The Florida of Bartram's day was larger than the present state. In fact, there were two Floridas, East Florida and West Florida. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris concluded the long struggle between Great Britain, France, and Spain for control of North America. France ceded land east of the Mississippi River (excluding New Orleans) to Great Britain, and western Louisiana to Spain. Spain, in turn, gave up La Florida to Britain in exchange for Cuba, "the Pearl of the Antilles." Spanish La Florida thus became the fourteenth and fifteenth British colonies in North America.
This treaty arrangement eliminated Spanish foothold on the eastern Atlantic coast. The old Spanish fort city of St. Augustine served as capital of East Florida. The seat of government for British West Florida was Pensacola, the best deep narrow harbor on the gulf coast. Many of Pensacola's French residents transferred their allegiance to the British king.
Great Britain now held jurisdiction over lands to the Mississippi River and tried to solidify control and establish policies. The Royal Proclamation Act of 1763 reserved the region north of the 31st parallel and west of the Appalachian Mountains for Indian groups. The Board of Trade in London, however, soon realized that there were white settlers in this restricted fertile zone and agreed to raise the northern boundary of West Florida. This decision did not satisfy other colonists who expected land in return for their loyalty to the crown and contributed to the deterioration of relations between the colonies and the mother country prior to the Revolutionary War.
At this time, John Bartram, William's father, hoped for appointment as Royal Botanist to King George III, and in 1765, he and his son explored a section of East Florida "for the benefit of the new colony." In a published report, John Bartram recorded soil types, and other natural history information for would-be landholders of plantations.
Despite the attempted gentrification of East Florida through the British plantation system, the region to which William returned in 1774 was a dangerous place. Armed American patriots from Georgia were making troublesome border raids. Increasingly hostile Creeks and Seminoles outnumbered whites and restricted travel across their lands.
To the west, the powerful Muscogulges, a Creek alliance of diverse Indian peoples, controlled a large area from eastern Georgia and north Florida to central Alabama; sometimes they farmed sites occupied by earlier Florida Indian groups, decimated by disease, enslavement, and relocation. Commercial Creek hunters procured deerskins and other pelts for British outfits in a regulated trade.
At the time of Bartram's visit, Seminoles affiliated with Hitchiti-speaking Creeks in north central Florida. Inhabiting villages in the Gainesville and Tallahassee regions, as well as the panhandle, they hunted as far south as present-day Tampa.
Staples were melons, beans, squash and corn. Although Bartram carried a supply of dried meat and cheese with him, he described with foods offered him:
In his Travels, Bartram described "conte," a Creek food prepared from smilax root: "a small quantity of this mixed with warm water and sweetened with honey, when cool becomes a beautiful, delicious jelly, very nourishing and wholesome." Today, Seminole cooks make conte from zamia, a different plant. Smilax is a common native vine, greenbriar, but honey was a trade item. At the time of his travels, Bartram ascertained that European introduced honeybees had not yet spread to West Florida.