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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 138


This is the grave of Alexander Wilson.

The Father of American Ornithology, Wilson was born in 1766 in Scotland. He was not wealthy and was apprenticed as a weaver at the age of 7. But inspired by the poetry of Robert Burns, Wilson began writing poetry of his own, some of it very political and attacking the working conditions in the mills. When his boss found out, he had him arrested, the poems burned, and Wilson sent to prison. Upon his release, Wilson emigrated to the United States in 1794. He started teaching in Milestown, Pennsylvania, holidng a job there between 1795 and 1801, before an affair with a woman forced him to leave. He received a job teaching in Gray’s Ferry, Pennsylvania. Down the street leaved the early American naturalist William Bartram, who strongly encouraged Wilson to pursue his interest in the natural world. Wilson dedicated the rest of his life to researching and painting the birds of the United States. Between 1808 and 1814, he published the nine volume American Ornithology, describing 268 birds, 26 of which had never been classified. Through this process, Wilson had to struggle to find subscribers to his work and travel the nation, both studying birds and raising money. It was hard. In Louisville, where he failed to attract his interest, he said, “Science or literature has not one friend in this place.” I doubt Kentucky has been described better since. He expanded upon this:

“Where ever you go you hear people talking of buying and selling land; no readers, all traders. The Yankees, where ever you find them, are all traders…Restless, speculating set of mortals here, full of lawsuits, no great readers, even of politics or newspapers. The sweet courtesies of life, the innumerable civilities in deeds and conversation, which cost one so little, are seldom found here. Every man you meet with has either some land to buy or sell, some law suit, some coarse hemp or corn to dispose of; and if the conversation do not lead to any of these he will force it….No one listens to the adventures of another, without interrupting the narrative with his own; so that, instead of an auditor, he becomes a competitor in adventure telling.”

He got to know slavery during his travels to the South, and he hated it, but like many white Americans, that was based on what he thought it did to white men, while holding African-Americans in contempt for their own position. Wilson’s later books focused more on the waterbirds of New England. He didn’t really like New England any better than he did Louisville or the South, writing in 1812:

“In New England the rage of war, the virulence of politics, and the pursuit of commercial speculations, engross every faculty. The voice of science, and the charms of Nature, unless these last present themselves in the form of prize sugars, coffee, or rum are treated with contempt.”

And he didn’t even have to deal with Patriots fans.

Wilson died in 1813, a year before the last volume was published, only 47 years old. Traveling was very hard in the early nineteenth century. He had bouts of dysentery through the years and yet another bout is what killed him.

Wilson’s work heavily influenced the more famous John James Audubon, who he met on his fateful trip to Louisville described earlier, and many other early naturalists.

Alexander Wilson is buried at the Gloria Dei Church cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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