Today's Articles

People, Locations, Episodes

Tue, 04.26.1785

John Audubon, Artist, and Slave-Owner born

John Audubon

*John Audubon was born on this date in 1785. He was a French American ornithologist, naturalist, painter, and slave owner. He painted, cataloged, and described the birds of North America.

John James Audubon was born in Haiti (then called Saint Domingue), the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon, a French sea captain and slave master, and Jeanne Rabin.  She was a Black Creole slave woman from the Congo and Jean Audobon's chambermaid and mistress. The circumstances of his parentage may have been the basis for later claims that he was instead Louis XVII, the "Lost Dauphin" of France.

Audubon was raised in Nantes, France, by his stepmother. In 1803 his father obtained a false passport for him to travel to the United States to avoid the Napoleonic Wars. He caught yellow fever, and the sea captain placed him in a boarding house run by Quaker women who nursed him to recovery and taught him the Quaker form of English. That year he met and became engaged to his neighbor Lucy Bakewell, whom he married in 1808.

He managed a family farm near Philadelphia and began the study of natural history by conducting the first bird banding on the continent; he tied yarn to the legs of Eastern Phoebes and determined that they returned to the same nesting spots year after year.  He also began drawing and painting birds. In later years he claimed to have hunted in the Appalachians with Daniel Boone.

In the 18-teens, when the Audubons lived in Henderson, Kentucky, they had nine enslaved people working for them in their household, but by the end of the decade, when faced with financial difficulties, they had sold them. In early 1819, for instance, Audubon took two enslaved men with him down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a skiff, and when he got there, he put the boat and the men up for sale. The Audubons then acquired several more enslaved people during the 1820s but again sold them in 1830; after years of business success in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, he was broke. This compelled him to pursue his nature study and painting more, and he sailed off down the Mississippi with his gun, paint box, and assistant, intent on finding and painting all the birds of North America.

On his arrival in New Orleans in the spring of 1821, he lived at 706 Barracks Street for a time. That summer+G427, he moved upriver to the Oakley Plantation in the Felicianas to teach drawing to Eliza Pirrie, the owner's young daughter, and where he spent much of his time roaming and painting in the woods. (The plantation, located at 11788 Highway 965, between Jackson and St. Francisville, is now Audubon State Historic Site, and guided tours are available almost daily.)

To draw or paint the birds, he had to shoot them first, using fine shots to prevent them from being shot to pieces. He then used fixed wires to prop them up, restoring a natural position. His birds are set true to life in their natural habitat. This starkly contrasts with the stiff representations of birds by his contemporaries, such as Alexander Wilson. Audubon once wrote: "I call birds few when I shoot less than one hundred per day."

One of his biographers, Duff Hart-Davis, revealed: "The rarer the bird, the more eagerly he pursued it, never apparently worrying that by killing it he might hasten the extinction of its kind." Since he had no other income, he earned living selling portraits on demand while his wife, Lucy, worked as a tutor to rich plantation families. He sought a publisher for his birds in Philadelphia but was rebuffed, partly because he had earned the enmity of some of the city's leading scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

He didn't have very much luck selling them in America. Finally, in 1826 he set sail with his portfolio to Liverpool. The British couldn't get enough images of backwoods America, and he was an instant success. He was lionized as "The American Woodsman" and raised enough money to publish his Birds of America. This consisted of hand-colored, life-size prints made from engraved plates measuring around 39 by 26 inches. This original edition, known as the Double Elephant folio, it is often regarded as the greatest picture book ever produced.  In 1834, he wrote to his wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, that the British government had “acted imprudently and too precipitously”  emancipating enslaved people in its West Indian possessions.

Even King George IV was an avid fan of Audubon. He was elected a fellow of London's Royal Society. In this, he followed the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, who was the first American fellow. While in Edinburgh to seek subscriptions for his book, he demonstrated his method of using wires to prop up birds at professor Robert Jameson's Wernerian Natural History Association with the student Charles Darwin in the audience. Also, he visited the dissecting theatre of the anatomist Robert Knox (not long before Knox became associated with Burke and Hare).

He followed his Birds of America up with a companion work, Ornithological Biographies, and life histories of each species written with Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray. Both the books of paintings and the biographies were published between 1827 and 1839. During that time, Audubon continued making expeditions in North America and bought an estate on the Hudson River, now Audubon Park. In 1842 he published a popular edition of Birds of America in the United States. His final work was on mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was written in collaboration with his good friend Rev. John Bachman (of Charleston, South Carolina), who supplied much of the scientific text. It was completed by his sons and son-in-law and published posthumously.

John Audubon died in 1851, buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, New York. The National Audubon Society was incorporated and named in his honor in 1905. Several towns and one county (in Iowa) also bear his name.  There have long been lingering questions about Audubon’s own racial identity. His birth in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to one of his father’s two mistresses on a sugar plantation suggests he may have shared some African descent.

The truth of that may be impossible to know for sure even now. Audubon may not have known for sure himself, yet he took care to leave a specific impression.   In an essay written for his sons, he described his birth mother as a lovely and wealthy “lady of Spanish extraction” from Louisiana, who went back to Saint-Domingue with Audubon’s father and became “one of the victims during the ever-to-be-lamented period of negro insurrection on that island.” Neither part is true, but both could have been useful to Audubon

To be an Artist


Black Hisory Now

John James Audubon Park
3100 US Highway 41
North Henderson, KY 42419-0576

New Poem Each Day

Poetry Corner

He waltzes into the lane ‘cross the free-throw line, Fakes a drive pivots, floats from the asphalt turf in an arc of black light, and sinks two in the chains. One on... MAKIN’ JUMP SHOTS by Michael S. Harper.
Read More