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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 466

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This is the grave of John James Audubon.

Born Jean Rabin in modern Haiti in 1785, his father was a sugar planter and slaver and his mother was his mistress, a white chambermaid originally from France. His father, like many slaveowners, had lots of children with lots of women, including his own slaves. His mother died when he was a child and after that his father’s new leading mistress, a mixed-race housekeeper, served as his mother. His father was supportive of the American Revolution and a ship captain as well as a planter, was eventually imprisoned by the British for awhile. In 1789, reading the writing on the wall about the future of Haiti, his father began diversifying his assets by buying land in the United States. When the Haitian Revolution broke out, he moved to France and became part of the Republican Guard for that revolutionary government. Worried about the fate of his majority white children, he eventually sent for them and they ended up in France.

His father, named Audubon, had given young Jean his last name by this time (Rabin was his mother’s name). Jean and his other siblings were then raised by Audubon’s actual wife, who had remained in France all this time. I struggle to imagine the complexities and tensions of all this. His parents now changed his name to Jean-Jacques. And when the young man decided to go to the United States in 1803, he then anglicized it to John James. Audubon’s father wanted his son to be a naval officer. Big problem: he suffered from horrible seasickness and hated math and navigation. Instead, he liked birds. This was not really something his father was prepared to deal with. But he really wanted his dreamer of a young son to avoid being drafted in Napoleon’s army. So he obtained a false passport and off to the U.S. the young man went.

Audubon had advantages, primarily his father’s wealth. On the other hand, he walked off the boat and contracted yellow fever. Nearly dying, he was nursed to health by Quakers, who also taught him English. He went to his father’s plantation and loved it, especially the many birds and semi-wild country that still existed outside of Philadelphia. The land had commercially viable lead deposits that Audubon’s father wanted developed. The son was OK with that but was far more interested in tramping around the frontier. He met a young woman named Lucy Bakewell, whose father owned another large estate nearby, and since they shared similar interests, they married.

Being interested in birds in these years meant killing lots of them. Theoretically this was scientific, but it also reflected a great desire by men to kill things. That would be the core of wildlife study for the next century. Audubon became an expert in taxidermy and began his own wildlife museum, allowing him to study the specimens and create his famous drawings. Not believing the lead mines, he convinced his father to sell the land, but his father-in-law was pretty nervous about this dreamer man marrying his daughter and taking her to the frontier. However, Audubon became a merchant, first in Kentucky and then Missouri. He tramped around during slow periods in his business, which were real enough. Not only was being a merchant a dicey business on the frontier but Jefferson’s idiotic embargo basically killed Audubon’s business. This family of two wealthy kids came to rely on Audubon’s hunting for food, at least for awhile. But Audubon also loved this, dressing in frontier clothing and even joining the Osage and Pawnee peoples for hunting parties at times.

In 1811, Audubon decided to be done with business forever and to make his money on his bird art. He sold his stake in his merchant business, sent his family back to Kentucky, and traveled around, experiencing the New Madrid earthquake, among other things. He became an American citizen on a trip to Philadelphia in 1812. But when he traveled back home, he was chagrined to discover that rats had eaten his entire collection of bird drawings. But he just started over, after a few weeks of depression. Needing a way to feed his family, he started a new business and even bought slaves. But he lost everything in the Panic of 1819 and went to debtor’s prison for a short time.

There was nothing successful about Audubon’s life to this point. He should have been completely forgotten, a typical story of a rich dreamer who loses everything because he can’t keep a steady job. In fact, Lucy’s work as a teacher is what kept the family stable, as Audubon worked through the 1820s to build up his ornithological drawings and start selling some of them. By 1824, he felt ready to publish his work. But he was rebuffed in Philadelphia, having a lot of enemies in the scientific community there. So he and his wife saved money and in 1826, he went to London. He became an instant celebrity there. Europeans were fascinated with the American frontier and Audubon’s very good paintings were a window into that wild world. He was portrayed an authentic American frontiersman in the media. I have no idea how that was squared with his French accent in an era where there were still a lot of tensions between the French and British. Anyway, he was able to raise the money there to publish his legendary The Birds of America. This really was a huge undertaking, requiring over $2 million in modern dollars to get it published with nearly 500 color plates. But he made money off it, in part because he became a famous lecturer, even teaching Charles Darwin how to suspend bird specimens on wire.

The finances behind these gigantic publications remained questionable and dicey. Audubon returned to the U.S. in 1829, now a star, but also dealing with subscribers not paying their dues and low quality plates from some of the people drawing them. But now he could write his own ticket. He became a member of the Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1830 and, now accompanied by Lucy, traveled back and forth between England and the U.S. When in his adopted nation, he continued traveling for birds, including to Key West and Maine. He returned to the U.S. for good in 1841 and bought a big estate on the Hudson River north of Manhattan. He worked to set his family up financially and continued collecting birds, but he began to develop signs of what today we would call Alzheimer’s Disease in 1848 and died in 1851 at the age of 65. Before he died though, he co-wrote a new book on American mammals and had trained his son to follow him in drawing and he did most of the work for that book.

Let’s take a look at some of Audubon’s bird drawings:

Plate 76 of The Birds of America by Audubon showing a northern bobwhite under attack by a young red-shouldered hawk, painted 1825
Green heron

American flamingo
Ivory-billed woodpecker

John James Audubon is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan, New York. This is the church in upper Manhattan, not in downtown where Hamilton is buried.

If you would like this series to profile other American conservationists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Madison Grant, better known for his white supremacy but also a major conservationist, is in Sleepy Hollow, New York and Ernest Oberholtzer is in Davenport, Iowa. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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