Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 3

We left off with Audubon the adventurer. While his love of the outdoors and his fondness for drawing birds and observing bird behavior continued to grow, so too did his love for one Lucy Bakewell. Audubon ended that section of his account with a rather telling anecdote: "In my drawing of birds only did I interest Mr. Da Costa. He always commended my efforts, nay he even went further. One morning, While I was drawing a figure of the Ardea herodias, he assured me the time might come when I should be a great American naturalist." 

This artistic skill and ornithological zeal was not quite enough for Mr. Bakewell, and he set Audubon up to study the mercantile trades that he might better provide for Lucy in their married life. Despite the pose he struck as a Renaissance Man, Audubon was no entrepreneur. He invested in indigo and ham trades  (curious combination) into the Caribbean without any prophet to show. Apparently this commitment alone was enough for Mr. Bakewell, and John James Audubon married Lucy Bakewell on April 8th, 1808. They moved down to Louisville and bought a small department store. Their first son Victor was born June 12, 1809.

Despite his earlier financial setbacks, Audubon worked as part of a trade exchange between Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. This network was set up by Mr. Bakewell, who entered into a New Orleans trading venture with John Audubon's capital (and a fair bit more business sense). While the families did fairly well, it became steadily more clear to Audubon that his was not a mind for merchandise:

"Were I to tell you that once, when traveling and driving several horses before me laden with goods and dollars, I lost sight of the pack-saddles, and the cash they bore, to watch the motions of the warbler, I should only repeat occurrences that happened a hundred times and more in those days."

Over the next couple years the markets rose and fell; Audubon and Bakewell profited less and less with each ensuing season. This did not stop Audubon from taking increasingly longer treks out into the Kentucky wilderness and beyond, recording in great detail all the birds and quadrupeds that he encountered.

To revamp his funding and better establish his proximity to the wilderness, Audubon purchased  livestock in Louisville and drove it up to Henderson, KY, where he made a good return and bought several acres of property. He continued to improve his finances in the next year before being joined by Thomas Bakewell, who persuaded him to invest in a steam mill along with another Englishman named Thomas Pears.
"Up went the steam-mill at an enormous expense, in a country then as unfit for such a thing as it would be now for me to attempt to settle in the moon...Thomas Pears lost his money and we lost ours."

Audubon's fortunes went from bad to worse. After investing in some private banks, Audubon and Thomas Bakewell bought shares in a steamboat, and then resold to it a man who used counterfeit bills. The man, who Audubon only names as TB, attacked Audubon in the street for defaming his name. Though Audubon received several strong blows from TB's improvised cudgel, Audubon himself had taken to wearing a dagger, and severely wounded TB. While he was exonerated in court, Audubon's bills continued to pile up, and soon after the birth of his daughter Rosa he had lost the entirety of their fortune. Despite these continual setbacks, Audubon is not bitter in his recollections:
"She [Lucy Audubon] felt the pangs of our misfortunes perhaps more heavily than I, but never for an hour lost her courage; her brave and cheerful spirit accepted all, and no reproaches from her beloved lips ever wounded my heart. With her was I not always rich?"

Audubon sold his Pennsylvania estates to pay off his debts, lodging with nearby friends while he established himself as a draughtsman--finally, the technical and detailed skills he developed with his ornithological pursuits were paying for themselves.  Audubon's reputation as a sketch-artist quickly grew, and he was often employed to draw the recently deceased, but with a life-like countenance, that would serve as the centerpiece and funerals and remembrances. This professional practice in turn led Audubon to greatly improve his avian artistry, and soon he was drawing birds better than he had before his string of misfortunes.

It was not long before his avian sketches gained as much notoriety as his portraits, and in 1819 he was invited to Cincinnati College to work as a taxonomist and taxidermist for the university's museum. Although his family settled comfortably in Ohio, and Audubon even opened a drawing school, the family suffered its most grievous loss with the death of Rosa, their first-born daughter (Audubon does not dwell on this at all, and in fact later mentions that they had another daughter, named Lucy, who also died in infancy even before Rosa). To make matters worse, it turned out that folks in Cincinnati pledged and promised more than they could pay, and the Audubon funds continued to shrivel. Despite the generally ill-tidings of these years, Audubon's love of nature continued to grow.

"One of the most extraordinary things among all these adverse circumstances was that I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best ways that I could; nay, during my deepest troubles I frequently would wrench myself from the persons around me, and retire to some secluded part of our noble forests; and many a time, at the sound of the wood-thrush's melodies have I fallen on my knees, and there prayed earnestly to our God. This never failed to bring me the most valuable of thoughts and always comfort, and, strange as it may seem to you, it was often necessary for me to exert my will, and compel myself to return to my fellow-beings."


  1. Amazing info. You're doing great summarizing it and it is so fun to read.

  2. Thanks Robert, it's great to have some feedback. I sometimes worry that the over abundance of text is off-putting, but it's been great fun to read through these historic and personal accounts.