Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Audubon: The Man Behind The Birds

When you hear the name Audubon most people think of the Audubon Society or they respond with “He’s that bird guy right?” But Audubon was much more than that. The story of Audubon is a story that most of us know little to nothing about, including me up until recently, but his story is a story we should all hear. John James Audubon, an American Ornithologist, Artist, and Naturalist, was born Jean Rabin in Les Cayes, which is now Haiti on April 26th, 1785. He was the illegitimate son of French plantation owner Captain Jean Audubon and his Creole servant Jeanne Rabin. His father sent him to France to live with his wife shortly after Audubon’s birth mother died; Audubon changed his name to Jean-Jaques Fougere during this time. While in France Audubon developed a love for the outdoors and a talent for painting, but his time in France would be cut short.  To avoid being conscripted into Napoleon’s Army in 1803, Audubon’s father sent him to his estate in Mill Grove, Pennsylvania where he would oversee mining operations. It was on this voyage to America that the 18 year old changed his name to John James Audubon.  Audubon met his wife to be, Lucy Bakewell, in 1804 shortly after arriving at Mill Grove.

Lucy Blackwell
Lucy Bakewell came from a wealthy English family who immigrated to America in 1801. Lucy’s family home, Fatland Ford, was located next to Mill Grove which is how the two met. Bakewell and Audubon would spend all day together, Bakewell would teach him English, he would teach her how to paint.  The two got married in 1808 and started a family shortly after. Following the failure of the mine at Mill Grove, Audubon moved to Louisville, Kentucky, opening a general store. Poor business prospects forced Audubon and his family to move to Henderson, Kentucky. During his time in Kentucky, Audubon traveled and hunted, becoming closer to nature. The couple also had three children; however two of them died very young. With this tragedy on top of a failing business, Audubon was at the bottom of the barrel, he even ended up in jail for unpaid debts. In 1820 the Audubon’s left Kentucky and moved to New Orleans where they survived off of Lucy’s Governess income. This income was supplied by teaching classes for young ladies. These classes would cover not only basic education but also music, sewing, social conduct, swimming, and horseback riding. This was an incredible achievement for Lucy, given the time, and Audubon was grateful because this gave him time to travel and focus on his writing and painting without having to worry about his family. However he was not succeeding like he planned. In 1826, after rejection in America, Audubon went to the United Kingdom to look for a publisher, for his ornithological works. He exhibited his work in both Scotland and England, where the public was amazed by his drawings of the American Frontier, along with the tales he told them. The success of these exhibits led to the publication of his best known book, Birds of America; but this wasn’t a one man job. During one of his visits back to America in 1831, Audubon accidentally ran into Reverend John Bachman while soliciting subscriptions for his new book. What’s funny about all this is that Bachman and Audubon had been communicating through letter prior to this meeting. 

The American Bison
Reverend John Bachman moved to South Carolina January 10th, 1815 at the age of 25 from Duchess County, New York with Tuberculosis. His physicians told him to seek a warmer climate, which was the only remedy for Tuberculosis at the time. Bachman chose Charleston because it was home of the largest Lutheran church in the region. Bachman wasn’t like most Reverends at the time; he had a strong background in science and nature, which is why Audubon wanted to meet with him. Shortly after, they became collaborators on Audubon’s greatest achievement, but it wasn’t all fun and fame. Bachman and Audubon had very different ideas for the book; Bachman urged Audubon to further his education while Audubon relied on what he already knew. This was just the beginning of the budding work relationship between the two friends.  Audubon often seemed indifferent to mistakes; in some instances, Audubon would try to finesse a statement when he lacked facts and Bachman did not approve of this. In a letter of April 24th, 1837, Bachman told Audubon that he “managed the article cunningly, but not ingeniously.” Bachman wanted to take his time and do extensive research for the book but the Audubon’s wanted to work quickly and finish it, to start creating income. Audubon worked hard during this period, but still ignored most of Bachman’s requests of books unavailable in Charleston, along with ignoring Bachman’s request to obtain more species and more than just one skin of every species. Audubon also took inadequate notes, leaving out locations of collected specimen or vague citing’s that were almost useless. All in all, Bachman wanted these books to be educational, when Audubon wanted them to be art and income. After all this drama though, the two released the single greatest collection of North American birds ever, and immediately started working on their next project, the mammals of North America, unfortunately, Audubon would not get to see the final product.  

Due to his failing health Audubon spent the final years of his life at home, leaving the work to his sons and Bachman. Audubon died January 27th, 1851 and was buried in Trinity cemetery in New York City, where our favorite founding “rapper” Hamilton is also buried. It’s intriguing that two illegitimate sons of the Caribbean achieved such great success in America and rest in the same cemetery. Audubon wasn’t the first to study birds, but the way he did it made him one of the forefathers of the modern conservation and environmental movements. In 1886, the first bird preservation society, The National Audubon Society was named in his honor, throughout the years several wildlife sanctuaries, parks, etc. did the same. Through the 20th century the National Audubon Society has been responsible for creating sanctuaries, getting laws passed, and just general protection of bird species, and watersheds, all in Audubon’s name. 

Be sure to visit Josh's exhibit at Washington's Headquarters Museum, featuring first editions of Birds of America and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America.

Sources Editors, “John James Audubon”. The website. A&E Television Networks. Last Updated December 8, 2016. April 2017.

Maggie Maclean. “Lucy Bakewell Audubon” Women History Blog. April 2017

Lester D. Stephens. “Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815-1895”. University of North Carolina Press, 2003. April 2017.

Wikipedia. “Havell Family”. Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. April 2017. Editors. “History of Audubon and Science-based Bird Conservation”. Website. April 2017.

All images were provided by Google Image. 

This blog post by Joshua Knighten, Rowan University.

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