John James Audubon: America's Rare Bird

The foreign-born frontiersman became one of the 19th century's greatest wildlife artists and a hero of the ecology movement

Trumpeter Swan, John James Audubon, 1838. (Corbis)

The handsome, excitable 18-year-old Frenchman who would become John James Audubon had already lived his way through two names when he landed in New York from Nantes, France, in August 1803. His father, Jean, a canny ship’s captain with Pennsylvania property, had sent his only son off to America to escape conscription in the Napoleonic Wars. Jean Audubon owned a plantation near Valley Forge called Mill Grove, and the tenant who farmed it had reported a vein of lead ore. John James was supposed to evaluate the tenant’s report, learn what he could of plantation management, and eventually—since the French and Haitian revolutions had significantly diminished the Audubon fortune—make a life for himself.

He did that and much, much more. He married an extraordinary woman, opened a string of general stores on the Kentucky frontier and built a great steam mill on the Ohio River. He explored the American wilderness from GalvestonBay to Newfoundland, hunted with Cherokee and Osage, rafted the Ohio and the Mississippi. Throughout his travels, he identified, studied and drew almost 500 species of American birds. Singlehandedly, Audubon raised the equivalent of millions of dollars to publish a great, four-volume work of art and science, The Birds of America. He wrote five volumes of “bird biographies” chock-full of narratives of pioneer life and won fame enough to dine with presidents. He became a national icon—“the American Woodsman,” a name he gave himself. The record he left of the American wilderness is unsurpassed in its breadth and originality of observation; the Audubon Society, when it was initially founded in 1886, decades after his death, was right to invoke his authority. He was one of only two Americans elected Fellows of the Royal Society of London, the preeminent scientific organization of its day, prior to the American Civil War; the other was Benjamin Franklin.

John James had been born Jean Rabin, his father’s bastard child, in 1785 on Jean Audubon’s sugar plantation on Saint Domingue (soon to be renamed Haiti). His mother was a 27- year-old French chambermaid, Jeanne Rabin, who died of an infection within months of his birth. The stirrings of slave rebellion on the island in 1791 prompted Jean Audubon to sell what he could of his holdings and ship his son home to France, where his wife, Anne, whom Jean had married long before, welcomed the handsome boy and raised him as her own.

When the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution approached Nantes in 1793, the Audubons formally adopted Jean Rabin, to protect him, and christened him Jean Jacques or Fougère Audubon. Fougère—“Fern”—was an offering to placate the revolutionary authorities, who scorned the names of saints. Jean-Baptiste Carrier, a revolutionary envoy sent out from Paris to quell the peasant counterrevolution in western France, ordered the slaughter of thousands in Nantes, a principal city in the region. Firing squads bloodied the town square. Other victims were chained to barges and sunk in the Loire; their remains tainted the river for months. Though Jean Audubon was an officer in the Revolutionary French Navy, he and his family were dungeoned. After the terror, he moved his family downriver to a country house in the riverside village of Couëron. Now his only son was escaping again.

The young country to which John James Audubon immigrated in the summer of 1803 was barely settled beyond its eastern shores; Lewis and Clark were just then preparing to depart for the West. France in that era counted a population of more than 27 million, Britain about 15 million, but only 6 million people thinly populated the United States, two-thirds of them living within 50 miles of Atlantic tidewater. In European eyes America was still an experiment. It would need a second American revolution—the War of 1812—to compel England and Europe to honor American sovereignty.

But the generation of Americans that the young French émigré was joining was different from its parents’. It was migrating westward and taking great risks in pursuit of new opportunities its elders had not enjoyed. Audubon’s was the era, as the historian Joyce Appleby has discerned, when “the autonomous individual emerged as an [American] ideal.” Individualism, Appleby writes, was not a natural phenomenon but “[took] shape historically [and] came to personify the nation.” And no life was at once more unusual and yet more representative of that expansive era when a national character emerged than Audubon’s. Celebrate him for his wonderful birds, but recognize him as well as a characteristic American of the first generation—a man who literally made a name for himself.

Lucy Bakewell, the tall, slim, gray-eyed girl next door whom he married, came from a distinguished English family. Erasmus Darwin, a respected physician, poet and naturalist and grandfather to Charles, had dandled her on his knee in their native Derbyshire. Her father had moved his family to America when she was 14 to follow Joseph Priestley, the chemist and religious reformer, but opportunity had also drawn the Bakewells. Their Pennsylvania plantation, Fatland Ford, was more ample than the Audubons’, and William Bakewell sponsored one of the first experiments in steampowered threshing there while his young French neighbor lay ill with a fever in his house and under his talented daughter’s care. Lucy was a gifted pianist, an enthusiastic reader and a skillful rider—sidesaddle—who kept an elegant house. She and John James, once they married and moved out to Kentucky in 1808, regularly swam across and back the half-milewide Ohio for morning exercise.

Lucy’s handsome young Frenchman had learned to be a naturalist from his father and his father’s medical friends, exploring the forested marshes along the Loire. Lucy’s younger brotherWill Bakewell left a memorable catalog of his future brother-in-law’s interests and virtues; even as a young man, Audubon was someone men and women alike wanted to be around:

“On entering his room, I was astonished and delighted to find that it was turned into a museum. The walls were festooned with all kinds of birds’ eggs, carefully blown out and strung on a thread. The chimney-piece was covered with stuffed squirrels, raccoons, and opossums; and the shelves around were likewise crowded with specimens, among which were fishes, frogs, snakes, lizards, and other reptiles. Besides these stuffed varieties, many paintings were arrayed on the walls, chiefly of birds. . . . He was an admirable marksman, an expert swimmer, a clever rider, possessed of great activity [and] prodigious strength, and was notable for the elegance of his figure and the beauty of his features, and he aided nature by a careful attendance to his dress. Besides other accomplishments he was musical, a good fencer, danced well, and had some acquaintance with legerdemain tricks, worked in hair, and could plait willow baskets.”

In 1804, Audubon was curious whether the eastern phoebes that occupied an old nest above a Mill Grove cave were a pair returned from the previous year. “When they were about to leave the nest,” Audubon wrote, “I fixed a light silver thread to the leg of each.” His experiment was the first recorded instance in America of birdbanding, a now routine technique for studying bird migration. Two of the phoebes that returned the following spring still carried silver threads. One, a male, remembered Audubon well enough to tolerate his presence near its nest, though its mate shied away.


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