John James Audubon
The problem why certain men and women come to eminence, and why others,
with apparently as much ability, remain forever in obscurity, is an
interesting one to solve. Most persons desire fame; most persons desire
wealth; but, for one reason or another, thousands fail to achieve what
they desire. They lack either singleness of aim, or adequate
perseverance, or determined will, or sound judgment, or, instead of
mastering circumstances, they permit circumstances to master them.
It is so easy to be turned aside in life by trivial matters; to be
interested in our neighbor's wedding, or our neighbor's profits and
losses. Those who oversee the affairs of others rarely oversee their
own. Men become very busy over clubs and pastimes; women, over social
gatherings and appearance, and die with little accomplished.
Audubon's life furnishes a unique illustration of the result of having a
definite purpose, and bending all one's energies to it, till success is
John James Audubon was born at New Orleans, May 4, 1780, in the land of
orange groves and magnolias, of birds and sunshine. His grandfather was
a poor fisherman of La Vendee, France, with twenty-one children. Unable
to support them, they made their way in life as best they could.
When John's father was twelve years old, the fisherman gave him "a
shirt, a dress of warm clothing, his blessing, and a cane, and sent him
out to seek his fortune." He went to Nantes, shipped before the mast; at
twenty-one commanded a vessel, and at twenty-five was owner and captain
of a small craft.
Going to St. Domingo, West Indies, he purchased a small estate.
Ambitious, as are all persons who succeed, he soon secured an
appointment from the Governor of St. Domingo, returned to France, made
the acquaintance of influential men, and obtained an appointment in the
Imperial navy, with the command of a small vessel of war.
He had what all persons need, true self-appreciation; quite another
quality from self-conceit. To believe that we can do things, having kept
our characters such that we respect ourselves, is a strong indication
that we shall prosper if we make the attempt.
Frequently visiting America in his ship, Audubon purchased land in
Louisiana, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. In the former State he married a
lady of Spanish extraction, Anne Moynette, both beautiful and wealthy.
Of their three sons and one daughter, John James was the youngest son.
The mother was not spared to rear the distinguished naturalist, but
perished a few years after his birth, in the insurrection of the colored
people of St. Domingo. The father, having purchased a beautiful estate
on the Loire, nine miles from Nantes, married a second time, a woman who
proved a most indulgent mother to her husband's children. Having none of
her own, she humored John in every way, and allowed him to gather moss,
curious stones, birds' nests,--indeed, everything which belongs to
natural history,--to his heart's content.
On the return of Commodore Audubon to France, finding that the boy was
following the bent of his own mind, to the neglect of a solid education,
in spite of the tears and entreaties of his wife, he sent him away to
school. For a year John was obliged to apply himself closely to
mathematics, taking a ramble to collect specimens whenever it was
possible. He studied drawing under the celebrated painter David, and
learned to play well on the violin, flute, flageolet, and guitar.
His father had hoped that he would become a soldier under Napoleon, but
a lad who could lie on his back under a tree for three weeks, and watch
with a telescope the habits of some little gray birds of the color of
the bark of the tree, would not care much for the smoke and din of
battle. He was therefore sent to America, to look after his father's
With a heavy heart the youth said good-by to France, where he had
already sketched two hundred varieties of birds from life. Arriving in
New York, he became ill of yellow fever, and was carried to the home of
two Quaker ladies in Morristown, whose kindness doubtless saved his
When he had recovered, he went to his father's farm at Mill Grove, near
the Schuylkill Falls, Pennsylvania, and found, as he said, "a blessed
spot." He was free, now, to study natural history; no more mathematics;
no more urging to become a soldier. He was delighted with the mill
attached to the property, and with the pewees who built their nests near
by. "Hunting, fishing, and drawing occupied my every moment," he says;
"cares I knew not, and cared nothing for them."
An English gentleman, William Bakewell, descended from the Peverils of
Derbyshire, rendered historical by Scott's novel "Peveril of the Peak,"
owned the adjoining property. Audubon, being French, did not court the
acquaintance of the Englishman, indeed avoided him, till one day, as he
was following some grouse down the creek in winter, he met Mr. Bakewell.
"I was struck with the kind politeness of his manners," says Audubon,
"and found him a most expert marksman, and entered into conversation. I
admired the beauty of his well trained dogs, and finally promised to
call upon him and his family. Well do I recollect the morning, and may
it please God may I never forget it, when for the first time I entered
the Bakewell household. It happened that Mr. Bakewell was from home. I
was shown into a parlor, where only one young lady was snugly seated at
work, with her back turned towards the fire. She rose on my entrance,
offered me a seat, and assured me of the gratification her father would
feel on his return; which, she added with a smile, would be in a few
minutes, as she would send a servant after him. Other ruddy cheeks made
their appearance, but, like spirits gay, vanished from my sight. Talking
and working, the young lady who remained made the time pass pleasantly
enough, and to me especially so. It was she, my dear Lucy Bakewell, who
afterwards became my wife, and the mother of my children."
Mr. Bakewell soon returned, and lunch was provided before leaving on a
shooting expedition. "Lucy rose from her seat a second time, and her
form, to which I had before paid little attention, seemed radiant with
beauty, and my heart and eyes followed her every step. The repast being
over, guns and dogs were provided, and as we left I was pleased to
believe that Lucy looked upon me as a not very strange animal. Bowing to
her, I felt, I knew not why, that I was at least not indifferent to
Thus was begun a beautiful affection that ran like a thread of gold
through the darkness and light of two struggling lives. The friendship
increased as the months went by, for the youth, alone in a strange
country, devoted to his foster-mother, needed a woman's love and
tenderness to cheer him. Lucy Bakewell taught Audubon English, and he
in return gave her drawing lessons.
At Mill Grove the weeks passed pleasantly,--is not the world always
beautiful when we love somebody? Audubon says in his journal: "I had no
vices; but was thoughtless, pensive, loving, fond of shooting, fishing,
and riding, and had a passion for raising all sorts of fowls, which
sources of interest and amusement fully occupied my time.... I ate no
butcher's meat, lived chiefly on fruits, vegetables, and fish, and never
drank a glass of spirits or wine until my wedding day. To this I
attribute my continual good health, endurance, and an iron
Here at Mill Grove, while yet a boy, he planned his great work, the
"Birds of America," their habits, and a description of them. This one
idea dominated Audubon's life. Through poverty and suffering, this one
desire was ever before him. It is well to plan early in life what we
wish to do, and then do it.
One writer has well said of Audubon: "For sixty years or more he
followed, with more than religious devotion, a beautiful and devoted
pursuit, enlarging its boundaries by his discoveries, and illustrating
its objects by his art. In all climates and in all weathers; scorched by
burning suns, drenched by piercing rains, frozen by the fiercest colds:
now diving fearlessly into the densest forest, now wandering alone over
the most savage regions; in perils, in difficulties, and in doubts;
with no companion to cheer his way, far from the smiles and applause of
society; listening only to the sweet music of birds, or to the sweeter
music of his own thoughts, he faithfully kept his path.
"The records of man's life contain few nobler examples of strength of
purpose and indefatigable energy. Led on solely by his pure, lofty,
kindling enthusiasm, no thirst for wealth, no desire of distinction, no
restless ambition of eccentric character, could have induced him to
undergo as many sacrifices, or sustained him under so many trials.
Higher principles and worthier motives alone enabled him to meet such
discouragements and accomplish such miracles of achievement. He has
enlarged and enriched the domains of a pleasing and useful science; he
has revealed to us the existence of many species of birds before
unknown; he has given us more accurate information of the forms and
habits of those that were known; he has corrected the blunders of his
predecessors; and he has imparted to the study of natural history the
grace and fascination of romance."
At Mill Grove he came near losing his life, on a duck-shooting
expedition, by falling through an air hole in the ice. It was three
months before he recovered.
At this time "a partner, tutor, and monitor," Da Costa, whom Audubon's
father had sent over to superintend a lead-mine enterprise at Mill
Grove, refused to give money to the son and objected to his marrying
Lucy Bakewell. Resenting the dictation of Da Costa, young Audubon
determined to go to France and lay the matter before his father. Da
Costa would give him no money, but a letter of credit upon an agent in
New York. The youth, nothing daunted, walked all the way to New York,
was refused the money by the agent, who hinted that the lad should be
seized and shipped to China, borrowed his passage money, went to France,
caused the removal of Da Costa, and obtained his father's consent to his
marriage. For a year he resided at Nantes, shooting, stuffing birds, and
drawing for his beloved book. Then all Frenchmen being liable to
conscription under Napoleon, the Commodore obtained leave for his son to
return to America.
Once again he was at his dear Mill Grove. In his room "the walls were
festooned with all sorts 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
Lucy's father, concluding that the study of natural history might not
bring pecuniary support for his daughter, suggested to Audubon that he
obtain some knowledge of commercial pursuits. Love seldom asks about
ways and means; too seldom, in fact, for subsequent happiness. Audubon
entered the counting-house of Mr. Benjamin Bakewell of New York, and
soon lost some hundreds of pounds by a bad speculation in indigo. The
drying of bird's skins in his rooms was so disagreeable to his neighbors
that a message was sent him, through a constable, insisting on his
abating the nuisance!
Finance did not seem the specialty of the young man, and he returned to
Dear as the place was to him, he sold it, invested the capital in goods,
married Lucy Bakewell, April 8, 1808, when he was twenty-eight years
old, and started for the West. They were twelve days in sailing down the
Ohio River in a flat-bottomed float, called an ark. He engaged in trade
at Louisville, and the young couple were extremely happy. Fortunate it
was that they had these few months of comfort, for hardship was soon to
test their affection.
The war of 1812 so crippled business that he and his partner decided to
go to Hendersonville, while Lucy and her infant son went home to her
father for a year. If Mr. Bakewell ever regretted the choice which his
daughter had made, she did not, and never failed, when days were
darkest, to encourage him to write and win renown. When all others
bemoaned his lack of business success, and his devotion to a non-paying
pursuit, she alone was his comforter, and was willing to suffer poverty
if thus his great work might be done.
There was no success at Hendersonville, and the goods were taken to St.
Genevieve. Here the partner married, and Audubon sold his interest to
him, purchased a horse, and started across the country to see his wife,
who had meantime come back from Pennsylvania to Hendersonville, Ky. In
this trip he came near losing his life. He says: "I found myself obliged
to cross one of the wild prairies which, in that portion of the United
States, vary the appearance of the country. The weather was fine, all
around me was as fresh and blooming as if it had just issued from the
bosom of nature. My knapsack, my gun, and my dog were all I had for
baggage and company. But although well moccasined, I moved slowly along,
attracted by the brilliancy of the flowers, and the gambols of the fawns
around their dams, to all appearance as thoughtless of danger as I felt
After travelling all day, he reached a log cabin. "Presenting myself at
the door, I asked the tall figure, which proved to be a woman, if I
might take shelter under her roof for the night. Her voice was gruff,
and her dress negligently thrown about her. She answered in the
affirmative. I walked in, took a wooden stool, and quietly seated myself
by the fire. The next object that attracted my notice was a finely
formed young Indian, resting his head between his hands, with his elbows
on his knees. A long bow rested against the log wall near him, while a
quantity of arrows and two or three raccoon skins lay at his feet. He
moved not; he apparently breathed not. Accustomed to the habits of the
Indians, and knowing that they pay little attention to the approach of
civilized strangers, I addressed him in French,--a language not
unfrequently partially known to the people of that neighborhood. He
raised his head, pointed to one of his eyes with his finger, and gave me
a significant glance with the other; his face was covered with blood.
"The fact was, that an hour before this, as he was in the act of
discharging an arrow at a raccoon in the top of a tree, the arrow had
split upon the cord, and sprung back with such violence into his right
eye as to destroy it forever.
"Feeling hungry, I inquired what sort of fare I might expect. Such a
thing as a bed was not to be seen; but many large, untanned buffalo
hides lay piled in a corner. I drew a time-piece from my pocket, and
told the woman that it was late, and that I was fatigued. She espied my
watch, the richness of which seemed to operate on her feelings with
electric quickness. She told me there was plenty of venison and jerked
buffalo meat, and that on removing the ashes I should find a cake. But
my watch had struck her fancy, and her curiosity had to be gratified by
an immediate sight of it. I took off the gold chain which secured it
around my neck, and presented it to her. She was all ecstasy, spoke of
its beauty, asked me its value, and put the chain round her brawny neck,
saying how happy the possession of such a watch would make her.
Thoughtless, and, as I fancied myself, in so retired a spot, secure, I
paid little attention to her talk or her movements. I helped my dog to a
good supper of venison, and was not long in satisfying the demands of
my own appetite.
"The Indian rose from his seat as if in extreme suffering. He passed and
repassed me several times, and once pinched me on the side so violently,
that the pain nearly brought forth an exclamation of anger. I looked at
him; his eye met mine, but his look was so forbidding that it struck a
chill into the more nervous part of my system. He again seated himself,
drew his butcher-knife from its greasy scabbard, examined its edge, as I
would do that of a razor suspected dull, replaced it, and, again taking
his tomahawk from his back filled the pipe of it with tobacco, and sent
me expressive glances whenever our hostess chanced to have her back
Audubon now perceived his danger. "I asked the woman for my watch, wound
it up, and, under the pretence of wishing to see how the weather might
probably be on the morrow, took up my gun, and walked out of the cabin.
I slipped a ball into each barrel, scraped the edges of my flints,
renewed the primings, and, returning to the hut, gave a favorable
account of my observations. I took a few bear-skins, made a pallet of
them, and, calling my faithful dog to my side, lay down, with my gun
close to my body, and in a few minutes was, to all appearance, fast
Soon two young, stalwart Indians arrived at the cabin, bearing a dead
stag on a pole. These were the Indian woman's sons. She and they drank
whiskey, and then took a large carving-knife to a grindstone, and
sharpened it. "I saw her pour the water on the turning machine," says
Audubon, "and watched her working away with the dangerous instrument,
until the cold sweat covered every part of my body, in despite of my
determination to defend myself to the last. Her task finished, she
walked to her reeling sons, and said, 'There, that'll soon settle him!
Boys, kill you--and then for the watch!'"
Just at this moment the door suddenly opened, and two travellers
entered. The mother and her sons were bound, and Audubon's life was
He arrived at last at Hendersonville, and soon went into business with a
brother-in-law at New Orleans. He embarked all the fortune at his
disposal, and lost it all.
His father had already died, leaving Audubon an estate in France, and
seventeen thousand dollars deposited with a merchant in Richmond, Va.
The merchant died insolvent, and Audubon never received a dollar. He
made no effort to possess the property in France, and years afterwards
it was transferred to his sister Rosa. He now began to feel anxious
about the future. A second son, John, had been born to him, and he must
try once more to earn in business. Gathering a few hundred dollars, he
purchased some goods in Louisville, and returned to Hendersonville. A
former partner joined him, advised erecting a steam mill, which was
done. Several men invested capital in the enterprise, and a complete
failure resulted. Audubon gave up all the property he possessed to his
creditors, and left Hendersonville with his sick wife, his gun, his dog,
and his drawings.
They reached Louisville, and were kindly received by a relative. How
could he support his family? The outlook was not hopeful. He would try
making crayon portraits. He succeeded so well that a farmer came in the
middle of the night to request a picture of his mother before she died,
and the work was done by candle-light.
Invited to Cincinnati to become curator of the museum, Audubon accepted,
and opened a drawing-school in that city. But very little money
resulted, and he resolved to seek a new field of labor. Getting letters
of recommendation from General, afterwards President, Harrison, and from
Henry Clay, he started, October 12, 1820, for New Orleans. Stopping for
a time at Natchez, he and a companion found themselves destitute of
shoes. Going to a shoemaker, he asked to sketch a crayon portrait of
himself and his wife in return for two pairs of boots. The offer was
accepted, and Audubon and his friend found themselves again in suitable
condition for travelling. How different all this from the former easy
life at Mill Grove!
Arriving at New Orleans, what little money he possessed was stolen, he
could find no work, and he was obliged to live on the boat in which he
had come thither. He writes in his journal: "Time passed sadly in
seeking ineffectually for employment. I was fortunate in making a hit
with the portrait of a well known citizen of New Orleans. I showed it to
the public; it made a favorable impression, and I obtained several
patrons. A few orders for portraits relieved my necessities, and,
continuing my work of painting birds, the time passed more pleasantly."
He was always planning for wider opportunities to study birds for his
book. In the midst of his dire poverty, he did not forget this. Now he
hoped to join the expedition which surveyed the boundary line of the
territory ceded to the United States by Spain, and he says, "Saw nothing
but hundreds of new birds in imagination within range of my gun." But
this, like other plans, came to naught, for poverty binds with strong
cords, and it requires almost superhuman strength to break them.
At last, in the family of Mrs. Perrie, who owned a plantation at Bayou
Sara, in Louisiana, he obtained a situation. He was to teach drawing to
her daughter for sixty dollars a month, having his afternoons for his
work. Her desire was, under the guise of employment, to help the poor
After fourteen months since leaving Cincinnati, during which time, he
says, "I have finished sixty-two drawing of birds and plants, three
quadrupeds, two snakes, fifty portraits of all sorts, and have subsisted
by my humble talents, not having had a dollar when I started," he sent
for his family to come to him. A house was rented on Dauphine Street, at
seventeen dollars a month. Now if they starved, they would starve
together. Being asked to join in painting a panorama of the city, he
said, "My birds, my beloved birds of America, occupy all my time, and
nearly all my thoughts, and I do not wish to see any other perspective
than the last specimen of these drawings." He was now forty-two, and
life was none too long, at the best. No wonder he was anxious about his
During the first months of 1822, after his family came, there are no
records of his life. He was too poor to buy a journal. Mrs. Audubon had
found a situation as governess in a family. Audubon was depressed in
spirits, and poor health was the result. If some person with wealth had
only been wise enough to have helped the man of talent! We build
colleges and churches, and this is well; but often neglect the brilliant
man or woman near our own door, who might bless the world. Brains do not
always win pecuniary success. We sometimes go to extremes in America by
advocating self-dependence, and let a refined and sensitive soul break
because it cannot breast the world. We forget that on earth we are to be
our brother's keeper. Perchance we shall remember it beyond!
Finally Audubon left New Orleans, procuring passage on a boat to
Natchez, by a crayon portrait of the captain and his wife. In the family
of a Portuguese gentleman in that city, he taught drawing, music, and
French, and also drawing in a college nine miles from Natchez, but he
was still depressed. "While work flowed in upon me," he says, "the hope
of my completing my book upon the birds of America became less clear;
and, full of despair, I feared my hopes of becoming known to Europe as a
naturalist were destined to be blasted."
To feel within one's breast the aspiration which is God-given,
and know that one has genius, and yet be bound hand and foot by
circumstances,--what is harder?
Poor Audubon! with his lessening hope of "becoming known to Europe." His
wife had come to Natchez and obtained a position as teacher, similar to
the one she had held in New Orleans. Poverty had tested their love, but
it had stood the test. Audubon had made a copy of the "Death of
Montgomery;" and for this friends raffled, and gave him the proceeds,
three hundred dollars, and the picture also.
Mrs. Audubon now made an engagement with a lady at Bayou Sara, to teach
her children with her own, and a limited number of pupils. Seeing that
his family would now be provided for, "I determined," he says, "to break
through all bonds, and pursue my ornithological pursuits. My best
friends solemnly regarded me as a madman, and my wife and family alone
gave me encouragement. My wife determined that my genius should prevail,
and that my final success as an ornithologist should be triumphant."
Blessed faith of woman! Giving a love that knows only self-sacrifice;
that braves all, bears all, and finally wins all for its beloved
The oldest son, Victor, was placed in the counting-house of a friend at
Louisville, and Audubon sought Philadelphia, "as a desperate venture,"
he says, to see if means could not be obtained to further his work. He
took a room, and began to give lessons in drawing. He said plaintively
in his journal, "I have now been twenty-five years pursuing my
ornithological studies," and yet the book was not written. Fortunately
he obtained a letter of introduction to the portrait-painter Sully, "a
man after my own heart, and who showed me great kindnesses." He gave
Audubon instruction in oil, and would take no pay for it, and the
naturalist was "overwhelmed with his goodness." Audubon found another
warm-hearted friend,--Edward Harris,--a young ornithologist, who, as he
was bidding Audubon good-by, squeezed a hundred-dollar bill into his
hand, saying, "Mr. Audubon, accept this from me; men like you ought not
to want for money." "I could only express my gratitude," says Audubon,
"by insisting on his receiving the drawings of all my French birds,
which he did, and I was relieved."
A friend now took him to visit Mill Grove. "As we entered the avenue
leading to Mill Grove," he says, "every step brought to my mind the
memory of past years, and I was bewildered by the recollections until we
reached the door of the house, which had once been the residence of my
father as well as myself.... After resting a few moments, I abruptly
took my hat, and ran wildly towards the woods, to the grotto where I
first heard from my wife the acknowledgment that she was not indifferent
to me. It had been torn down, and some stones carted away; but, raising
my eyes toward heaven, I repeated the promise we had mutually made. We
dined at Mill Grove, and as I entered the parlor I stood motionless, for
a moment, on the spot where my wife and myself were forever joined."
He then went to New York, and a friend took him to the Lyceum. "My
portfolio was examined by the members of the Institute," he says, "among
whom I felt awkward and uncomfortable. After living among such people, I
feel clouded and depressed; remember that I have done nothing, and fear
I may die unknown, I feel I am strange to all but the birds of America.
In a few days I shall be in the woods, and quite forgotten." The next
day, he writes in his journal: "My spirits low, and I long for the woods
again; but the prospect of becoming known prompts me to remain another
From this city he journeyed West. "All trembling I reached the Falls of
Niagara, and oh, what a scene! My blood shudders still, although I am
not a coward, at the grandeur of the Creator's power; and I gazed
motionless on this new display of the irresistible force of one of his
At Buffalo, he took a deck-passage on board a schooner bound for Erie,
using his buffalo-robe and blanket to sleep on. At Pittsburg, he spent
a month scouring the country for birds, and continued his drawings.
Arriving at Cincinnati, he says, "I was beset by claims for the payment
of articles which years before had been ordered for the Museum, but from
which I got no benefit. Without money, or the means of making it, I
applied to Messrs. Keating and Bell for the loan of fifteen dollars; but
had not the courage to do so until I had walked past their house several
times, unable to make up my mind how to ask the favor. I got the loan
cheerfully, and took a deck-passage to Louisville. I was allowed to take
my meals in the cabin, and at night slept among some shavings I managed
to scrape together. The spirit of contentment which I now feel is
strange; it borders on the sublime; and, enthusiast or lunatic, as some
of my relatives will have me, I am glad to possess such a spirit."
At last he reached Bayou Sara, and saw his wife; "and, holding and
kissing her, I was once more happy, and all my toils and trials were
Mrs. Audubon had been extremely fortunate. She was earning nearly three
thousand dollars a year. This she offered to her husband to help the
publication of the book. He was invited to teach dancing, and a class of
sixty was soon organized. From this source he received about two
thousand dollars. The tide of fortune had turned at last, and he began
to prepare for a trip to England. He was forty-six. Life had been indeed
a struggle. He had wandered over the country, with scanty food and poor
attire, always in debt, but he had drawn his birds; and now the money
was actually in his hands, whereby he could, perhaps, "be known in
Europe." And Lucy Audubon had made it possible!
He had gained much by his trials. He had learned what most of us take a
life-time to learn, patience; not to speak harshly when others are
harsh. He said, "To repay evils with kindness is the religion I was
taught to practice, and this will forever be my rule." He had learned
that much in life is trivial, that most things are "not matters of life
and death;" little worries come to all, and can be borne--the momentous
things of life are really few.
April 26, 1826, Audubon sailed for England. Arriving at Liverpool, he
was able to arrange for the display of his drawings at the Liverpool
Exhibition. The entrance fee was one shilling, and the receipts were
from fifteen to twenty dollars a day. Surely fame was coming at last.
Lord Stanley spent five hours in examining the collection, and said,
"This work is unique, and deserves the patronage of the Crown." He
invited Audubon to visit him at his town house in Grosvenor Square. The
naturalist made portraits of various friends who were desirous of
obtaining specimens of his drawing. From the exhibition of his pictures
in Liverpool he realized five hundred dollars.
From this city he went to Manchester, and from thence to Edinburgh.
Here he met the naturalist Professor Jameson, who promised to introduce
his book to the public in his "Natural History Magazine." Professor
Wilson (Christopher North) volunteered to introduce Audubon to Sir
Walter Scott. Audubon was asked to sit for his portrait. The Royal
Institution offered their rooms for the exhibition of his drawings, and
the receipts were from twenty-five to seventy-five dollars a day.
Truly things had changed, since those desolate days in America, when he
slept on the deck of a steamboat, because unable to pay for a bed, and
could not summon the courage to ask the loan of fifteen dollars.
Invited to dine with the Antiquarian Society, he met Lord Elgin, who
presided, and was obliged to respond to a flattering toast, which made
him "feel very faint and chill. I was expected to make a speech," he
says, "but could not, and never had tried. Being called on for a reply,
I said, 'Gentlemen, my incapacity for words to respond to your
flattering notice is hardly exceeded by that of the birds now hanging on
the walls of your institution. I am truly obliged to you for your
favors, and can only say, God bless you all, and may your society
prosper.' I sat down with the perspiration running over me."
Professor Wilson prepared an article upon Audubon and his work for
"Blackwood's Magazine." His picture was hung in the Exhibition room. He
was made a member of the Wernerian Natural History Society, and of the
Royal Society. He was pleased, and said, "So, poor Audubon, if not rich,
thou wilt be honored at least, and held in high esteem among men."
No wonder he wrote to his wife: "My success in Edinburgh borders on the
miraculous. My book is to be published in numbers, containing four birds
in each, the size of life, in a style surpassing anything now existing,
at two guineas a number. The engravings are truly beautiful; some of
them have been colored, and are now on exhibition.... I expect to visit
the Duke of Northumberland, who has promised to subscribe for my
work.... One hundred subscribers for my book will pay all expenses. Some
persons are terrified at the sum of one hundred and eighty guineas for a
work,"--nearly a thousand dollars,--"but this amount is to be spread
over eight years, during which time the volumes will be gradually
completed. I am feted, feasted; elected honorary member of societies,
making money by my exhibition and by my paintings. It is Mr. Audubon
here, and Mr. Audubon there, and I can only hope that Mr. Audubon will
not be made a conceited fool at last." There was no fear of this. He
always remained the modest, earnest, devoted student of nature.
He read before the Natural History Society a paper on the habits of the
wild pigeon. He says, "I began that paper on Wednesday, wrote all day,
and sat up until half-past three the next morning; and so absorbed was
my whole soul and spirit in the work, that I felt as if I were in the
woods of America among the pigeons, and my ears were filled with the
sound of their rustling wings. After sleeping a few hours, I rose and
corrected it.... Captain Hall expressed some doubts as to my views
respecting the affection and love of pigeons, as if I made it human, and
raised the possessors quite above the brutes. I presume the love of the
mothers for their young is much the same as the love of woman for her
offspring. There is but one kind of love; God is love, and all his
creatures derive theirs from his: only it is modified by the different
degrees of intelligence in different beings and creatures."
With all this attention, his heart was never callous to suffering. "I
was sauntering along the streets," he says, "thinking of the beautiful
aspects of nature, meditating on the power of the great Creator, on the
beauty and majesty of his works, and on the skill he had given man to
study them, when the whole train of my thoughts was suddenly arrested by
a ragged, sickly-looking beggar boy. His face told of hunger and
hardship, and I gave him a shilling and passed on. But turning again,
the child was looking after me, and I beckoned to him to return. Taking
him back to my lodgings, I gave him all the garments I had which were
worn, added five shillings more in money, gave him my blessing, and sent
him away rejoicing, and feeling myself as if God had smiled on me."
There is no sympathy so sweet as that born of experience. Noble-hearted
Audubon! God had indeed "smiled on him." Hereafter he was to walk in the
sunlight of that smile. He was to work, of course, for there is no
approbation for idleness, but he was to know want no more.
March 17, 1827, he issued the prospectus of his book, which was to cost
him over one hundred thousand dollars. Here was courage, but he had been
fighting obstacles all his life, and he believed he could succeed. In
this he said, "The author has not contented himself, as others have
done, with single profile views, but in very many instances has grouped
his figures so as to represent the originals at their natural
avocations, and has placed them on branches of trees, decorated with
foliage, blossoms, and fruits, or amidst plants of numerous species.
Some are seen pursuing their prey through the air, searching for food
amongst the leaves and herbage, sitting in their nests, or feeding their
young; whilst others, of a different nature, swim, wade, or glide in or
over their allotted element."
Leaving Edinburgh, Audubon visited Newcastle, Leeds, York, Shrewsbury,
and Manchester, securing a few subscribers to his work, at one thousand
dollars each. It seemed difficult enough to spend a lifetime in
preparing the book, without being obliged to perform the irksome and
trying task of selling it; but fame asks Herculean labors of its
Often he was pained by ill-mannered refusals. How few are like
Longfellow, who could say "no" so kindly, that it almost seemed like
"yes." Audubon tells, in his journal, of an interview with the great
banker Rothschild. On opening the letter brought by the naturalist, the
baron said, "This is only a letter of introduction, and I expect from
its contents that you are the publisher of some book or other, and need
No man can be truly great who knows how to be uncivil!
"Sir," he added, "I never sign my name to any subscription list, but you
may send in your work and I will pay for a copy of it. I am busy, I wish
When the book was sent, the baron exclaimed, "What, two hundred pounds
for birds! Why, sir, I will give you five pounds, and not a farthing
more!" This offer was "declined with thanks," and the book taken back to
Very different from Rothschild was Sir Thomas Lawrence, the painter.
Overwhelmed with work, he insisted on Audubon's remaining to his simple
breakfast of boiled eggs and coffee, called at his rooms later, examined
his drawings, and said he would bring a few purchasers, that very day.
"In about two hours," says Audubon, "he returned with two gentlemen, to
whom he did not introduce me, but who were pleased with my work, and one
purchased the 'Otter Caught in a Trap,' for which he gave me twenty
pounds sterling, and the other, 'A Group of Common Rabbits,' for fifteen
sovereigns. I took the pictures to the carriage which stood at the
door, and they departed, leaving me more amazed than I had been by their
"The second visit was much of the same nature, differing, however,
chiefly in the number of persons he brought with him, which was three
instead of two; each one of whom purchased a picture, at seven, ten, and
thirty-five pounds respectively; and, as before, the party and the
pictures left together in a splendid carriage with liveried footmen. I
longed to know their names, but, as Sir Thomas was silent respecting
them, I imitated his reticence in restraining my curiosity, and remained
in mute astonishment....
"Without the sale of these pictures, I was a bankrupt, when my work was
scarcely begun, and in two days more I should have seen all my hopes of
the publication blasted; for Mr. Havell, the engraver, had already
called to say that on Saturday I must pay him sixty pounds. I was then
not only not worth a penny, but had actually borrowed five pounds a few
days before, to purchase materials for my pictures. But these pictures
which Sir Thomas sold for me enabled me to pay my borrowed money, and to
appear full-handed when Mr. Havell called. Thus I passed the Rubicon!"
Blessings on thee, Sir Thomas Lawrence, carrying out Emerson's divine
motto, "Help somebody!"
But Audubon did something more than try to obtain subscribers for his
book. He says: "At that time I painted all day, and sold my work during
the dusky hours of evening, as I walked through the Strand and other
streets where the Jews reigned; popping in and out of Jew shops or any
others, and never refusing the offers made me for the pictures I carried
fresh from the easel. Startling and surprising as this may seem, it is
nevertheless true, and one of the curious events of my most
extraordinary life. Let me add here, that I sold seven copies of the
'Entrapped Otter,' in London, Manchester, and Liverpool, besides one
copy presented to my friend Mr. Richard Rathbone. In other pictures,
also, I have sold from seven to ten copies, merely by changing the
course of my rambles; and strange to say, that when, in after years and
better times, I called on the different owners to whom I had sold the
copies, I never found a single one in their hands."
Painting all day, and selling his pictures at night along the streets of
London, all to bring out the "Birds of America!" What a life history is
between the leaves of that great work!
Sometimes, in his wanderings, he met poverty that made him "sick of
London;" an artist making caricatures, while his wife and six little
children begged; but he always gave part of what he had, and went back
to his work, more than ever determined to win.
September 1, 1828, Audubon went to Paris, going first to Baron Cuvier.
He was busy--who is not that accomplishes anything?--and, while he
cordially invited Audubon to dine, went on studying a small lizard.
"Great men show politeness in a particular way," says Audubon; "they
receive you without much demonstration; a smile suffices to assure you
that you are welcome, and keep about their avocations as if you were a
member of the family."
Cuvier made a report of Audubon's work to the Academy of Sciences. He
said, "It may be described in a few words as the most magnificent
monument which has yet been erected to ornithology.... Formerly the
European naturalists were obliged to make known to America the riches
she possessed.... If that of Mr. Audubon should be completed, we shall
be obliged to acknowledge that America, in magnificence of execution,
has surpassed the world."
Audubon also made the acquaintance of Baron Humboldt, Geoffrey
Saint-Hilaire, and of Gerard, the painter, who said, "You are the king
of ornithological painters. We are all children in France or Europe. Who
would have expected such things from the woods of America!"
After two months in Paris, he returned to London, and soon sailed for
America. Once on his native soil, he says, "My heart swelled with joy,
and all seemed like a pleasant dream at first; but as soon as the
reality was fairly impressed on my mind, tears of joy rolled down my
cheeks. I clasped my hands, and fell on my knees, and, raising my eyes
to heaven, I offered my thanks to our God, that he had preserved and
prospered me in my long absence, and once more permitted me to approach
these shores so dear to me, and which hold my heart's best earthly
He soon reached the Bayou Sara, and "came suddenly on my dear wife: we
were both overcome with emotion, which found relief in tears."
He remained with his wife three months, collecting birds and making
drawings, and then both sailed together for England.
During his absence he had been made a fellow of the Royal Society of
London, much to his delight. Now that his "Birds of America" was coming
out, he began earnestly upon a new work, "Ornithological Biography of
the Birds of America," containing nearly three thousand pages, and
published for him by Mr. Black of Edinburgh. Two publishers refused this
famous work, and Audubon published at his own expense. The first volume
was finished in three months, and Mrs. Audubon copied it entire to send
to America to secure copyright.
Audubon worked untiringly. He wrote all day long, and "so full was my
mind of birds and their habits, that in my sleep I continually dreamed
The "Birds of America" received good reviews in "Blackwood's Magazine,"
and elsewhere. Audubon said, "I have balanced my accounts with the
'Birds of America,' and the whole business is really wonderful; forty
thousand dollars have passed through my hands for the completion of the
first volume. Who would believe that a lonely individual, who landed in
England without a friend in the whole country, and with only sufficient
pecuniary means to travel through it as a visitor, could have
accomplished such a task as this publication! Who would believe that
once, in London, Audubon had only one sovereign left in his pocket, and
did not know of a single individual to whom he could apply to borrow
another, when he was on the verge of failure in the very beginning of
his undertaking! And, above all, who would believe that he extricated
himself from all his difficulties, not by borrowing money, but by rising
at four o'clock in the morning, working hard all day, and disposing of
his works at a price which a common laborer would have thought little
more than sufficient remuneration for his work!"
In the four years required to bring out the work, fifty-six of his
subscribers, representing the sum of fifty-six thousand dollars,
abandoned him, and he was obliged to leave London, and go into the
provinces to supply their places.
September 3, 1831, Audubon returned to America, spent the winter in
Eastern Florida, searching for birds and animals, and then some months
in Labrador, having sent Victor to England to superintend the engraving
of the drawings. In Labrador he collected one hundred and seventy-three
skins of birds, and studied carefully the habits of the eider-duck,
loons, wild geese, and other birds. Sometimes he was so weary from
drawing that "my neck and shoulders, and most of all my fingers, have
ached from the fatigue. The fact is, I am growing old too fast, alas! I
feel it, and yet work I will, and may God grant me life to see the last
plate of my mammoth work finished.
"Labrador is so grandly wild and desolate," he said, "that I am charmed
by its wonderful dreariness.... And yet how beautiful it is now, when
your eye sees the wild bee, moving from one flower to another in search
of food, which doubtless is as sweet to her as the essence of the orange
and magnolia is to her more favored sister in Louisiana. The little
ring-plover rearing its delicate and tender young; the eider-duck
swimming man-of-war-like amid her floating brood, like the guardship of
a most valuable convoy; the white-crowned bunting's sonorous note
reaching your ears ever and anon; the crowds of sea-birds in search of
places wherein to repose or to feed."
On his return from Labrador, he went to Philadelphia, where he was
arrested for one of his old partnership debts, and would have been taken
to prison except for a friend who kindly offered bail. From here he went
to the house of an old friend, Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, S. C.,
whose two daughters subsequently married the two sons of Audubon, Victor
and John. He returned to London, and in 1834 and 1835 published the
second and third volumes of the "Ornithological Biography."
In 1836 he came back to America for further research, and received a
warm welcome from distinguished men. Daniel Webster and Washington
Irving became his earnest friends. The latter said that his work "was
highly creditable to the nation," and deserved "national patronage." He
dined with Andrew Jackson at the White House. On his return to England
he wrote the fourth volume of the "Ornithological Biography," and the
fifth the following year.
This year, 1839, he returned to America to spend the rest of his life,
purchased a home on the banks of the Hudson in upper New York, which he
called "Minnie's Land," the Scotch word for mother, this being the name
by which he generally addressed his wife, to whom he left the whole of
it at his death.
He was now sixty, but his work was not done. He immediately began to
bring out his "Birds of America" in seven octavo volumes, with the
figures reduced and lithographed. He exhibited in New York his wonderful
collection of drawings, several thousands of birds and animals, all the
size of life, by his own hands.
In 1843, taking his son Victor, he started on an expedition to the
Yellowstone River, to collect animals and drawings for another great
work, the "Quadrupeds of North America." After nearly a year he
returned, and began his book. In two years the first volume was ready;
but after this he could do no more. The rest of the great work was
finished by his sons after his death.
In 1848 the quick, active mind failed. His wife read to him, led him
like a child, and at the last fed him. One, at least, had never failed
him, since the day when she gave the money she earned to send him to
Europe to win renown.
On Thursday morning, January 27, 1851, the eyes dulled for so long once
more showed their former lustre and beauty. Audubon did not speak, but
he seemed to know that the time had come for the last journey. He
reached out his arms, clasped the hands of his wife and children, and
Four days later, surrounded by distinguished friends, he was buried in
Trinity Church cemetery, where his sons now rest beside him. A
singularly guileless, sweet-natured man, who willed to do all this great
work when a boy, and achieved it when a man, because he had willed it.
Well says General James Grant Wilson, in the life of Audubon so
admirably prepared by his wife, "Long after the bronze statue of the
naturalist, that we hope soon to see erected in the Central Park, shall
have been wasted and worn beyond recognition by the winds and rains of
Heaven, while the towering and snow-covered peak of the Rocky Mountains
known as Mount Audubon shall rear its lofty head among the clouds, while
the little wren chirps about our homes and the robin and reed-bird sing
in the green meadows, while the melody of the mocking-bird is heard in
the cypress swamps of Louisiana, or the shrill scream of the eagle on
the frozen shores of the Northern seas, the name of John James Audubon,
the gifted artist, the ardent lover of nature, and the admirable writer,
will live in the hearts of his grateful countrymen."