By 1850 at the age of 25, Bayard Taylor was already well known to thousands of people in his native Chester County and across America. Although his family had modest Quaker roots in Pennsylvania, his eyes were focused across the sea, intent on traveling the world to explore new places and share those experiences through his writings. After his trip West to cover the mining camps in California—detailed in Eldorado, or Adventures in the Path of Empire—he returned to Kennett Square and his long time sweetheart, Mary Agnew. Sadly, his homecoming was less than joyful. He found her in perilously frail health and decided almost immediately to marry her, which he did at her home on October 24, 1850, with family gathered around. Agnew died of tuberculosis less than two months later.
After a period of mourning, Taylor needed to refresh his spirits. He joined his brother William on another trip to Europe on August 21, 1851. The two men arrived in Liverpool, England and traveled throughout the continent, parting ways in Vienna, Austria. Bayard later met up with August Bufleb, a wealthy German gentleman and the two toured Egypt, charting the path of the Nile River. Around the same time, noted British missionary and pioneer David Livingstone (1813- 1873) was exploring vast regions of Africa, later to become famous for his extended search regarding the source of that river. His travels through the Dark Continent gave rise to the now famous quote: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
Taylor was fascinated with the Middle East. His excursions in the early 1850s led him to record his observations in two other books: Journey to Central Africa; or, Life and Landscapes from Egypt to the Negro Kingdoms of the White Nile and Lands of the Saracen, or, Pictures of Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily and Spain.
Taylor had a knack for being in exotic places at the right time. He ventured to the Far East and joined United States Commodore Matthew C. Perry on his exploration of Japan, the first major North American expedition to that nation. This trip resulted in Taylor’s book A Visit to India, China and Japan in the Year 1853. Its inscription reads: “Dedicated to Charles A. Dana, by his Associate and friend.” Dana was a top aide to Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune, an author, journalist and later Assistant Secretary of War under President Lincoln. Perry’s own account of the trip states: “On my arrival in Shanghai, I found there Mr. Bayard Taylor, who had a letter of introduction to me from an esteemed friend in New York.” A beautiful depiction of the expedition titled First Landing of Americans in Japan under Commodore M.C. Perry at Gore-Hama July 14th, 1853 now hangs in the lower level of the Kennett Library. It is signed by the artist of the expedition: “To Bayard Taylor by his friend and former shipmate Wm. Heine.”
By the mid-1850s, Taylor was renowned as a world traveler. When he returned to the U.S., his descriptions of foreign lands generated demand for appearances on the lecture circuit. Taylor did speaking engagements to raptured audiences from Maine to Wisconsin, providing listeners a glimpse of exotic places they might never see, but which they experienced vicariously through his orations.
Ironically, Taylor was much more interested in being regarded as a poet than a travel writer, but the lucrative public speaking tours helped fund his love for travel. In a later edition of Travels in Arabia, the introductory note alludes to the inseparable bond between him and his global wanderings. “The continuance of Bayard Taylor’s Library of Travel in the popular favor is one of the accepted facts of the literary world.” Taylor’s narrative is fascinating. “Arabia has been inhabited by the same race since the earliest times, and has changed less than any other country of the globe…” Taylor did write a substantial volume of poetry, including Rhymes of Travel: Ballads and Poems (1849), Romances, Lyrics and Songs (1852), Poems of the Orient (1855) and Poems of Home and Travel (1856). His continuing love of poetry is evidenced by the results of his trip to northern Europe, detailed in his poem Lars: A Pastoral of Norway.
It was Taylor’s travels which eventually brought him a new love after being a widower for seven years. In October 1857, he married Maria Hansen, the daughter of Danish-German astronomer Peter Hansen. The couple spent their honeymoon traveling, first to Greece, then back to the U.S. He continued to satisfy his artistic leanings by producing sketches and paintings of the hundreds of places he’d seen, including St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Heidelberg Castle, Zurich Cathedral, San Donato in Italy and desert scenes across the Middle East, several of which became embedded in his works, each a visual expose of the world he knew and cherished.
Taylor’s affection for journeying was encapsulated in his book Cyclopedia of Modern Travel: A Record of Adventures, Exploration and Discovery for the Past Fifty Years, which highlighted the treks of other noted globetrotters, illustrated with maps and engravings. The dedication for the book reads: “To Alexander von Humboldt, the oldest and the most renowned of living travelers.” Taylor met Humboldt (1769- 1859), the famous naturalist, scientist and explorer in Berlin and was clearly impressed with his achievements, which included dozens of volumes describing the geography, geology, biology, oceans and ecosystems of regions around the earth. It is likely that this meeting and a subsequent one with Humboldt in Potsdam cemented Taylor’s attraction for and commitment to exploring locales off the beaten path and describing them for persons who might never have the opportunities he enjoyed. It was this commitment, crystallized through his many writings, that endeared him to readers in America and gave Taylor the respect he yearned for.
Gene Pisasale is an historian and author based in Kennett Square, rrynnsylvania. His nine books and lecture series focus on the history of the Chester County and mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s radio show “Living History” is on WCHE AM 1520 every Wednesday from 1:00- 1:30 p.m. His new book Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System is available on Amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit his website at www.GenePisasale.com.