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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsJohn James Audubon - Chapter 2
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John James Audubon - Chapter 2 Post by :kippstips Category :Nonfictions Author :John Burroughs Date :May 2012 Read :1042

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John James Audubon - Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

Audubon was now eager to marry, but Mr. Bakewell advised him first to study the mercantile business. This he accordingly set out to do by entering as a clerk the commercial house of Benjamin Bakewell in New York, while his friend Rozier entered a French house in Philadelphia.

But Audubon was not cut out for business; his first venture was in indigo, and cost him several hundred pounds. Rozier succeeded no better; his first speculation was a cargo of hams shipped to the West Indies which did not return one fifth of the cost. Audubon's want of business habits is shown by the statement that at this time he one day posted a letter containing eight thousand dollars without sealing it. His heart was in the fields and woods with the birds. His room was filled with drying bird skins, the odour from which, it is said, became so strong that his neighbours sent a constable to him with a message to abate the nuisance.

Despairing of becoming successful business men in either New York or Philadelphia, he and Rozier soon returned to Mill Grove. During some of their commercial enterprises they had visited Kentucky and thought so well of the outlook there that now their thoughts turned thitherward.

Here we get the first date from Audubon; on April 8, 1808, he and Lucy Bakewell were married. The plantation of Mill Grove had been previously sold, and the money invested in goods with which to open a store in Louisville, Kentucky. The day after the marriage, Audubon and his wife and Mr. Rozier started on their journey. In crossing the mountains to Pittsburg the coach in which they were travelling upset, and Mrs. Audubon was severely bruised. From Pittsburg they floated down the Ohio in a flatboat in company with several other young emigrant families. The voyage occupied twelve days and was no doubt made good use of by Audubon in observing the wild nature along shore.

In Louisville, he and Rozier opened a large store which promised well. But Audubon's heart was more and more with the birds, and his business more and more neglected. Rozier attended to the counter, and, Audubon says, grew rich, but he himself spent most of the time in the woods or hunting with the planters settled about Louisville, between whom and himself a warm attachment soon sprang up. He was not growing rich, but he was happy. "I shot, I drew, I looked on Nature only," he says, "and my days were happy beyond human conception, and beyond this I really cared not."

He says that the only part of the commercial business he enjoyed was the ever engaging journeys which he made to New York and Philadelphia to purchase goods.

These journeys led him through the "beautiful, the darling forests of Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania," and on one occasion he says he lost sight of the pack horses carrying his goods and his dollars, in his preoccupation with a new warbler.

During his residence in Louisville, Alexander Wilson, his great rival in American ornithology, called upon him. This is Audubon's account of the meeting: "One fair morning I was surprised by the sudden entrance into our counting room at Louisville of Mr. Alexander Wilson, the celebrated author of the American Ornithology, of whose existence I had never until that moment been apprised. This happened in March, 1810. How well do I remember him as he then walked up to me. His long, rather hooked nose, the keenness of his eyes, and his prominent cheek bones, stamped his countenance with a peculiar character. His dress, too, was of a kind not usually seen in that part of the country; a short coat, trousers and a waistcoat of grey cloth. His stature was not above the middle size. He had two volumes under his arm, and as he approached the table at which I was working, I thought I discovered something like astonishment in his countenance. He, however, immediately proceeded to disclose the object of his visit, which was to procure subscriptions for his work. He opened his books, explained the nature of his occupations, and requested my patronage. I felt surprised and gratified at the sight of his volumes, turned over a few of the plates, and had already taken my pen to write my name in his favour, when my partner rather abruptly said to me in French: 'My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work! Your drawings are certainly far better; and again, you must know as much of the habits of American birds as this gentleman.' Whether Mr. Wilson understood French or not, or if the suddenness with which I paused disappointed him, I cannot tell; but I clearly perceived he was not pleased. Vanity, and the encomiums of my friend, prevented me from subscribing. Mr. Wilson asked me if I had many drawings of birds, I rose, took down a large portfolio, laid it on the table, and showed him as I would show you, kind reader, or any other person fond of such subjects, the whole of the contents, with the same patience, with which he had showed me his own engravings. His surprise appeared great, as he told me he had never had the most distant idea that any other individual than himself had been engaged in forming such a collection. He asked me if it was my intention to publish, and when I answered in the negative, his surprise seemed to increase. And, truly, such was not my intention; for, until long after, when I met the Prince of Musignano in Philadelphia, I had not the least idea of presenting the fruits of my labours to the world. Mr. Wilson now examined my drawings with care, asked if I should have any objection to lending him a few during his stay, to which I replied that I had none. He then bade me good morning, not, however, until I had made an arrangement to explore the woods in the vicinity along with him, and had promised to procure for him some birds, of which I had drawings in my collection, but which he had never seen. It happened that he lodged in the same house with us, but his retired habits, I thought, exhibited a strong feeling of discontent, or a decided melancholy. The Scotch airs which he played sweetly on his flute made me melancholy, too, and I felt for him. I presented him to my wife and friends, and seeing that he was all enthusiasm, exerted myself as much as was in my power to procure for him the specimens which he wanted.

"We hunted together and obtained birds which he had never before seen; but, reader, I did not subscribe to his work, for, even at that time, my collection was greater than his.

"Thinking that perhaps he might be pleased to publish the results of my researches, I offered them to him, merely on condition that what I had drawn, or might afterward draw and send to him, should be mentioned in his work as coming from my pencil. I at the same time offered to open a correspondence with him, which I thought might prove beneficial to us both. He made no reply to either proposal, and before many days had elapsed, left Louisville on his way to New Orleans, little knowing how much his talents were appreciated in our little town, at least by myself and my friends."

Wilson's account of this meeting is in curious contrast to that of Audubon. It is meagre and unsatisfactory. Under date of March 19, he writes in his diary at Louisville: "Rambled around the town with my gun. Examined Mr. ----'s (Audubon's) drawings in crayons--very good. Saw two new birds he had, both _Motacillae_."

_March 21. "Went out this afternoon shooting with Mr. A. Saw a number of Sandhill cranes. Pigeons numerous."

Finally, in winding up the record of his visit to Louisville, he says, with palpable inconsistency, not to say falsehood, that he did not receive one act of civility there, nor see one new bird, and found no naturalist to keep him company.

Some years afterward, Audubon hunted him up in Philadelphia, and found him drawing a white headed eagle. He was civil, and showed Audubon some attention, but "spoke not of birds or drawings."

Wilson was of a nature far less open and generous than was Audubon. It is evident that he looked upon the latter as his rival, and was jealous of his superior talents; for superior they were in many ways. Audubon's drawings have far more spirit and artistic excellence, and his text shows far more enthusiasm and hearty affiliation with Nature. In accuracy of observation, Wilson is fully his equal, if not his superior.

As Audubon had deserted his business, his business soon deserted him; he and his partner soon became discouraged (we hear no more about the riches Rozier had acquired), and resolved upon moving their goods to Hendersonville, Kentucky, over one hundred miles further down the Ohio. Mrs. Audubon and her baby son were sent back to her father's at Fatland Ford where they remained upwards of a year.

Business at Hendersonville proved dull; the country was but thinly inhabited and only the coarsest goods were in demand. To procure food the merchants had to resort to fishing and hunting. They employed a clerk who proved a good shot; he and Audubon supplied the table while Rozier again stood behind the counter.

How long the Hendersonville enterprise lasted we do not know. Another change was finally determined upon, and the next glimpse we get of Audubon, we see him with his clerk and partner and their remaining stock in trade, consisting of three hundred barrels of whiskey, sundry dry goods and powder, on board a keel boat making their way down the Ohio, in a severe snow storm, toward St. Genevieve, a settlement on the Mississippi River, where they proposed to try again. The boat is steered by a long oar, about sixty feet in length, made of the trunk of a slender tree, and shaped at its outer extremity like the fin of a dolphin; four oars in the bow propelled her, and with the current they made about five miles an hour.

Mrs. Audubon, who seems to have returned from her father's, with her baby, or babies, was left behind at Hendersonville with a friend, until the result of the new venture should be determined.

In the course of six weeks, after many delays, and adventures with the ice and the cold, the party reached St. Genevieve.

Audubon has given in his journal a very vivid and interesting account of this journey. At St. Genevieve, the whiskey was in great demand, and what had cost them twenty-five cents a gallon, was sold for two dollars. But Audubon soon became discouraged with the place and longed to be back in Hendersonville with his family. He did not like the low bred French-Canadians, who made up most of the population of the settlement. He sold out his interest in the business to his partner, who liked the place and the people, and here the two parted company. Audubon purchased a fine horse and started over the prairies on his return trip to Hendersonville.

On this journey he came near being murdered by a woman and her two desperate sons who lived in a cabin on the prairies, where the traveller put up for the night. He has given a minute and graphic account of this adventure in his journal.

The cupidity of the woman had been aroused by the sight of Audubon's gold watch and chain. A wounded Indian, who had also sought refuge in the shanty had put Audubon upon his guard. It was midnight, Audubon lay on some bear skins in one corner of the room, feigning sleep. He had previously slipped out of the cabin and had loaded his gun, which lay close at hand. Presently he saw the woman sharpen a huge carving knife, and thrust it into the hand of her drunken son, with the injunction to kill yon stranger and secure the watch. He was just on the point of springing up to shoot his would-be murderers, when the door burst open, and two travellers, each with a long knife, appeared. Audubon jumped up and told them his situation. The drunken sons and the woman were bound, and in the morning they were taken out into the woods and were treated as the Regulators treated delinquents in those days. They were shot. Whether Audubon did any of the shooting or not, he does not say. But he aided and abetted, and his Spanish blood must have tingled in his veins. Then the cabin was set on fire, and the travellers proceeded on their way.

It must be confessed that this story sounds a good deal like an episode in a dime novel, and may well be taken with a grain of allowance. Did remote prairie cabins in those days have grindstones and carving knives? And why should the would-be murderers use a knife when they had guns?

Audubon reached Hendersonville in early March, and witnessed the severe earthquake which visited that part of Kentucky the following November, 1812. Of this experience we also have a vivid account in his journals.

Audubon continued to live at Hendersonville, his pecuniary means much reduced. He says that he made a pedestrian tour back to St. Genevieve to collect money due him from Rozier, walking the one hundred and sixty-five miles, much of the time nearly ankle-deep in mud and water, in a little over three days. Concerning the accuracy of this statement one also has his doubts. Later he bought a "wild horse," and on its back travelled over Tennessee and a portion of Georgia, and so around to Philadelphia, later returning to Hendersonville.

He continued his drawings of birds and animals, but, in the meantime, embarked in another commercial venture, and for a time prospered. Some years previously he had formed a co-partnership with his wife's brother, and a commercial house in charge of Bakewell had been opened in New Orleans. This turned out disastrously and was a constant drain upon his resources.

This partner now appears upon the scene at Hendersonville and persuades Audubon to erect, at a heavy outlay, a steam grist and saw mill, and to take into the firm an Englishman by the name of Pease.

This enterprise brought fresh disaster. "How I laboured at this infernal mill, from dawn till dark, nay, at times all night."

They also purchased a steamboat which was so much additional weight to drag them down. This was about the year 1817. From this date till 1819, Audubon's pecuniary difficulties increased daily. He had no business talent whatever; he was a poet and an artist; he cared not for money, he wanted to be alone with Nature. The forests called to him, the birds haunted his dreams.

His father dying in 1818, left him a valuable estate in France, and seventeen thousand dollars, deposited with a merchant in Richmond, Virginia; but Audubon was so dilatory in proving his identity and his legal right to this cash, that the merchant finally died insolvent, and the legatee never received a cent of it. The French estate he transferred in after years to his sister Rosa.

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CHAPTER IIIFinally, Audubon gave up the struggle of trying to be a business man. He says: "I parted with every particle of property I had to my creditors, keeping only the clothes I wore on that day, my original drawings, and my gun, and without a dollar in my pocket, walked to Louisville alone." This he speaks of as the saddest of all his journeys--"the only time in my life when the wild turkeys that so often crossed my path, and the thousands of lesser birds that enlivened the woods and the prairies, all looked like enemies, and I turned my
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CHAPTER IThere is a hopeless confusion as to certain important dates in Audubon's life. He was often careless and unreliable in his statements of matters of fact, which weakness during his lifetime often led to his being accused of falsehood. Thus he speaks of the "memorable battle of Valley Forge" and of two brothers of his, both officers in the French army, as having perished in the French Revolution, when he doubtless meant uncles. He had previously stated that his only two brothers died in infancy. He confessed that he had no head for mathematics, and he seems always to have
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