by Joel T. Fry
It has long been the story from early biographies of John Bartram that he “gave freedom to an excellent young African whom he had brought up, and who continued gratefully in his service while he lived.” This individual, presumably male, remains in the shadows of the history of Bartram’s Garden. He was mentioned in several short, early biographies of John Bartram and eventually in 1860 was connected with a name, “Harvey.” When the last Bartram heirs left the historic garden site in 1850, the grave of this individual was marked in the southeast corner of the garden, near the river. “Harvey’s Grave” remained marked for at least a century more and was generally included among the tourist attractions at Bartram’s Garden, even before the garden became a public park in 1891.
But the same John Bartram who gave freedom to “an excellent young African,” had a half-brother who ran a large rice plantation, Ashwood, on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina with enslaved labor. And the same John Bartram, with moral objections, purchased six slaves in Charleston in Spring 1766, so that his son William Bartram (1739–1823) could patent a plantation in the new British colony of East Florida. Son William’s plantation effort seems to have failed by the end of summer 1766 and there is no documentation for what happened to his enslaved labor force. And of course, almost all the beneficiaries of the Euro-American economy of the 18th and early 19th centuries might be considered silently complicit in the world-wide trade in enslaved labor and the commodities produced through slavery.
Within a decade of the departure of the last Bartram heirs from Bartram’s Garden, Ann and Robert Carr, the story of the “excellent young African” freed by John Bartram or “Harvey” became one of the essential 5 or 6 historical facts repeated about the site and the first John Bartram. Bartram’s Garden had seen nostalgic or “heritage” tourism from the decade of the 1830s during the third Bartram generation. Occasional published pieces and travelers’ letters about the garden in Philadelphia newspapers and national and international press repeated simple facts about John Bartram, his family, and their botanic garden. But at least so far, none of this early nostalgic history of the garden mentions the name “Harvey” or his gravesite at the garden. The limited published sources for the history of the Bartram family and Bartram’s Garden in the 19th and early 20th centuries engendered a loop of close repetitions and elaborations of the few available sources.
This story became one of the standard historic facts recited at the garden. There was little or no public interpretation at the house or garden for the first decade of the city park, and the Bartram house was initially closed to the public. It was only opened to the public for a short while around 1899-1905, only to be closed again until 1926. The physical grave site at the riverfront was something to see in the early park. The initial 11-acre park, preserved at Bartram’s Garden in 1891 did not actually include the grave site, which sat in the proposed roadbed location of 54th Street on the city plan. At the end of 1896, following a fire that damaged the Eastwick mansion, the city acquired an additional 16 acres which encompassed all the historic botanic garden and the grave site. Early 20th century maps of the city-owned park at Bartram’s Garden plot a rectangle as the location of “Harvey’s Grave” at the southeast corner of the historic botanic garden. The plotted location appears in maps from the Bureau of Surveys and from the Fairmount Park Commission into the middle of the 20th century.
The earliest printed guides of Bartram’s Garden, issued by the John Bartram Association were published in three slightly different editions in 1904, 1907, and 1915. Two different sketch maps with numbered locations were printed — first a simple plan in 1904 largely confined to the area of the 1891 park with 26 numbered trees or locations. And the maps in all three versions list “Harvey’s Grave.” at a marked location at the southeast corner of the plan of the garden. Two later updated version of the guide to the garden by Emily Cheston in 1938 and 1953 included no plan, but mention the grave site as an item of interest near the river. “The grave of Harvey — the negro steward to whom Bartram entrusted much of his business, marked by a wooden sign.” was included in 1938 and in 1953 the mention of a marker was removed.
It remains difficult to pull apart fact from fiction in the account of the “excellent young African” and the Bartram family’s relations with slavery. But the limited concrete documents, mainly tax records and census records do record a real, if limited Free Black presence at Bartram’s Garden by the end of the 18th century. That single Black individual recorded in the 1790 census might be “Harvey,” but “Harvey” might also be something of a myth? But again the facts of the U.S. census from 1820–1840 do indicate what looks like a small Free Black family living in the Bartram household with the Bartram family. Continued research and local genealogy may someday track down some names for those individuals. “Harvey’s Grave” has not been marked now for almost 70 years, and perhaps should be. While there is no proof the name or the grave site is accurate, if not mythical, it is a plausible story. And it is a physical place to commemorate the early Black history of Kingsessing.
Joel T. Fry is the Curator at Bartram’s Garden. Passages taken from “Slavery and Freedom at Bartram’s Garden” by Joel T. Fry, presented at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies conference: Investigating Mid-Atlantic Plantations: Slavery, Economies, and Space, 17-19 October 2019: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Harvey’s Memorial Garden
A new memorial garden in Harvey’s honor has been designed by Yasir Hall and will be installed at Bartram’s Garden later this year. He writes, “This memorial will memorialize not only the life of Harvey but also the lives of all those who have gone unrecognized for their hard work. It features an unusual green rose (Rosa chinensis ‘Viridiflora’), which is said to have been discovered in China during the mid-18th century. However, it did not gain attention until the mid-19th century, when it was rumored to have been used by abolitionists to show that their homes were welcoming to all people who were in need of shelter while fleeing enslavement.
The green rose will represent the welcoming and acceptance of all people here at the Garden. Its green color also represents the connection between life and nature, showing how although it may seem like we are so very different, humans and nature have much more in common than we think!”
Yasir Hall is a Horticulture Apprentice at Bartram’s Garden.