Introduction to the exhibit 
The fascination with natural knowledge in eighteenth century America was fueled by factors as diverse as colonial and economic expansion, the increased availability of outlets for publication, and an "enlightened" desire to systematize all forms of knowledge. Not to be overlooked, however, is the emergence of learned societies -- including the American Philosophical Society -- that fostered networks for intellectual exchange and patronage and that provided a context for creating a new scientific culture.

Founded to promote "useful knowledge," the APS became a clearing house for information about American nature. Although the stated intentions of the Society were eminently practical -- emphasizing the "useful" in knowledge -- the most practical result was the fostering of a uniquely American approach to science. Contact between American members of the APS and their foreign correspondents provided a point of entry for European scientific culture into North America, as well as for specific applications like Linnean systematics, but later in the century, as Americans increasingly began to assert their independence of European intellectual traditions, scientists here began to cast their own spin on the interpretation of nature.

Just as valuable as the intellectual connections with Europe, the trans-Atlantic networks created a lucrative market for American natural productions. Several early members of the Society -- most notably John and William Bartram and Humphry Marshall -- earned their livelihood from the sale of American plant and animal specimens to Europeans, and such economic activities inevitably helped shape early American scientific practice.

As the collections of the Society attest, APS members contributed prominently to the scientific exploration of the continent. Among the authors represented in this exhibit, Thomas Jefferson, both Bartrams, Marshall, Bernard Romans, and Thomas Hutchins were all APS members, and many other travelers and explorers lodged reports of their work in Philadelphia for APS members to examine and distribute or for publication in the Transactions. One correspondent, George Gauld, left an interesting geographical account of West Florida with an apology. "This long uninteresting Paper," he wrote, "can hardly obtain a Place in the Transactions of a Philosophical Society. It should however be preserved in the Files for the Use of Historians or mapmakers." South Nature takes a "long uninteresting" look at the southeastern reaches of the European colonies in North America during the eighteenth century as a means of exploring the development of American natural historical practice.