker, placed in 1976, was held Sunday at East Baton Rouge Parish’s Main Library at Goodwood.
At the Zachary ceremony, presented by the Zachary Historical Association, on Friday were members of the 2015 Bartram Trail Project committee, including Hilltop Director Peggy Coates; Southern Garden History Society board members Randy Harelson and Pam Sulzer; members of the 1976 Bartram committee, Charlie Fryling, Sally Daigle and Jane Burk; and Zachary historian Betty Tucker, president of the Zachary Historical Association.
Michele Deshotels, a member of the 2015 committee, was unable to attend.
Tucker worked with Harelson to bring the ceremony to the Plains.
“The markers are unique to each site Bartram visited in Louisiana,” Harelson said. “Each includes a quote from his book ‘Travels’ that describes the natural, 18th-century environment he saw while visiting the different sites.”
The Plains marker reads: “In 1775, Bartram made a special trip by horseback to ‘White Plains’ noting ‘grassy fields of many miles extent.’ ” The marker was erected by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana’s Marguerite Harrell Mills and David Pipes Mills Fund in cooperation with the Bartram Trail Conference.
Coates said the Bartram Trail Project began about two years ago.
“Thinking about what he saw at that time and what the environment was like back in 1775 is amazing — the grassy fields, flowers and plantations,” Coates said. “It’s an amazingly rich history. The Indians at the time were awed by him and respected him.”
Bartram traveled through the South en route to the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, landing in Pointe Coupee, the westernmost point of his trek, Coates said.
When passing through the Baton Rouge area, he visited the Plains area near what is now the intersection of La. 964 (Old Scenic Highway) and La. 3004.
“This is a great way to remind people of the historical things that happened here, in their own neighborhood,” Coates said.
Harelson said the site in the Plains was chosen because of its history and its location near the Plains Presbyterian Church, which has a parking lot for hikers, cyclists and birders who wish to park and travel the 2-mile pathway that Bartram is believed to have taken while writing and drawing his observations of the native people, plants and animals.
The trail, now paved, ends near the Zachary library, Harelson said.
Daigle, who likened Bartram to John James Audubon but 100 years earlier, said Bartram’s prose inspired poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
According to Tucker, Bartram reached Louisiana in 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence, 28 years before the Louisiana Purchase and 37 years before Louisiana became the 18th state in the Union.
Bartram Trail Project partners include the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, Burden Horticulture Society, Beauregard Town Civic Association, Downtown Development District, Foundation for Historical Louisiana, Pointe Coupee Historical Society, Zachary Historical Association, Plains Presbyterian Church and St. Francis Chapel.