Excerpts From The Story of Audubon The Naturalist

This small book (approximately 5 x 7 inches) of 120 pages was published in 1895 by the London firm of T. Nelson and Sons, Paternoster Row, and also lists offices in Edinburgh and New York. What it amazingly does not list, however, is the name of its author. The title page has a quote from Wordsworth, “And surely never did there live on earth A man of kindlier nature.”

The Story of Audubon The Naturalist
Frontispiece from “The Story of Audubon The Naturalist”


The book presents a very romanticized, and often historically inaccurate, story of Audubon, in the moralistic tone of 1895.

Here are some excerpts for your enjoyment.

Book Second, Audubon’s Life.

Chapter I. Early Years, Marriage, and Commercial Speculations.

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON was born in Louisiana. While yet a child he removed with his parents to San Domingo, where he resided for a brief period, previous to his departure for France.

His home in France was fixed at Nantes. Here he spent a very happy childhood, under the fostering care of a step-mother, who was all that step-mothers are popularly supposed not to be. Then came a time, however, when it was necessary that his education should begin. For music-master he had a skillful professional, who taught him to play with taste and effect on the violin, flute, flageolet, and guitar. His drawing-master was David, a wild, revolutionary artist, whose genius has triumphed over his signal defects of style. He also made good progress in graver studies – mathematics, geography, history.

At an early age his love of Nature manifested itself. Equipped with a haversack of provisions, he would make frequent excursions into the country, returning loaded with natural curiosities – birds’ nests, birds’ eggs, wild flowers, rare mosses, and the like. He also began to draw sketches of the birds of France – a task which he carried on with so much enthusiasm that he completed no fewer than two hundred specimens.

Having attained to manhood, his father sent him to America to take the management of some properties he possessed there. He took up his residence at Mill Grove, on the Perkiominy Creek, where he found a close acquaintance with an English family of the name of Bakewell. During the following winter the friendship deepened. Mr. Bakewell had a pretty daughter, named Lucy, to whom the young naturalist taught drawing, receiving lessons in English in return. The consequences may be imagined. Audubon fell in love with Lucy, and Lucy with Audubon; and on the 8th of April 1808, the well-matched pair were married.

The young couple removed to Louisville, where Audubon commenced trade under favourable auspices; but continued to devote every leisure hour, and many hours that were not leisure, to the study of natural history, and more particularly the pursuit of birds. He entered into partnership with a friend named Rosser, and for awhile the firm prospered, the business being left to the management of Rosser, who was energetic and industrious, and Audubon abandoning himself more and more to an errant and unsettled life. The war with Great Britain in 1812 brought ruin to many American houses, and gave such a shock to the stability of our young firm that they were forced to leave Louisville, and make a fresh start at Hendersonville. Before his departure, however, Audubon made the acquaintance of Wilson, the American ornithologist; an acquaintance which produced no pleasant fruit, but served to stimulate Audubon’s zoological enthusiasm.

From Hendersonville, before long a migration was accomplished to St. Geneviève…

Audubon, however, was not long in discovering that it was not an agreeable residence for the son of a French gentleman. Its population were mostly low-bred French Canadians, in whose company he took no pleasure. He wearied to be back at Hendersonville beside his young wife. Rosser, his partner, found a wife at Geneviève, and to him Audubon sold his share of the business. Then he purchased a horse, bade adieu to his friend, and started homeward across the prairies….

At Hendersonville he once more started in business, this time with his brother-in-law for partner; he embarked all the remainder of his fortune in speculation. But, with characteristic restlessness, he went hunting in Kentucky, instead of attending to his interests, and he soon learned that all his money had been swallowed up in profitless undertakings.

At this juncture his father died, leaving him an estate in France – of which, however, he took no steps to obtain possession; and seventeen thousand dollars in the hands of a merchant in Richmond, Virginia, for which he did not apply until the merchant died insolvent! Audubon, not the less, preserved his usual equanimity. Gathering together a few hundred dollars, he purchased some goods in Louisville, and returned to business in Hendersonville. At first he prospered. He purchased land, and a log-cabin, and seemed on the high road to fortune, when he was tempted to erect a steam-mill, which in no long time led to the ruin of all concerned; and once more the naturalist was adrift on the stream of life. No mishaps could quench the man’s wonderful bouyancy of spirit; and taking with him his wife and children, his gun, his dog, and his drawings, he returned to Louisville, where he conceived the idea of starting as a portrait draughtsman. For this occupation, he was well fitted by his natural tastes and acquired skill. His reputation spread over all Kentucky. He was invited to Cincinatti, where he opened a drawing-school, and received the appointment of Curator of the Museum. Once more he began to thrive; and as he had leisure for the prosecution of his favourite studies, there can be no doubt that this period of his life was really happy.

During his rambles in Kentucky he made the acquaintance of the famous backwoodsman Daniel Boon, of whose wonderful skill as a marksman he relates some interesting proofs.

How shall we follow Audubon through all the wanderings of the next few years? In 1820, he left Cincinnati in search of fresh fields for his enterprise, and, having accomplished a scientific expedition down the Mississippi, he reached New Orleans. Here he heard of a projected expedition to Mexico, and made the most vigorous but unsuccessful efforts to join it. Meantime, he experienced almost every phase of fortune; but into whatever depths of penury he sank, his happy spirit and bouyant energy never failed to raise him out of them. If one day he was searching for a patron, by taking whose portrait he might gain a few dollars; the next day he was dining with high dignitaries, and obtaining the most flattering letters of recommendation. Fortune’s wheel might turn and turn; clouds might darken, or sunshine break through a tiny rift; but this extraordinary man was always the same – full of confidence in himself, eager, restless, enthusiastic, genial, and never bating one jot of heart or hope, however stern a face the world might show him!

Chapter II. Wanderings.

We next find Audubon bound on a journey to Shipping Port, Kentucky. In the course of it he met with many adventures, and, it is unnecessary to say, added largely to his stores of ornithological knowledge. Returning to New Orleans, he was joined by his wife and sons (1822), where the difficulties of their position increased to such an extent that Mrs. Audubon was obliged to accept a situation. He then betook himself, in search of employment, to Natchez, where he obtained some engagements as a drawing-master. As soon as he found himself doing somewhat better, he sent for his wife, and the family were again reunited – though only for a brief interval. In 1824 we find our erratic genius at Philadelphia, where he made the acquaintance of Prince Canino, son of Lucien Bonaparte, and an excellent ornithologist. He also obtained introductions to Sully the painter, Le Sellur, and other influential persons, who were struck with admiration by the beauty of Audubon’s drawings, and strongly advised him to take them to England, where they would not fail to procure for the author a wide and liberal patronage. He now contemplated the production of a great work on American ornithology, and with this object in view hastened to New York – whose publishers, however, gave him but scant encouragement. He was somewhat cheered in these unfortunate circumstances by the good news he received from his wife. By the exercise of her talents she was earning an annual income of three thousand dollars, and with noble affection she placed it at her husband’s disposal, that he might complete the magnum opus destined to immortalize his name. He was able, therefore, to resolve on the long-meditated voyage to Great Britain, where alone he could hope to obtain the means of publishing on a suitable scale the colossal result of years of labour. He returned accordingly to Bayou Sara, where he took leave of his wife and children, and then journeyed to New Orleans. Here he engaged a passage to Liverpool on board the ship Delos; and on the 19th of May 1826, the undaunted wanderer bade a temporary farewell to the shores of America.

Audubon arrived at Liverpool on the 20th of July 1826. He received a cordial welcome from Roscoe, the historian, and Lord Stanley, and made £100 by the exhibition of his pictures at the Royal Institution. Thence he removed to Manchester, and from Manchester to Edinburgh, where his romantic appearance and undoubted genius made him one of the most attractive ‘lions’ of the Scottish capital. He was fêted and favoured by peers and baronets, civic dignitaries and men of letters: by the Earl of Elgin and Sir Walter Scott; by Sir William Jardine and Professors Jameson and Lizars, a trio of illustrious naturalists; by Professor Wilson (‘Christopher North’), then in the flush of his fame; by Basil Hall, Selby, Dr. Knox, George Combe, and the Earl of Morton. He obtained numerous subscribers to his great work, which he had the satisfaction of seeing put in hand for publication. At conversaziones and dinners, and public and private assemblies, he was overwhelmed with courteous attentions, which his natural vanity – his one foible – made him receive as only a fitting acknowledgement of his superior merit. His admirable qualities of mind and heart, however, were recognized by his Scottish friends, on whom he produced a very favourable impression.

From Edinburgh, Audubon visited Newcastle, Leeds, York, Shrewsbury, and Manchester, securing a few subscribers of two hundred pounds. Then he went to London, where he secured the powerful patronage of Sir Thomas Lawrence. George IV. honored him with permission to publish his work under ‘his particular patronage, approbation, and protection;’ and the magnum opus itself finally saw the light, receiving, as it deserved to receive, the enthusiastic commendation of every man of taste and lover of natural history. After a short trip to Paris, where he made the acquaintance of Cuvier, he returned to London, enjoying to the uttermost the sunshine of fame and prosperity which had burst upon him, and reaping the reward of his perseverance, energy, and self-devotion.

In May 1829 he returned to the United States, delighted to share his good fortune with his wife and family. He remained at Bayou Sara three months, actively employed in hunting the woods for birds and animals, of which he made drawings for his work, which was still appearing in parts of London. Having made some important additions to his collection, he once more sailed for England, accompanied, this time, by Mrs. Audubon; and together they visited London, Manchester, Leeds, York, Hull, Scarborough, Whitby, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. At the last-named place, he writes in his journal under the date of April 15: – ‘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 pictures at a price which a common labourer would have thought little more than sufficient remuneration for his work? To give you an idea of my actual difficulties during the publication of the first volume, it will be sufficient to say, that in the four years required to bring that volume before the world, no less than fifty of my subscribers, representing the sum of fifty-six thousand dollars, abandoned me! And whenever a few withdrew, I was forced to leave London and go to the provinces to obtain others to supply their places, in order to enable me to raise the money to meet the expenses of engraving, colouring, paper, and printing; and that with all my constant exertions, fatigues, and vexations, I find myself now having but one hundred and thirty standing names on my list.’ These, however, represented a sum of £2600

We have given this extract for the sake of the lesson it conveys. Our young readers may rest assured that, with an energy and a courage and a resolution equal to Audubon’s, they will not be less successful than he was in grappling with Fortune, and conquering it. And it is to be observed that Audubon was free from all sordid motives; he was animated by a genuine love of knowledge; his devotion to science was sincere. He studied Nature from a desire to learn her secrets and comprehend her beauties, and not because the study might become a means of gaining fame or wealth. It is in this spirit only that we should strive after knowledge; and she will not be gracious to her worshippers if in any other spirit we approach her shrine.

‘To some she is the goddess great:
To some the milch-cow of the field;
Their wisdom is to calculate
What butter she will yield!’

Ah, reader, if you are dazzled by the delusive hope of renown or mere worldly prosperity, you will never be a true student, and the golden fruit you so eagerly grasp will turn to ashes on your lips! There is no merit in self-help, no virtue in resolute industry, unless its inspiration be pure and lofty; unless we look beyond this toiling, sinful life to the life hereafter, which shall be crowned with the fulness of eternal glory! Then, indeed, we shall not quail if dangers threaten, or turn faint at heart if obstacles present themselves; for looking beyond the transitory present and its trials, we shall confidently expect our reward in the unchanging future.

In 1831 Audubon returned to New York, and shortly afterwards started on an expedition to East Florida, with the view of increasing his ornithological collections, and rendering more complete his work on the ‘Birds of America.

Chapter III. Last Years

We have no space to dwell upon Audubon’s visits to New Brunswick, the Bay of Fundy, and Labrador. Though advanced in years, he retained all the fire and energy of early manhood, and his love of Nature had undergone no abatement. In April 1834, with his wife and his son John, he embarked for England; and, nineteen days later, landed at Liverpool. Thence, by way of Birmingham, he repaired to London. Here he resided until the autumn, busily engaged on a new book, and arranging for its publication. Afterwards they removed to Edinburgh, where he hired a house, and spent upwards of eighteen months. Some idea of his amazing industry at this period may be gained from the fact that the introduction to the second volume of his ‘American Ornithological Biography,’ – a volume containing five hundred and eighty pages of closely printed material – is dated December 1st, 1834; and that in just one twelvemonth from that date, the third volume, of six hundred and thirty-eight pages, was published.

In the summer of 1836 we find Audubon again in London. He settled his family in Wimpole Street, Cavendish Square, while he made his preparations to return to America, and undertake an excursion into some of the Southern States, for the purpose of increasing the new varieties of birds for his immortal work.

With his son John he sailed from Portsmouth on the 2nd of August, and five weeks after leaving England came in sight of the well-known green hills of Staten Island. After a short stay in New York, he visited Philadelphia, Boston, and Salem. In November he betook himself to Washington, and was very warmly received by the President, General Jackson. Thence he began his contemplated excursion southward. He spent the winter of 1836-37 in Charleston, occasionally diverging into the interior, or making short trips to the neighbouring sea-islands, and visiting also Savannah and Florida. At the same time he began the researches, the results of which he gave to the world in his interesting work on the ‘Quadrupeds of North America.

Early in the spring of 1837 he was occupied in a series of interesting explorations in the Gulf of Mexico. He inspected the coast of America from the mouth of the Mississippi to Galveston Bay, in Texas; examining the habits of the birds of that region, and searching for new species, to furnish materials for the completion of the fourth volume of the ‘Birds of America.’ Then he returned to New York, and in the latter part of the summer the indefatigable man sailed for Liverpool. Arriving safely in Edinburgh, he devoted himself with characteristic energy to prepare for the press the last volume but one of his ‘Ornithological Biography.’ This occupied him until the autumn of 1838; it was published in the November of that year. The winter was spent in finishing the drawings for the ‘Birds of America,’ and in completing the last volume of his ‘Ornithological Biography,’ which appeared in May 1838.

In the fall of 1839 he returned to America with his family, and settled at New York, to spend the remainder of his days. In 1843 he made his final excursion, travelling across the great Western Prairies, and voyaging up the Missouri and Big Sioux River. He had now reached nearly his seventieth year, but he continued to labour with all the fire and diligence of his youth. About 1845, however, his strength began to fail him. The physical and mental energies which had induced so protracted a strain showed symptoms of rapid declension. The ardour which had glowed so steadfastly in the naturalist’s heart was going out gradually. Yet, as Mr. Buchanan remarks, there are but few things in his life more interesting and beautiful than the tranquil happiness he enjoyed in the bosom of his family – with his two sons and their children under the same roof – in the short interval between the return from his last earthly expedition and the time when his sight and mind began to grow dim, until mental twilight closed in upon him, before the darkness of death ended all.

After 1846 his intellect entirely failed him; and for the last few years of his life his eye had lost all its brightness, and he had to be led to his daily walks by the hand of a servant. This continued until the Monday before his death. On the morning of that ‘last day’ he declined to take any breakfast, and was unable to enjoy his usual morning walk. His devoted and affectionate wife, who had been the faithful partner of all his joys and sorrows, and to whom he was indebted for much valuable assistance in his scientific labours, caused him to be put to bed. He lay without any signs of suffering, but refusing to receive any nourishment, until five o’clock on Thursday morning, January 27th, 1851, when his wife observed a deep pallor overspreading his countenance. She immediately summoned the other members of the family. Then, though unable to speak, his eyes, which had so long been nearly quenched, rekindled into their former expressive lustre, as if his soul were conscious that it neared the shore of the Eternal Land. One of the sons remarked, ‘Minnie, father’s eyes have now their natural expression;’ and the dying Audubon stretched out his arms, pressed his wife and children’s hands within his own, and passed into his rest.

He had led a guileless life, marked by energy, industry, and an intense love of the pure and beautiful; brightened by many virtues, stained by no vices, though somewhat dimmed, it may be, by a few foibles; a life of honest labour and generous aspiration; and God, in His mercy, crowned it with a happy death.

Reader, so live that, when the last hour cometh, you may rest in the knowledge of a life not idly spent, and commend yourself, tremblingly yet trustingly, to the loving compassion of a God of infinite love.

As you sow, so shall you reap: the spring is heavy with the good or evil promise of the autumn: if you sow tares, do you expect to gather in a harvest of fine wheat?