John James Audubon (1785–1851)
John James Audubon, a frontier naturalist and artist, is famous for illustrating and writing The Birds of America. He visited Arkansas Territory in 1820 and 1822 and documented Arkansas’s birds, including the Traill’s flycatcher, also known as the willow flycatcher, which is the only bird originally discovered in Arkansas.
John Audubon was born Jean Rabin on April 26, 1785, in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). He was the illegitimate child of Jean Audubon, a ship’s captain, and Jeanne Rabin, a French chambermaid. His mother died in 1785 or 1786, and Jean Audubon and his children returned to France after a slave revolt. Along with his sister, he was adopted by his father and stepmother in 1794.
Audubon stayed with his father and stepmother in Nantes, France, during and after the French Revolution. His father was an official in the new republic, and Audubon received tutoring at home. In 1803, using the Anglicized name John James Audubon, he was sent to America to avoid service in Napoleon Bonaparte’s military. After recovering from yellow fever in New York, he lived in Mill Grove near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he met Lucy Bakewell. They married on April 5, 1808, and had two sons and a daughter. Later in Kentucky, he shared ownership in a store, and then a steam sawmill, before going bankrupt in 1819.
Audubon traveled the Mississippi River along eastern Arkansas from November 26 until December 20, 1820. In December, he wrote a note to the Arkansas territorial governor, James Miller, stating: “My ardent wish to complete a collection of drawings of the birds of our country from nature, all of natural size, begun about 15 years since…makes me wish to travel as far at least as the Osage Nation on the Arkansas, as also along the whole of our (United States) frontiers.” He arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, on January 7, 1821, where he painted portraits.
In 1822, he returned to Arkansas and visited the area around Arkansas Post (Arkansas County). It was here that he discovered the Traill’s flycatcher (willow flycatcher). No other bird has been scientifically discovered in Arkansas. Audubon wrote: “I have named this species after my learned friend Dr. Thomas Stewart Traill of Liverpool.” Other local birds in The Birds of America are the Arkansas flycatcher (Plate CCCLIX) and the Arkansas siskin (Plate CCCC). He also included the ivory-billed woodpecker (Plate LXVI) and the mockingbird (Plate XXI).
Audubon sold subscriptions to The Birds of America. The engravings were hand colored in London and sent to individual subscribers in groups of five. All of the illustrations were life-sized. The project was completed in 1838.
In the illustrations, Audubon’s birds appear interacting with each other and their surroundings. He used compositions that were interesting and dramatic, and the positions of the birds were not based on observation. This led to criticism that he was unscientific. However, The Birds of America was highly successful in the United States and Europe, and Audubon was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a member of the Royal Society of London. Audubon documented the birds and their natural habitat at a time when photography was unavailable.
Audubon spent his last years in New York. After suffering from dementia, he died on January 27, 1851. His burial site is Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan. The Audubon Society, incorporated in 1905, was named in his honor.
For additional information:
Audubon, John James. Audubon’s Birds of America: The Royal Octavo Edition. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 1994.
–––––. The Audubon Reader. Edited by Richard Rhodes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
–––––. Writings and Drawings. Edited by Christoph Irmscher. Library of America 113. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1999.
Audubon’s Birds of America at the University of Pittsburgh. http://digital.library.pitt.edu/a/audubon/ (accessed July 13, 2009).
Chancellor, John. Audubon: A Biography. New York: Viking, 1978.
Nobles, Gregory. John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
Souder, William. Under a Wild Sky. New York: North Point, 2004.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated: 01/23/2017