Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/January 1890/Sketch of Alexander Wilson

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Alexander Wilson


A PECULIAR interest attaches to the lives and labors of pioneers. The circumstances which led to the discovery of a new continent, the first application of one of the forces of nature to the service of man, the making of the first instrument for viewing the stars, and the first description of the animals, plants, or physical features of a country, always have eager readers. Then, too, the personality of a man who has the courage and originality to set forth into an untrodden field is generally picturesque and inspiring. All these claims to attention are possessed by the pioneer American ornithologist.

Alexander Wilson was born on the 6th of July, 1766, at Paisley, in Renfrewshire, which lies just south of the river Clyde. His father, Alexander Wilson, was a weaver, and reached the age of eighty-eight years, dying in 1816. During the latter part of his life, at any rate, the father was rated as a most exemplary citizen, but there is a glamour of "moonshine" about his early manhood, in the sense that, when not occupied with tending the loom, he operated a "wee still," from which trickled good Scotch whisky that was consumed without paying tribute to the tax-collector. This has naturally been denied, but not with entire success. His wife was a Mary McNab, of a strictly pious character, and with the beauty that frequently accompanies a tendency to consumption. Of this disease she died when young Alexander, who was one of three children, was ten years old.

Like many devout Scottish folk, the parents of "Alic," especially his mother, cherished the ambition that their boy should "wag his head i' the puppit yet," but his genius did not lie in the direction of the ministerial office. He attended the Grammar School of Paisley, but his schooling must have been interrupted and of no great amount, for much of his boyhood was otherwise occupied, and his deficiencies in grammar, spelling, etc., clung to him till manhood. He is known to have struggled with his backwardness in arithmetic after emigrating to America. His hand-writing was called excellent, and his language was simple and idiomatic. The taste for reading, which he early developed, largely made up for his scanty schooling. At one time he was sent to be a herd on a farm called Bakerfield, not far from Paisley, where he remained probably not more than a single summer. It is said that "he was a very careless herd, letting the kye transgress on the corn, being very often busied with some book."

In his thirteenth year he was bound apprentice as a weaver, for three years, to his brother-in-law, William Duncan. Having served out his time in 1782, he continued a weaver "by constraint, not willingly," for four years, living part of the time under his father's roof in Paisley and in Lochwinnoch, and finally with his brother-in-law at Queensferry. His taste was for outdoor life, and he had inherited a feeble constitution from his mother, so that the loom was irksome to him both mentally and physically. During this period young Wilson began to contribute verses to the local newspapers. His best piece, however, "Watty and Meg," was published in 1792, as a penny chap-book, without his name, and was ascribed to Robert Burns. The latter, who lived not far away, and was but six years older, 'strengthened the compliment by avowing that he should have been glad to be its author. Wilson's descriptive pieces are interesting, from the evidence they give of his natural fondness for the woods and fields.

After a while Duncan decided to "travel" as a peddler through the eastern districts of Scotland, and invited Alexander to accompany him. Accordingly, the two abandoned the loom and entered upon their new occupation. The Scotch peddler of that time was generally a man of shrewdness and common sense, probably resembling the best type of our own departed Yankee peddler, and was generally respected by the common people, but often suspected and despised by the wealthier. This occupation, although it delivered Wilson from the confinement of the weaving-room, was not all sunshine. It involved trials and rebuffs, which to a man, as Grosart[1] calls him, "of sensitive, strangely refined if also in elements as strangely coarsened temperament," must have been hardly borne. His "Journal as a Pedlar," several poems bearing on his experiences of the road, and his earlier letters, give a realizing sense of the lights and shadows of this kind of life. In addition to his trading, he solicited subscriptions for a volume of poems, which he published in 1790.

In a short time he dropped the pack and returned to his hated trade of weaving. Being in ill-health and sorely oppressed by poverty, he was at this period much given to despondency. Yet he had a humor which enabled him at times to joke about his necessities. He had a gift of satire, also, which got him into some trouble, but which was the cause of his taking the first step in the path that led to fame. Industrial affairs in Great Britain at that time were greatly unsettled. Many of the Paisley weavers were unemployed, and capital and labor were arrayed against each other. Some of the turbulent spirits among his fellow weavers induced the enthusiastic young Wilson to use his talent for verse making to abuse the capitalists. Several poems of his, portraying in no flattering light certain local petty tyrants, were adjudged libelous, and Wilson, who manfully acknowledged their authorship, was fined heavily, and condemned to burn the poems in public. Being unable to pay the fine, he was sent to jail.

In this hour of gloom, Wilson's eyes were turned to the New World. Attracted by the chances for winning his way open to a free man in a new country, he determined to emigrate. Accordingly, he and his nephew, William Duncan, sailed from Belfast Loch, Friday, May 23, 1794, and after a voyage of over seven weeks landed at Newcastle, Delaware. Wilson was then twenty-eight years old. He and young Duncan went first to Wilmington, and from there to Philadelphia, looking for employment at weaving. At the latter place, he writes in his first letter home to his father and step-mother, "we made a more vigorous search than ever for weavers, and found, to our astonishment, that, though the city contains between forty and fifty thousand people, there is not twenty weavers among the whole, and these had no conveniences for journeymen, nor seemed to wish for any: so, after we had spent every farthing we had, and saw no hopes of anything being done that way, we took the first offer of employment we could find, and have continued so since." This employment was in the shop of a copper-plate printer. The above quoted letter was a long and very newsy one, and contains Wilson's first observation of the feathered creatures that were to make his fame. He writes: "As we passed through the woods on our way to Philadelphia, I did not observe one bird such as those in Scotland, but all much richer in color. We saw a great number of squirrels, snakes about a yard long, and some red birds, several of which I shot for our curiosity."

Wilson remained in his first found employment but a few weeks. After that he worked at his trade of weaving at a place ten miles north of Philadelphia, and for a short time in Virginia. In 1795 he tramped through northern New Jersey as a peddler. He had been in America but little over a year when he took up school-teaching, and at this occupation he succeeded remarkably well, although it gave him only a scanty income. He first opened a school at Frankford, but soon gave it up to become master of the school at Milestown, in Philadelphia County, where he taught for nearly six years. His own education had been limited; so, after he began to teach, he had to study diligently to make up his deficiencies. He advanced so far in mathematics that he was enabled to take occasional employment as a surveyor.

After leaving Milestown he taught for a while at Bloomfield, N. J., but he found this place disagreeable, and he was at the same time burdened with a trouble, only dimly revealed in his letters, but in which one of the Milestown young ladies figured. He became very despondent, and even thought of returning to Scotland. It was not long before he obtained a school at Kingsessing, near Gray's Ferry, on the Schuylkill. His removal to this place was attended with important results. He became acquainted with William Bartram, whose famous garden was not far away, and with Alexander Lawson, the engraver, both of whom became his steadfast friends. Bartram lent him books, among them, the works of Catesby and Edwards. In the parts of these works relating to American birds, Wilson's own acquaintance with the birds was enough to show him an exasperating number of errors, false theories, and caricatured figures. During the early part of his life at this place Wilson was so despondent that Lawson at one time feared for his reason, and advised him to give up poetry and his flute, which seemed to increase his melancholy, and to take up drawing. This accomplishment does not seem to have come very naturally to him, for he made a failure of the landscapes and human figures which Lawson set before him. Still, the statement of an American writer, that he was "without any previously suspected aptitude," is denied by Mr. Grosart, who adds that drawings by him before he left Scotland are preserved in the Paisley Museum with the collection of Wilson's manuscripts. Bartram and his niece, Miss Nancy, started him again on easier subjects, first flowers, and then birds, with which he made encouraging success.

It is in a letter to one of his Scottish biographers, his old friend in Paisley, Mr. Thomas Crichton, under date of June 1, 1803, that Wilson's determination to study the birds of America is earliest recorded. "Close application to the duties of my profession," he writes, "which I have followed since November, 1795, has deeply injured my constitution, the more so that my rambling disposition was the worst calculated of any one's in the world for the austere regularity of a teacher's life. I have had many pursuits since I left Scotland—mathematics, the German language, music, drawing, etc., and I am now about to make a collection of all our finest birds." At first he devoted only leisure hours to the birds, and his figures "were chiefly colored by candle-light," but he soon began to make longer and longer expeditions. In October, 1804, he set out with two companions, on foot, to visit Niagara. From there he went through the lake region of central New York, visiting his sister and her children, who were living on a farm that Wilson and his nephew William had bought together. He made his way home down the Mohawk Valley to Albany, and thence by boat to New York. In this journey, occupying two months, he traversed over twelve hundred miles. Winter overtook him in the midst of it, so that the latter part of it was made "through deep snows and almost uninhabited forests; over stupendous mountains and down dangerous rivers." The trip seems to have benefited both his health and spirits, for in his account of it, written to Bartram,he expresses eagerness for wider explorations and new discoveries. "With no family to enchain my affections, no ties but those of friendship, and the most ardent love of my adopted country; with a constitution which hardens amid fatigues, and a disposition sociable and open, which can find itself at home by an Indian fire in the depth of the woods, as well as in the best apartment of the civilized [world], I have at present a real design of becoming a traveler. But I am miserably deficient in many acquirements absolutely necessary for such a character. Botany, mineralogy, and drawing I most ardently wish to be instructed in, and with these I should fear nothing." How oblivious to matters of detail his enthusiasm made him can be judged, Ord[2] remarks, from the fact that at this time Wilson's available cash amounted to seventy-five cents.

Two of the birds which he shot in New York, one being the Canada jay, were unknown to Wilson's associates. He made careful drawings-of them, and got Mr. Bartram to send them to President Jefferson, whom Wilson much admired. The President, who was quite an amateur naturalist, replied with a very appreciative letter, in which he put Wilson on the track of a certain sweet-singing and very unapproachable bird. He had "followed it for miles without ever, but once, getting a good view of it," and had for twenty years tried to get a specimen without success. "After many inquiries and unwearied research," says Ord, "it turned out that this invisible musician was no other than the wood robin, a bird which, if sought for in those places which it affects, may be seen every hour of the day." The next summer Wilson announced to Bartram his determination to make a collection of drawings of the birds of Pennsylvania, and sent him twenty-eight for criticism. The scope of his undertaking was extended, within a few months, so as to include the whole United States. He had planned an expedition down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for the summer of 1806 with Bartram; but the latter, who was nearly seventy years old, gave up the idea. Wilson, who had heard that explorers were to be sent up the Red and Arkansas Rivers, through the recently acquired Territory of Louisiana, then offered himself to President Jefferson for this service. "Mr. Wilson," says Ord, "was particularly anxious to accompany Pike, who commenced his journey from the cantonment on the Missouri, for the sources of the Arkansas, etc., on the 15th of July, 1806." But no reply was made to his application.

In April he was engaged by the publishers, Messrs. Bradford and Inskeep, as assistant editor for the revision of Rees's "New Cyclopædia," on "a generous salary," namely, nine hundred dollars a year. He now gave up school-keeping, which had been his calling for ten years. While in this position, he made known his plans for the "American Ornithology" to Bradford, who readily agreed to undertake its publication. A prospectus was immediately issued, and a year later, in September, 1808, the first volume of the work appeared. In the fall of that year he made a trip through New England, "in search of birds and subscribers." On the way from Philadelphia he stopped at Princeton, to show his work to the college professors. He expected to get some valuable information on American birds from the Professor of Natural History, "but," he writes, "I soon found, to my astonishment, that he scarcely knew a sparrow from a woodpecker." Wherever he showed his book to college professors, and other literary men, the highest praise was lavished upon it, but subscriptions were not so freely forthcoming, the price, one hundred and twenty dollars, being a serious obstacle. He wrote from Albany, on his way home, that he had obtained only forty-one subscribers. One of the less intelligent personages, whose favor he had sought, was the then Governor of New York—Daniel D. Tompkins. This magnate, as Wilson informs us, "turned over a few pages, looked at a picture or two, asked me my price, and, while in the act of closing the book, added, 'I would not give a hundred dollars for all the birds you intend to describe, even had I them alive.'"

He soon set off again on a trip through Baltimore, Washington (where he was received "very kindly" by Jefferson), and other Southern cities, and when he reached home had in all two hundred and fifty subscribers. In the South he shot several new birds. It was now deemed advisable to add three hundred impressions of Volume I to the two hundred first struck off, and the second volume started with an edition of five hundred copies. His undertaking had already won him "reputation and respect," but the pecuniary return was still doubtful.

Volume II of the "Ornithology" was ready in 1810, and in February of that year Wilson set out on another hunt for new specimens of the feathered tribes and those rare birds—subscribers. His varied adventures on these expeditions, and his impressions of the people and places that he visited, are delightfully recorded in the letters which Mr. Grosart collected.

At Hanover, Pa., he met a judge who condemned his work because "it was not within the reach of the commonality, and therefore inconsistent with our republican institutions." Wilson turned the tables on this learned man by showing that the judge's elegant three-story brick house was open to the same objection; and then in a more serious vein pointed out to him the benefit which a young, rising nation can derive from science, "till he began to show such symptoms of intellect as to seem ashamed of what he said." From Pittsburg Wilson made his way in a skiff down the Ohio over seven hundred miles, nearly to Louisville, stopping at the important towns on the way.

At Louisville one of the persons on whom he called was Audubon, then thirty years old and engaged in business. Audubon has left an account of this meeting, in which he thus describes Wilson's physical appearance: "How well do I remember him as he 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 stature was not above the middle size." Audubon claims that he was about to subscribe for the "Ornithology," but a complimentary reference to his own knowledge of birds, spoken in French by his partner, checked him. "Vanity and the encomium of my friend prevented me from subscribing," he writes, and to this he adds that he lent some of his drawings to Wilson, and hunted with him, obtaining some birds which the latter had never seen before. Audubon states also that being in Philadelphia some time afterward he called on Wilson, who received him with civility, but did not speak of birds or drawings. Against this story must be set the following extract from Wilson's diary published in the ninth volume of the "Ornithology": "March 23d, I bade adieu to Louisville, to which place I had four letters of recommendation, and was taught to expect much of everything there; but neither received one act of civility from those to whom I was recommended, one subscriber, nor one new bird; though I delivered my letters, ransacked the woods repeatedly, and visited all the characters likely to subscribe. Science or literature has not one friend in this place." "We must take Audubon's account," says his own biographer, Robert Buchanan, "cum grano salis," while Grosart, eager in defense of Wilson, does not hesitate to call it "a tissue of lies," except his admission that vanity kept him from subscribing to Wilson's work.

Turning southward, Wilson crossed Kentucky to Tennessee, and proceeded through the Chickasaw and Choctaw countries to Natchez, and thence went to New Orleans.

By persistent labor the successive volumes of the "Ornithology" were issued up to the seventh, which appeared in the spring of 1813. On the 6th of July in that year he wrote: "I am myself far from being in good health. Intense application to study has hurt me much. My eighth volume is now in the press and will be published in November. One volume more will complete the whole." But he was not to see the appearance of even the eighth volume. The unremitting labor of that summer, carried on in the city, where even his tramps with his gun were cut off, so reduced his strength that he succumbed to an attack of his old enemy the dysentery and died, August 23, 1813, at the age of forty-seven. The immediate cause of the attack was his swimming a river in pursuit of a rare bird that he caught sight of while visiting a friend. Wilson died unmarried, although in his letters he condemns celibacy, and shows that he was not indifferent to female companionship. In fact, he was to have married a Miss Miller, whom he made one of his executors. George Ord, who had accompanied Wilson on some of his trips, was made a co-executor, and completed the publication of the "Ornithology," prefixing to the last volume a life of the author. The original edition of Wilson's great work is now rare. It comprises nine thin folio volumes, about eleven by fourteen inches in size. Several birds are figured on each plate—the smallest ones of life-size, the others reduced. An edition in three volumes, including the birds afterward described by Prince Bonaparte, was issued in 1829-'36,[3] and another in four volumes, edited by Prof. Robert Jameson, in 1831.

Wilson was no compiler; he took his facts from his own observations, or the accounts of those who had known the birds for a lifetime. He had, further, as Grosart says, a "magnetical sympathy with the birds whereby his descriptions of their looks and ways and faculties take the coloring of so many little biographies of personal friends."

Sir William Jardine says of Wilson: "He was the first who truly studied the birds of North America in their natural abodes, and from real observations; and his work will ever remain an ever-to-be-admired testimony of enthusiasm and perseverance—one certainly unrivaled in descriptions; and if some plates and illustrations may vie with it in finer workmanship or pictorial splendor, few, indeed, can rival it in fidelity and truth of delineation."

  1. "The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson," edited, with Memorial Introduction, Essay, etc., by the Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, two vols., Paisley, 1876.
  2. "Life of Alexander Wilson," by George Ord. In Volume IX of the "American Ornithology."
  3. "American Ornithology," by Alexander Wilson and Prince Charles Lucien Bonaparte. Edited, with a Life of Wilson, by Sir William Jardine, Bart.