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John James Audubon

The Making of an American

John James Audubon by Richard Rhodes
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John James Audubon came to America as a dapper eighteen-year-old eager to make his fortune. He had a talent for drawing and an interest in birds, and he would spend the next thirty-five years traveling to the remotest regions of his new country–often alone and on foot–to render his avian subjects on paper. The works of art he created gave the world its idea of America. They gave America its idea of itself.

Here Richard Rhodes vividly depicts Audubon’s life and career: his epic wanderings; his quest to portray birds in a lifelike way; his long, anguished separations from his adored wife; his ambivalent witness to the vanishing of the wilderness. John James Audubon: The Making of an American is a magnificent achievement.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; October 2004
544 pages; ISBN 9781400043774
Download in secure PDF format
Title: John James Audubon
Author: Richard Rhodes
 
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Excerpt
Chapter One

MIGRATION


The sharp cries of gulls wheeling above the East River docks welcomed the handsome young Frenchman to America. Crossing from Nantes in late summer, he had been a month and a half at sea and he was grateful for the solidity of New York cobblestones. That August 1803 he was four months past his eighteenth birthday, barely fledged, but the United States was hardly older: Lewis and Clark were just preparing to depart for the West. His father owned a plantation called Mill Grove on Perkiomen Creek near its junction with the Schuylkill River northwest of Philadelphia, close above Valley Forge, and that was where he was going. His father was a former sea captain and retired French Navy officer who had commanded a corvette in the final battle of the American Revolution. Jean Audubon had sent his cherished only son to America to escape conscription into the forces Napoleon was mustering for his war with England, joined the previous May.

Wherever the young man went he watched the birds. Birds moved through the human world at will. In their large freedom they lived rich lives in parallel with people and people hardly knew. On his passage from Nantes, at the Grand Banks off Newfoundland where his ancestors had fished for cod, far out at sea, he had scattered ship's biscuit on the deck and drawn migrating brown titlarks (American pipits)* down from the heavens to feed. "They came on board wearied," he would remember and write thirty years later, "and so hungry that the crumbs of biscuit thrown to them were picked up with the greatest activity."

He studied birds for the fables they enacted-he carried La Fontaine's Fables with him as a guide-and beyond fable he studied them to learn their habits, the patterns and systems of their lives. Studying birds was how he mastered the world, and himself. Leaving his friends, his father and his country had disheartened him. The long hours of sailing brought "deep sorrow or melancholy musing. . . . My affections were with those I had left behind, and the world seemed to me a great wilderness." Then the New World rolled across the horizon, a real and physical wilderness beyond its settled rim. He had begun drawing birds in France. Now, "prompted by an innate desire to acquire a thorough knowledge of the birds of this happy country, I formed the resolution, immediately on my landing, to spend, if not all my time in that study, at least all that portion generally called leisure, and to draw each individual of its natural size and coloring." This is retrospect, of course, but it catches the eighteen-year-old's excitement and bravado.

His name-his new name, his name as of the day he had boarded ship-was John James Audubon. In France for the previous ten years he had been Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon. (Fougère-"fern"-was an offering to placate the Revolutionary authorities, who scorned the names of saints.) From his birth on April 26, 1785, until 1793 he had been Jean Rabin, his father's bastard child, born on Jean Audubon's lost Caribbean sugar plantation on Saint Domingue (soon to be renamed Haiti) to a twenty-seven-year-old French chambermaid, Jeanne Rabin, who had died of infection within months of his birth. His father's wife in France, Anne Moynet, a generous older widow whom Jean Audubon had married long before, had welcomed her husband's natural son to Nantes and raised him as her own, but his stigmatic birth was a secret John James was sworn to hide: in France bastard children were denied inheritance.

To complicate his identity further, he began using the name LaForest, enlarging on Fougère: John James LaForest Audubon.

He was taller than the average of his day, lean and athletic, unself-consciously vain:

I measured five feet, ten and one half inches, was of fair mien, and quite a handsome figure; large, dark, and rather sunken eyes, light-colored eyebrows, aquiline nose and a fine set of teeth; hair, fine texture and luxuriant, divided and passing down behind each ear in luxuriant ringlets as far as the shoulders.

Five feet nine is nearer the truth-taller than his father, who was five feet five. His hair was chestnut, his beak of a nose certifiably French. But without question women found him handsome. "He is the handsomest boy in Nantes," his adoptive mother had written her husband once, "but perhaps not the most studious."

He could sing, dance, play the flute, the violin and the recorder-like flageolet, fence, hunt, shoot and ride and draw. He was volatile, excitable and vivacious. Young as he was, people already liked to be around him-men and women both.

Before he could learn American birds he had to learn English. His father had asked the captain of his ship of passage, John Smith, to watch over him. Leaving the ship to cash the letter of credit his father had given him, striding along Greenwich Street above the Battery, John James was staggered by the first symptoms of a life-threatening fever. He remembered it as yellow fever, and it may have been; the jaundicing and frequently deadly infection was a common summer scourge. In 1793 an epidemic that refugees had carried from Saint Domingue had killed nearly five thousand people in Philadelphia, and it had struck again that summer of 1803 in New York as well. Illness made Smith's mission imperative. The captain saw his charge delivered to a boardinghouse outside Philadelphia operated by two good Quaker women and left him in their care. Nursing him back to health, the women taught him Quaker English. He thee'd and thou'd his intimates ever after.

when john james's nurses thought he was well enough to travel, they sent word to his father's agent in Philadelphia, and soon a prosperous Quaker lawyer carriaged to their boardinghouse to fetch the young man away. Miers Fisher had negotiated the purchase of Mill Grove for Jean Audubon in 1789. Twenty-three hundred English pounds in gold and silver-roughly $200,000 today-bought 284 acres of fair Pennsylvania farmland and woods with a two-story dormered fieldstone mansion set high on a steep lawn, stone barns and outbuildings and working water-powered flour and sawmills down the lawn beside the broad Perkiomen. The property was meant to be an investment. Jean Audubon had begun his maritime career at twelve as a cabin boy on his father's merchant ship out of Les Sables-d'Olonne downriver from Nantes on the west coast of France below the Loire. He had advanced to apprentice sailor and eventually captained ships of his own, fishing on the Grand Banks and hauling cargo. Many profitable voyages later, he had acquired a sugar plantation and refinery on Saint Domingue, France's most prosperous colony, where sugar and indigo worked by half a million African slaves supplied two-thirds of pre-Revolutionary France's overseas trade. But slave uprisings in Guadeloupe and Martinique and the first stirrings of revolution in France and on Saint Domingue itself had alerted the shrewd négociant to potential disaster. The funds he used to buy Mill Grove came from the hasty sale of a portion of his Les Cayes plantation. Two years later, back in Nantes and an officer in the Republican Guard, he arranged to have his only son and the boy's younger half-sister, Rose, the daughter of a second, quadroon mistress, delivered to him from Saint Domingue. The ship entered the Loire in June 1791 with Rose listed on the manifest as Jeanne Rabin's daughter, obscuring her mixed race; the revolution that eventually established the Republic of Haiti engulfed the island in August.

At Miers Fisher's country house northwest of Philadelphia young Audubon improved his English further, but by Quaker standards his recreations were shocking. Fisher "was opposed to music of all descriptions," he complains, "as well as to dancing, could not bear me to carry a gun, or fishing-rod, and, indeed, condemned most of my amusements." Fisher had impressionable daughters and adolescent sons. As soon as he could decently do so, he delivered his client's wayward heir on to Mill Grove to board with its less observant Quaker tenant William Thomas and Thomas's wife and several sons. John James counted Fisher's departure "a true deliverance" but at least in recollection honored him: "This was only because our tastes and educations were so different, for he certainly was a good and learned man." Fisher arranged for Thomas to pay John James a quarterly allowance subtracted from his $400 annual lease, and the young man settled in.

Mill Grove delighted him. "Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them." But since his father had by then lost most of his wealth in the revolutions of France and Saint Domingue, what would be the young man's occupation? Jean Audubon had expectations of Mill Grove. The property was known for its mineral deposits, particularly lead. Lead, with its low melting point and high density, was a valuable commodity at a time when hunting with muzzle-loading flintlocks was nearly universal, Quaker lawyers excepted. Hunters ramrodded their weapons with powder, paper and ball each time they fired and routinely carried lead and bullet molds to make their own balls.

In April 1802 Miers Fisher had alerted his Nantes client to his property's promise:

[At] about the expiration of the [first] five years' [lease], or probably before, [William Thomas] discovered what he thought a very rich lead mine on the premises & communicated the discovery to me, at the same time producing a sample of the ore. Upon inquiry I found that he thought it to exist there in very great quantities & seemed desirous to purchase the land; I told him I had no authority to sell it . . . but promised to inform thee thereof. . . . In this expectation I have kept him on the place ever since & he has paid his rent with more punctuality than is usual with tenants here. . . . He is the only person who knows where the mine is to be found, & will not disclose it until he has some benefit allotted to him for his discovery. . . . He has a very high opinion of it-I have had a sample of it assayed & am assured it will yield about 60 or 70 percent of lead from the 100 lb. of ore. . . . Therefore come in person or employ a confidential friend to judge for thee in this important affair-it may be sufficient to restore all thy losses.

Letters traveled slowly and uncertainly in the age of sail, and another year passed before Jean Audubon could send someone to represent him, a young Frenchman supposed to be knowledgeable about ores and mining. Francis Dacosta had arrived in Philadelphia in the spring of 1803, a few months before John James, carrying Jean Audubon's power of attorney. He was authorized to sell Thomas the Mill Grove acreage that lay across the Perkiomen from the main house in exchange for the location of the lead vein, but Miers Fisher thought such a move unwise-what if the Perkiomen bottomland covered even more valuable veins of ore?-so Dacosta pried the location of the vein from Thomas by paying $300 of his $400 annual lease that May and promis-ing more. Corresponding with Dacosta about these first negotiations, Jean Audubon revealed his parental program: "Remember, my dear sir, I expect that if your plan succeeds, my son will find a place in the works which will enable him to provide for himself, in order to spare me from expenses that I can only with difficulty support." Dacosta had taken rooms in Philadelphia that fall to wait out the winter before opening up the mine, which meant John James could continue carefree at Mill Grove at least until spring.

To cut a proper figure a young man needed a horse. Thomas had none to spare. An English family had bought the larger plantation up the hill to the south and across the road and was just moving in; John James might inquire there. On November 11 he did and met William Bakewell, the patriarch, a sturdy, educated squire from Derbyshire by way of New Haven, Connecticut, where he and his brother Benjamin had owned and operated an ale brewery until it burned down the previous winter. The Bakewells had arrived only two days before; William turned John James over to his guest, General Andrew Porter of nearby Norristown, and went about his business.

William Bakewell was a blunt and skeptical man, a Unitarian connected to Joseph Priestley, the experimental chemist, discoverer of oxygen and ammonia and religious reformer who had emigrated to America in 1794 and founded a colony near Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where William had also bought land. ("A feather-bed to catch a falling Christian," the Bakewell family physician, Erasmus Darwin, had jokingly called Unitarianism, but dissent was dangerous business-mobs burned down Priestley's house and other dissenting leaders found themselves transported among common criminals to Botany Bay.) William had seriously considered buying a farm in the Shenandoah Valley before Porter pointed him to the Greek Revival mansion with its lush estate and wide view of Valley Forge southward across the Schuylkill. He chose it for its fertility and accepted its odd name, Fatland Ford. "It is not improbable," he wrote a Derbyshire cousin, "that the name of the ford [on the Schuylkill below the mansion] was taken (tho' rather vulgarly expressed) from the quality of the land as it is very fertile indeed."

John James pursued his horse buying. William Bakewell returned his call and found him away but left his card and an invitation to go hunting. Audubon may have been away-he claimed he was out looking for birds-but he had a chip on his shoulder about the English, who had twice jailed his father as a prisoner of war in his maritime years. His father had dismissed the boy's prejudice magisterially, telling him "thy blood will cool in time. . . . Thou has not been in England; I have, and it is a fine country." The young man's blood cooled early in the new year 1804 when he encountered William Bakewell

and his pointers pursuing grouse in the snow-silenced woods along the Perkiomen. "I was struck with the kind politeness of his manner, and found him an expert marksman. Entering into conversation, I admired the beauty of his well-trained dogs, and, apologizing for my discourtesy, finally promised
to call upon him and his family." Mrs. Thomas had been encouraging him as well, coaching her boarder that the Bakewells had attractive and interesting daughters.

Audubon called at the Doric-columned, pedimented two-story mansion house just after the middle of January 1804:
It happened that [William Bakewell] was absent from home, and I was shown into a parlor where only one young lady was snugly seated at her work by 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, would be in a few moments, as she would dispatch a servant for him. Other ruddy cheeks and bright eyes made their transient appearance, but, like spirits gay, soon vanished from my sight; and there I sat, my gaze riveted, as it were, on the young girl before me, who, half working, half talking, essayed to make the time pleasant for me. Oh! may God bless her!


From the Hardcover edition.