Bayard Taylor was born in Kennett Square, Pa. on January 11, 1825. James Monroe was President; it was the “era of good feelings”. The nation had been victorious in a second war against England and rebounded with a decade of peace and prosperity. Two major issues would hold the country’s attention over the next 40 years: western expansion and exploration, and slavery. One contributed to its greatness and economic strength, the other to its near collapse. The former captivated Taylor starting in his early years, leading him to become a poet, lecturer and the best known travel writer of his era.
Taylor’s life from the very start seemed inextricably linked to important events in our heritage. The house he was born in was just a few steps from where British and Hessian troops camped before the Battle of the Brandywine. Six months after Taylor came into the world, the Marquis de Lafayette visited nearby Chadds Ford, strolling terrain he’d defended as part of General Washington’s army. That site would later be the subject of one of Taylor’s first commercial writing efforts, an article describing his trek exploring the grounds where the battle took place.
Although his father was a successful farmer, Taylor displayed little inclination toward agrarian pursuits. Early on he was attracted to books, and was reading at age four, and writing poetry by seven. In 1837, the family moved to West Chester, giving him an opportunity to attend the region’s best schools—Bolmer’s Academy and subsequently Unionville Academy. The latter spawned notable talent: future historian J. Smith Futhey, co-author of History of Chester County, and sculptor William Marshall Swayne, who would go on to create acclaimed busts of Taylor and Abraham Lincoln. Joe Lordi comments in his book The First One Hundred Years: Bayard Taylor and Libraries in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania that although Taylor did not pursue a college education, he was a voracious reader and learned Latin, French and Spanish.
Taylor possessed writing ability and innate artistic talent. As a young man, he produced sketches and paintings of local landscapes. This combination of skills served him well in the years ahead as he depicted in words and images the numerous sites he explored in travels around the world. The first step on his momentous journey was into the offices of West Chester’s Village Record, the newspaper where Bayard became an apprentice. He later corresponded with Rufus W. Griswold, editor of Graham’s Magazine, who encouraged Taylor to publish his poems, some of which had already appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. This resulted in Taylor’s first book, Ximena, or, the Battle of the Sierra Morena, and Other Poems in 1844. He was just 19 years old; the book provided his first income as a published author.
A book titled The Tourist in Europe by George P. Putnam captured Taylor’s attention and fanned the flames of his desire to see foreign lands. Bayard’s cousin, Franklin Taylor, encouraged him to accompany him and Barclay Pennock on a trip to Europe. Taylor persuaded personnel at the Saturday Evening Post, the United States Gazette and Graham’s Magazine to fund his adventure, in exchange for accounts of his travels. As he was about to leave New York, he met someone who would help his rise to fame: Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.
An exciting trip through England, Germany and Italy ended up changing the course of Taylor’s life. His letters to the editors were printed and gained wide popularity with a public eager to learn of other cultures. After he returned to the U.S., Taylor published his writings in 1846 in Views A-foot, or, Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff. The book went through 24 editions in the first 13 years.
In 1847, Taylor started working as an editor for both Union Magazine and the New York Tribune. At the Tribune, Greeley asked him to review a submission by an unknown writer. “Now you must do something for this young man. His name is Thoreau. He lives in a shanty at Walden Pond… and he must be encouraged.” Taylor later toured New England, where he met James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. He reported on a speech given by one of the most esteemed politicians in America, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts.
The collaboration with Greeley took Taylor to the next level of his career. When gold nuggets were discovered near Sutter’s mill, the nation was changed forever. Tens of thousands ventured out West to join the California gold rush. Greeley directed Taylor to cover the event; in June 1849, he sailed to California. Over the next five months, he visited gold mining operations and locations around the state.
His return trip through Mexico brought terror. He was robbed by bandits and abandoned in the desert, but survived and detailed his experiences in 1850 in Eldorado, or Adventures in the Path of Empire. In the preface, he states “California during the latter half of the year 1849 was as transitory as it was marvelous…shifting phases of society…growth and progress.” The book was an immediate success. At 25, he’d established himself as a gifted travel writer, much in demand to an interested public. Eldorado remains in print today, 167 years later and is one of his most enduring works.
With his two travel books, Taylor gained invaluable experience as a chronicler of fascinating places and diverse cultures. Over the next 28 years, he visited numerous other countries, cementing his reputation as the most talented author and lecturer of his era in describing the sights, sounds and tastes of places around the globe.
Gene Pisasale is an historian and author based in Kennett Square, Pa. His nine books focus on the Chester County/Mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s radio show “Living History” runs every Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. on WCHE AM 1520. His latest work is Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System. He can be reached via e-mail at Gene@GenePisasale.com. For more information, visit his website at www.GenePisasale.com.