Alexander Wilson

"I dare say you will smile at my presumption when I tell you that I have seriously begun to make a collection of drawings of the birds to be found in Pennsylvania, or that occasionally pass through it: twenty-eight, as a beginning, I send for your opinion."
--Alexander Wilson, in a letter to William Bartram, naturalist, July, 1805

"Enlightened men living in a democracy readily discover that nothing can confine them, hold them, or force them to be content with their present lot."
--Alexis de Toqueville, _Democracy in America_, 1831

"As soon as the crowd begins to take an interest in the labors of the mind it finds out that to excel in some of them is a powerful aid to the acquisition of fame, power or wealth. Restless ambition born of equality turn to this as to all other directions. The number of those studying science, literature, and the arts becomes immense. There is vast activity in the realms of the mind; every one tries to blaze a trail for himself and attract public attention."
--_Democracy in America_

The story of Alexander Wilson's spasmodic rise from Scottish peddler and failed poet to the father of American ornithology is a cloyingly American story. Numerous "types", those we recognize from the writings of Benjamin Franklin through the literature of James Fenimore Cooper to the Jacksonian businessman emerge in his journey. It is a journey that takes him from the small town of Paisley in West Scotland to the shores of Delaware where he lands, a penniless immigrant, over vast tracks of the eastern United States, and finally to Philadelphia; here, like Franklin, he finds renowned associates from Charles Wilson Peale to Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine and the international recognition that he had craved since his first poetic jottings as a youth in Scotland. The tragic irony of this American story is its truncation; indeed, it is Alexander Wilson's exhaustingly extreme dedication to his ornithological studies, and the illnesses contracted during his Leatherstocking-esque roamings through the forests that kill him at the age of forty-seven, just as he attains the station in life he so desires. An immigrant who embraced so fully the "American Dream" of constant industry leading to financial and personal reward, Wilson achieved his dream, but scarcely lived to enjoy it. Perhaps though, Wilson did achieve what he truly desired; in 1805, frustrated by attempts to gain help in publishing his ornithology, he swore to continue on his own, even if it killed him: "I shall at least leave a small beacon to point out where I perished." (Ord, p. 61). This declaration transcends Americanness; Wilson seemed to fear that in the vast cauldron of humanity, he would be subsumed. His _Ornithology_, then, which has earned him title of the father of American ornithology, seems the work of a talented and driven man whose desires in life were met too well by the American attitudes and mores of the early nineteenth century.

Alexander Wilson, born July 6, 1766, grew up the son of an illiterate Scots distiller in the town of Paisley. His mother died when "Sandy" was about ten years old; the father quickly remarried. Wilson attended the country school, but left at twelve or thirteen when he was apprenticed to his brother-in-law to learn the trade of weaving. After an apprenticeship of five years, Wilson left and immediately began to peddle around the countryside. During this period, Wilson was highly influenced by the Scottish poets writing in dialect, notably Robert Burns, a favorite at the time. Opinions are divided as to the quality of Wilson's poetry; his first biographer, George Ord, a near contemporary of Wilson's, cautions the reader that "The author, in his riper years, lamented his rashness in giving them to the world; and it is hoped that no one will be so officious as to draw them from that obscurity to which he himself sincerely rejoined to see them condemned." (Ord, p. 14) Similarly, almost one hundred years later, James Southall Wilson wrote of the poetry in his otherwise laudatory biography of Wilson:

"It was a misfortune that he wrote so much verse, for the greater part of it is drearily prosaic and the few pieces that are really good are like modest little poppies that have caught the bright colors of the sunlight and the freshness of the dewdrop, but are overlooked in the great field of dry stubble." (J.S. Wilson, p. 130)

However, Alexander Wilson's most recent biographer, Gordon Wilson, asserts that the poetry's value lies in its documentation of "low" Scottish life--struggles within the family or between capital and labor. The peddling poems, written as he traveled around, are considered a "graphic contribution to an unwritten chapter of [Scottish] national history." (G. Wilson, p. 122) All agree that "Watty and Meg," written in 1791, is his best work; Gordon Wilson in particular notes that "its truth to life and its illustration of Wilson's whole approach to nature and life make it valuable to students of realism and its effect on literature."(p. 127) Thomas Crichton, a Scottish critic, decided that "Watty and Meg" was "in the style of the Flemish painters, a picture taken from nature and low life." (P. 16) Overall, the consensus comes to an admiration of Wilson's powers of observation--the same which served him well in his cataloguing of the birds of North America for his _Ornithology_ a decade and a half decade later.

Wilson's life in Scotland seems almost that of a different person when compared to his later industry in America. The twenty-eight years spent in his native land were those of a wanderer; he worked when he had to in order to survive, and traveled as a peddler when finances allowed, or simply when the sedentary life of a weaver began to wear on him. He attempted to publish his poems several times, and succeeded in 1790 with _Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious_ which he attempted to peddle. The failure of this enterprise, Ord speculates, drove him from his hometown of Paisley to a smaller, nearby town, Lochwinnoch (p. 14). However embarrassed he may have been over his literary flop, he still continued to contribute to the Edinburgh _Bee_ and made several journeys to the city to deliver poetical addresses to literary societies at the Pantheon. (Ord, p. 14)

By 1793, forces were moving Wilson towards leaving Scotland. Ord cites the continued literary embarrassment as well as political trouble over satirical poems written at the expense of local manufacturers--at this point, Wilson was, like many of his compatriots, heavily influenced by the tenets of the American and French Revolutions, and allegedly used his poetics to incite discontent among the local weavers. For his part in this, he was forced to burn the satire at the crossroads of Paisley, as well as spend a short time in the local jail. (Ord, p. 16) Further, it seems that Wilson was smarting from a failed love affair with a local girl named Matilda, about whom he wrote one of his better known poems. (J.S. Wilson, p. 51)

Wilson left from Belfast in the company of his young cousin, William Duncan, aboard the American vessel _Swift_; they lacked the funds to buy anything but deck space on the ship, but still arrived safely in Delaware on July 14th, 1794. The first years in America were a struggle for the new immigrants; where Wilson worked as a laborer, copper plate printer, and then weaver in and around Philadelphia (Ord, p. 19), Duncan made his way to upstate New York to begin farming a plot of land with the intention of bringing the rest of the family over from Scotland at some point in the future. (J.S. Wilson, p. 56) Soon, however, Wilson found settled work as a schoolteacher in Milestown, Pennsylvania; here he remained from 1795 to 1801. This position ended abruptly, apparently over another failed love affair, this time with a local and unfortunately married woman. J. S. Wilson assures us, however, that "Wilson appears to have left the place with honor and discretion..." but that he continued for some time to write "really pathetic letters referring to this second woman, whose image he declared no time or distance can ever banish'." (p. 57-58)

Having left Milestown, he passed through another teaching assignment in New Jersey, and finally received an appointment to a relatively prosperous school in Gray's Ferry, Pennsylvania. Wilson seemed to rediscover his muse and his youthful desire for public recognition; again, he fell to writing poetry. Although the American verses are considered an improvement over the Scottish ones of the decade before, they are still not of a quality that would have assured Wilson the Byronic immortality he seemed to crave. Fortune stepped in at this point for Alexander Wilson. At Gray's Ferry, Wilson lived down the street from the famous naturalist William Bartram, who operated the Bartram Botanical Gardens. Bartram became some thing of a mentor for Wilson, directing him to ornithology and opening his libraries to the younger man. Wilson already had a taste for nature and specifically ornithology; he carried his interest in the natural world with him from Scotland. However, one wonders what might have happened had Bartram suggested that Wilson begin drawing pictures of quadrupeds or deciduous trees; incidentally, drawing was suggested by several of Wilson's friends as an antidote for his frequent and severe depressions. (G. Wilson, p. 56-58)

The question of when Wilson conceived the American _Ornithology_ has troubled his biographers. In 1803, he wrote to a friend in Scotland that "I have had many pursuits since I left Scotland--...music, drawing, etc. etc. I am now about to make a collection of our finest birds." (A. Wilson, Letter 35) However, it is not until two years later that he sends the first twenty-eight drawings to William Bartram for approval. In between these two events, Wilson walked to Niagara Falls from Gray's Ferry, watching for birds with the eye of an ornithologist. These vast strolls through the American countryside, usually alone, became characteristic of Wilson in the next few years; it was in this way that he collected most of the information for his nine volumes of the _Ornithology_.

1806 appears to have been a crucial year of Wilson's development. It was in this year that he attempted to convince his friend Alexander Lawson, a Scots engraver, to take on the task of engraving the plates for the proposed _Ornithology_. As Wilson had no financial backing, Lawson politely declined, prompting Wilson's statement that he would continue on his quest even if it killed him (Ord, p. 31) Also in 1806, Wilson heard of a proposed government expedition beyond the Mississippi banks, and offered his services to Thomas Jefferson as a traveling naturalist; tellingly, he describes himself as "accustomed to the hardships of travelling, without a family, and an enthusiast in the pursuit of Natural History" (Ord, p. 34) Apparently, this letter went astray (Wilson later had a warm relationship with Jefferson), and he heard nothing back from the President. Finally, in late summer of 1806, Wilson was engaged at a "generous salary" by the publisher Samuel Bradford of Philadelphia. He cheerfully resigned from the school at Gray's Ferry, and moved to the city where he worked as the assistant editor of Ree's Cyclopedia and devoted every spare moment to the drawings for his intended _Ornithology_. His industry and drive appeared to win over Bradford, who agreed within a few months to fund and publish the work. (Ord, p. 33) Finally, Wilson could work with confidence toward his dream.

During 1807, Wilson journeyed extensively, usually alone, throughout Pennsylvania, collecting information for his first volume; when not occupied with excursions or the Cyclopedia, he labored single-mindedly on his drawings. Alexander Lawson had agreed to engrave the plates for the book, now that financial backing was assured, and the first volume of nine appeared in 1808. (J.S. Wilson, p. 14) Wilson also supplied most of the text that accompanied the drawings, a feat that seems almost insupportable from our modern vision of a scientist--for Wilson had no formal training, and in fact owned few books of his own. Thus, the writing that supports the drawings is that of a skilled and diligent observer. He notes the habits and habitats of birds as if they were companions rather than objects of study; his affection for his topic is decisively apparent. Decidedly, he is a naturalist rather than a scientist; because of his lack of formal training, he is free to make judgements and advance ideas that might otherwise have been unacceptable in a highly learned format. In April of 1807, Wilson wrote to Bartram:

"The more I read and reflect on the subject, the more dissatisfied I am with the specific names which have been used by almost every writer. A name should, if possible, be expressive of some peculiarity in colour, conformation or habit; if it will equally apply to two different species, it is certainly an improper one. Is migratorius an epithet peculiarly applicable to the robin? Is it not equally to so almost every species of turdis we have? Europea has been applied by Pennant to our large sitta or nuthatch, which is certainly a different species from the European, the latter being destitute of the black head, neck, and shoulders of ours. Latham calls it carolinensis, but it is as much an inhabitant of Pennsylvania and New York as Carolina. The small red-bellied sitta is called canadensis by Latham, a name equally objectionable with the other. Turdus minor seems also improper; in short, I consider this part of the business as peculiarly perplexing; and I beg to have your opinion on the matter, particularly with respect to the birds I have mentioned, whether I shall hazard a new nomenclature, or, by copying, sanction what I do not approve of."

It is worthwhile to note that "what I do not approve of" is almost entirely the work of European naturalists; in renaming the American birds he saw, Wilson claimed a sphere of nature that was neither repetitive nor inferior to Europe's, as had often been claimed by many Europeans, and eagerly refuted by such notables as Thomas Jefferson in his "Notes on the State of Virginia." Wilson saw his publication of the Ornithology as a deeply American venture, an act of patriotism that asserted the greatness and scope of his new country's resources.

Upon the publication of the first volume of the Ornithology, Wilson set out on an exhausting book tour in an effort to gain subscribers. As the nine-volume set sold for one hundred and twenty dollars (more than Wilson's yearly salary as a school teacher), he was obliged to approach the wealthiest and most prominent members of each town he went to. This he managed with letters of introduction from political and scientific luminaries that he had become acquainted with during his years in Philadelphia, and he was rewarded with "nothing but expressions of the highest admiration and esteem" (Ord, p. 73). Here Wilson's years of peddling in Scotland came in handy; an able salesman, he secured 250 subscribers, apparently pushing the Ornithology as the most American of books and a necessity for any patriotic American's library.

During this and subsequent book tours, where he travels through "all towns within one hundred miles of the Atlantic, from Maine to Georgia, and done as much for this bantling book of mine as ever author did for any progeny of his brain" (Ord, p. 98), Wilson wrote a series of letters to friends and relatives about the places he was traveling through. Although these letters naturally reflect on Wilson's personality--he was said to be congenial, but easily offended and often irritable--they also provide us with an interesting perspective on a burgeoning America in the early nineteenth century. Wilson formed strong opinions on the people and places he passed through; here, he comments on the products of slavery in the Charleston:

"The indolence, want of energy, and dissipation, of the wealthy part of the community in that place, are truly contemptible. The super-abundance of negroes in the southern states has destroyed the activity of the whites. The carpenter, bricklayer, and even the blacksmith, stand with their hands in their pockets overlooking their negroes. The planter orders his servant to tell the overseer to see my horse fed and taken care of; the overseer sends another negro to tell the driver to send one of his hands to do it. Before half of this routine is gone through, I have myself unharnessed, rubbed down, and fed my horse. Everything must be done through the agency of these slovenly blacks." (Ord, p. 97)

Clearly, it is notable in this passage that Wilson abhors slavery for its effect on the whites; the end product is their lack of industry, a great evil to a man who lives by the tenets of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and who has only his mind and labors to lift him from the anonymity and poverty he so dislikes. His attitude towards the blacks slaves is obviously "of the time" but still distressing--he seems to blame these "slovenly blacks" for their position, expecting that those enslaved could still better themselves by "imitating Socrates and Jesus" as Benjamin Franklin counsels.

While the second volume languished at the printer for almost a year, Wilson set out on another subscription journey, this time spanning an area from subscribers Pittsburgh through the interior to Florida. (J.S. Wilson p. 93) Wilson decided to go on foot for this venture, seeing that as the most economical option, as well as that most appropriate to his ornithological work. It is on this trip that Wilson includes the greatest wealth of observations on his subscribers and the towns in which they live. At one of his first stops, in Hanover, Pennsylvania, Wilson stayed with a local judge:

"I am passed through a well-cultivated country, chiefly inhabited by Germans, to that place, where a certain Judge took upon himself to say that such a book as mine ought not to be encouraged, as it was not within the reach of the commonality; and therefore inconsistent with our republican institutions! By the same mode of reasoning, which I did not dispute, I undertook to prove him a greater culprit than myself, in erecting a large, elegant, three-story brick house, so much beyond the reach of commonality as he called them, and consequently grossly contrary to our republican institutions." (Ord, p. 103)

Clear in this passage is Wilson's pleasure as an immigrant, one who not so long ago was firmly placed in the realm of "commonality", outwitting a wealthy Judge. Certainly the judge is the personification of Alex de Tocqueville's fears of the leveling of intellectual production in a democracy--the concept of equality carried to Vonnegut-esque extremes. Wilson deflates this handily, no doubt gaining much satisfaction from the implication that his "bantling book" is of suspiciously high quality. Wilson carried on from Hanover to Pittsburgh:

"A perspective view of the town of Pittsburg at this season, with the numerous arks and covered keel-boats preparing to descent the Ohio, its hills, its great rivers--the pillars of smoke rising from its furnaces and glass-works--would make a noble picture...The industry of Pittsburg is remarkable; everybody you see is busy; and as proof of the prosperity of the place, an eminent lawyer told me that there has not been one suit instituted against a merchant of the town these three years." (Ord, p. 105)

Although Wilson is a naturalist, we see his pride, mixed with a wry sense of humor, in American expansion. Even as Thomas Jefferson was arguing against manufacturing as a concept that would ruin the agrarian perfection of the New World, Wilson seems to voice the people's point of view: namely that the city factory is nothing to shy away from. Again, for Wilson, industry in any form (i.e., the spitting glass works) is cause for praise, and unlike the indolent South, "everyone...is busy."

Although it was now February, Wilson decided to take a small skiff down the Ohio River rather than walking or taking a stage-coach to Cincinnati. He notes in the next letter, almost casually, "I persevered from the 24th of February to Sunday evening, March 17th, when I moored my skiff safely in Bear-Grass Creek, at the rapids of the Ohio, after a voyage of seven hundred and twenty miles. My hands suffered the most; and it will be some weeks yet before they recover their former feeling and flexibility." (J.S. Wilson, p. 97-98) Bear-Grass Creek was at Louisville; here he sold his skiff "for exactly half what it cost me; and the man who bought it wondered why I gave it such a droll Indian name (the Ornithologist) some old chief or warrior, I suppose,' said he."(Ord, p. 117) This passage is amusing on its own, but it further underscores Wilson's vision of himself as a self-educated scholar; he has little use for those who do not make an effort gain knowledge, even for its own sake. At other points in his letters, Wilson notes with irritation the failings of others: "Linneus and other have confounded this Vultur with the Turkey Buzzard but they are two very distinct species," (Ord, p. 95) or "the common people confound the P. Principalis and P. Pileatus together." (Ord, p. 96) Still, Wilson relied on others for information about his birds; some of his information came from William Bartram's Gardens and library, some from Charles Wilson Peale's Museum, and some from people he met in his travels. After the publication of the first volume, he noted that "I am fixing correspondents in every corner of these northern regions, like so many pickets and outposts, so that scarcely a wren or a tit shall be able to pass along, from York to Canada, but I shall get intelligence of it." (Ord, p. 73)

Louisville was not particularly welcoming, and Wilson engaged few subscribers. He wrote bitterly in his journal that "Science or literature has not one friend in this place." A few days later, he expanded on 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." (Ord, p. 178)

However, Louisville was the site of his meeting with John James Audubon. Accounts differ between biographers as to the substance of this meeting, which happened entirely by chance. Wilson merely recorded in his private journal that they had gone shooting together; Audubon, from a distance of many years and with possible envy at Wilson's earlier publications, recorded that he "did not subscribe to his work, for even at that time my [unpublished] collection was larger than his." (J.S. Wilson, p. 101) Wilson walked to Lexington and found it more to his liking:

"This little metropolis of the western country is nearly as large as Landcaster in Pennsylvania...In a hollow between two of these parallel streets, ran a considerable brook, that uniting with a larger a little below the town, drives several mills. A large quarry of excellent building stone also attracted my notice as I entered the town. The main street was paved with large masses from this quarry, the foot path neat, and guarded by wooden posts. The numberous shops piled with goods, and the many well-dressed females I passed in the streets; the sound of social industry, and the gay scenery of the busy haunts of men,' had a most exhilarating effect on my spirits, after being so long immured in the forest." (Ord, p. 120)

Following Lexington, Wilson plunged into the wilderness towards Nashville. This section of his journey is recorded in his letters and by his biographers in somewhat epic tones; he becomes a fearless gun-toting adventurer, risking all for the sake of his great work. He seems a prefiguring, not of Cooper's Leatherstocking himself, but of a type analogous to Natty Bumppo:

I was advised by many not to attempt it alone; that the Indians were dangerous, the swamps and rivers almost impassable without assistance, and a thousand other hobgoblins were conjured up to dissuade me from going alone. But I weighed all these matters in my own mind; and attributing a great deal of this to vulgar fears and exaggerated reports, I equipt myself for the attempt. I rode an excellent horse, on which I could depend. I had a loaded pistol in each pocket, a loaded fowling pice belted across my shoulder, a pound of gunpowder in my flask, and five pounds of shot in my belt. I bought some biscuit and dried beef, and on Friday, May 4th, I left for Nashville." (Ord, p. 133)

We are left with the image of the American man who needs only his gun and his horse to conquer the "howling wilderness" of the interior. This is no Edenic garden; Wilson suffered from dysentery, sheltered from a tornado, and encountered

"the most horrid swamps I had ever seen. These are covered with a prodigious growth of canes and high woods, which together, shut out almost the whole light of day for miles. The banks of the deep and sluggish creeks, that occupy the centre, are precipitous, where I often had to plunge my horse seven feet down, into a bed of deep clay up to his belly; from which nothing but great strength and exertion could have rescued him; the opposite shore was equally bad, and beggars all description."(Ord, p. 139)

Still, Wilson arrives in proud good humor, "having overcome every obstacle, alone and without being acquainted with the country; and what surprised the boatmen more without whiskey."(Ord, p. 147) By the beginning of June, Wilson was in New Orleans, where he sailed to New York, arriving at the end of July, and then traveled back to Philadelphia.

By the end of 1810, the second volume of the _Ornithology_ had been published; Wilson devoted himself wholeheartedly and saw the publication of the third and fourth volumes in 1811, and the fifth and sixth in 1812. He spent most of those years living at William Bartram's Botanical Gardens, making use of his libraries. By this time, Wilson had gained an national and international reputation; March of 1812 saw his membership in the Society of Artists of the United States, and a year later, he became a member of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.

In September of 1812, Wilson set out on his final journey, traveling through the northeastern states as far north as Maine. He found New England difficult ground in which to gain subscribers, and described his irritation in a voice that seems to echo Washington Irving's amused disdain for the new politicians that await Rip Van Winkle upon his awakening:

"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."(Ord, p. 159)

Wilson had moved on from land birds to water birds by this point, which he decided to pursue extensively in the final volumes of the Ornithology. After the seventh volume was published in 1813, Wilson and George Ord journeyed to Great Egg Harbour to look for water birds. Presumably this four-week trip weakened Wilson, who had never fully recovered from his early bouts of dysentery. Nevertheless, he plunged himself into the publication of the eighth volume. It was reported by Ord that Wilson had continual trouble with the people who worked as colorists on the engraved plates. Before the readying of the eighth edition, all of these workers left, and Wilson took it upon himself to complete the coloring alone. He managed to do this, sent the work to press and began to plan the ninth volume, as well as a work similar to the Ornithology about American quadrupeds (J.S. Wilson, p. 111). Still wildly enthusiastic about his work but operating under extreme physical exhaustion, Wilson took sick with dysentery in mid-August of 1813, and died ten days later. He was buried in Philadelphia in the yard of the Swedish Church, contrary to his wish to be buried "where the birds would sing above him." (J.S. Wilson, p. 113)

The eighth volume of the Ornithology appeared under the care of George Ord in January of 1814; Ord also edited and added a sketch of the life of Wilson to the final volume, which came out in May of the same year. (J.S. Wilson, p. 113).