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ings of birds for Bartram's criticism, a month
later, he says : " These are the last I sha.11
draw for some time, as the employment
consumes every leisure moment, leaving
nothing for friendship or those rural recrea-
tions which I so much delight in." This
resolve, apparentiy, was in consequence of
a determination to emancipate himself, if
possible, fit)m the bondage of the school
by the use of his pen. Poetical contribu-
tions of his begin from this time to appear
in Charles Brockden Brown's *' Literary
Magazine"; but he received for them no
more substantial retirni than the thanks of
the publisher and some gratifying lauda-
tions ; and he apparently persisted from the
hope — ^which, indeed, seems ultimately to
have been justified — that the reputation thus
to be acquired might lead to some such ad-
vancement as should facilitate the production
of the work he was already brooding upon.
In the autumn of this y«ar of experiments,
Wilson made a trial of his strength for the
fatigues his project must involve, by setting
out, with two companions, upon a pedes-
trian excursion to the Falls of Niagara.
With the Falls and the surroimding Qoimtry
he was enraptured ; but the pilgrimage had
not been commenced until October, alto-
gether too late in the season for wanderings
through so desolate a region as that they
traversed, and winter overtook them in the
Genesee country, obliging them to make
their way through snow nearly mid-leg deep.
One of the party, William Duncan, fell off
at Cayuga Lake, remaining among his
friends; Wilson's remaining companion,
after dragging himself in the track of his
leader, through snow and mud, uiltil he was
completely worn out, took to a boat de-
scending the Mohawk River, soon after they
had passed Utica; so that the persevering
tourist was left to trudge alone, gun and
baggage on his back, to Schenectady,
whence, rejoined by his companion, he pro-
ceeded by stage to Albany, and by schooner
to New Yoric. " My boots," he says* in the
letter recounting to Duncan the conclusion
of the trip, " were now reduced to legs and
upper leathers ; and my pantaloons in a sad
plight. Twelve dollars were expended on
these two articles. ♦ ♦ On Friday, the
7th December, I reached Gray's Ferry,
having walked forty-seven miles that day.
I was absent t^vo months on this journey,
and I traversed in that time upward of
twelve hundred miles. The evening of my
arrival I went to L***h's, whose wife had



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WILSON, THE ORNITHOLOGIST.



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got twins, a boy and a girl. The boy was
called after me ; this honor took six dollars
more from me. After paying for a cord of
wood, I was left with only three quarters of
a dollar'' Yet, nothing daunted either by
this foretaste of the labors he was proposing
to himself, or by the imminence of financial
collapse, he had scarcely settled himself at
home before he was projecting new wander-
ings. Just a week after his return, he writes
to Bartram : " I feel more eager than ever to
commence some more extensive expedition,
where scenes and subjects entirely new, and
generally unknown, might reward my cu-
riosity; and when perhaps my humble
acquisitions might add something to the
stores of knowledge. • • I have at pres-
ent a real design of becoming a traveler.
But," he goes on, with a confession which is
almost pathetic, " 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. Can I yet make any progress in
botany, sufficient to enable me to be useful,
and what would be the most proper way to
proceed ?" Preliminary to any new excur-
sions was the necessity of replenishing his
wasted exchequer through the irksome in-
strumentality of the school. But the school
had now become at best a precarious de-
pendence. The winter of i8o4-'5 ^^ ^^
extraordinarily severe one, and the suflfering
and want throughout the country were so
universal that few had means of paying for
their children's tuition. In his first letter to
William Duncan, after his return, Wilson
wrote : " This quarter will do little more than
defiraymy board and fire- wood. Comfortable
intelligence truly, methinks I hear you say ;
but no matter." Toward the close of March,
he reverts to the subject: "I told you in
my last of the thinness of my school: it
produced in the last quarter only twenty-six
scholars ; and the sum oi fifteen dollars was
all the money I could raise from them at
the end of the term. I immediately called
the trustees together, and, stating the afiair
to them, proposed giving up the school.
Two of them on the spot offered to subscribe
between them one hundred dollars a year,
rather than permit me to go ; and it was
agreed to call a meeting of the people ; the
result was honorable to me, for forty-eight
scholars were instantly subscribed for; so
that the ensuing six months my school will
be worth pretty near two hundred dollars."
The mere co-existence of such ambitions as



Wilson's, with an income of less than four
hundred dollars a year, would be melan-
choly enough; but it must ftirther be
remembered that during all this time the
support of the Duncan family hung like an
incubus upon him. In May of this same
year, in writing to William Duncan con-
cerning a proposed sale of the farm and the
obligations he had incurred on account of
it, he observes : " I am living a mere hermit,
not spending one farthing, to see if I can
possibly reimburse • • • •, who I can see
is not so courteous and affiible as formerly.
I hope to be able to pay him one himdred
dollars, with interest, next October, and the
remainder in the spring ; we shall then be
clear of the world ; and I don't care how
many privations I suffer to eflfect that."

Meanwhile Wilson had not lost sight of
his design to make his name known in liter-
ature* After his return from Niagara,
except for drawings of two birds of his own
discovery which he sent to President Jeffer-
son, he appears to have devoted all his leis-
ure hours for many weeks to the composi-
tion of "The Foresters," a poem descriptive
of his recent tour, which grew to a length
of two thousand two himdred and eighteen
lines, and was published with illustrations
on steely in the " Port Folio." But, as the
return of spring brought back the birds, he
was absorbed more intendy than ever in his
ornithological and artistic pursuits. Learn-
ing about this time that the plates illustrat-
ing Edwards's work on natural history had
been etched by the hand of its author, Wil-
son examined them carefully and remained
persuaded that, with some mstruction and
practice in etching, he could produce figures
more accurate m their delineation and
greatly superior in spirit and life. At once
he applied for Lawson's assistance, provided
himself with copper, and took his first lesson
under the supervision of the engraver. On
the very next day the latter, according to
his own story, was astounded by his pupil's
" bouncing " ■ into his room, shouting, " I
have finished my plate ! Let us bite it in
with aquafortis at once, for J must have a
proof before I leave town." The prints did
not equal his expectations ; and, after com-
pleting a second plate, which was finished
about the close of the year, he was reluc-
tandy convinced that nothing but the accu-
racy of the graver could give his illustrations
the elegance he desired.* Of the art of

• These two plates, the only ones which Wilson
himself executed, stand at the commencement of the
illustrations of the " Ornithology."



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WILSON, THE ORNITHOLOGIST.



engraving he knew nothing, and its acquisi-
tion was too laborious an undertaking for
even Wilson's enthusiasm, while the means
of paying for the illustrations of a single
volume on the scale he designed were
wholly beyond his reach. In this emer-
gency, and as the only solution of his
dilemma, he proposed to Lawson to unite
with him in the production of the work as a
joint undertaking ; but the latter could not
in prudence see his way to assume the risk,
and the indomitable naturalist, baffled but
not disheartened, declared his intention to
go on with the publication alone. " I shall,
at least," he said, " leave a small beacon to
point out where I perished." He began,
accordingly, early in 1806, to plan for the
journeys necessary to complete his re-
searches, when he learned through the
newspapers that President Jefferson pur-
posed fitting out expeditions during the
ensuing summer for the scientific exploration
of the tributaries of the Mississippi. Bar-
tram's relations with Jefferson, as a corre-
spondent of many years' standing, and his
own recent self-introduction in the affair of
the bird-pictures, might serve, he thought,
to bring about his employment upon one of
these surveying parties ; so, early in Febru-
ary, seconded by Bartram's attestation
of his capacity and acquirements,* he ad-
dressed an application to the President,
stating the nature of his own design, and
requesting his attachment to any of the
exploring parties. For some reason which
has never been explained, Jefferson took no
notice of this application, a circumstance
which Wilson's Scottish biographer finds
demonstrative of the indifference of republics
to science, and which Wilson, with more
justice, treats as a great "impoliteness" on
the part of the President, adding that " no
hurry of business could excuse it." As
weeks passed without bringing him a re-
sponse, Wilson seems to have yielded so far
to this disappointment and to the exigencies
of the Duncans, as to have given up his
trip for this year. At the end of February
he writes to William Duncan : " If I should
not be engaged by Mr. Jefferson, a journey
by myself and at my own expense, at a
time, too, when we are just getting our
heads above water, as one may say, would
not be altogether good policy. Perhaps in
another year we might be able, without so
much injury, to make a tour together through
part of the South-west countries, which would
double all the pleasures of the journey to
me. I will proceed in the affair as you may



think best, notwithstanding my eager wishes
and the disagreeableness of my present
situation." But, at this darkest hour of his
fortunes, when the future seemed to have
nothing in store for him, an opening pre-
sented itself for the accomplishment of all
his ambitions.

A Philadelphia bookseller, Samuel F.
Bradford, who was about bringing out a
new edition of " Rees's Cyclopedia," heard
of Wilson as a person qualified to superin-
tend the work, and engaged his services at
what the half-paid school-master considered
" a generous salary," the articles of agree-
ment being dated April 20, 1806. The
arrangement proved mutually satisfactory,
and it was not long before Wilson had laid
the plan of his projected "Ornithology" be-
fore his employer, who prompdy agreed to
become its publisher and to provide the
cost of its production. For a year Wilson
now labored with an assiduity that filled
him with pity for himself, " immured among
dusty books," as he wrote to Bartram, " and
compelled to forego the harmony of the
woods for the everlasting din of the city."
As the result of his diligence, Wilson was
able to inform Duncan, early in 1807, that
his drawings were already in the hands of
Lawson, who was just on the point of com-
pleting his first plate, and that the prospec-
tus of the work was in the press, and would
be circulated through the newspapers and •
by agents "in every town in the Union."
In September, 1808, the first volume was
published. Thus, after forty-two years of
privation and struggle, our indomitable nat-
uralist was rewarded with the first tangible
evidence of success in the work to which he
had dedicated his life — a life to which only
forty-seven years were allotted.

Almost the moment the book was pub-
lished — on September 21st, 1808 — Wilson
writes ftxDm Philadelphia to Bartram : " In
a few minutes I set out for the Eastern
States, through Boston to Maine, and back
through the State of Vermont, in search of
birds and subscribers." Very much in the
manner of the poetico-peddling excursions
through Scotland years before, he now voy-
aged eastwardly, purposing to visit each
town of importance along his route. His
first halt was made at Princeton, for the
piupose of submitting his book to the " rev-
erend doctors of the college," of whom Dr.
Smith, the President, and Dr. McLean,
Professor of Natural History, were the only
members of the Faculty he found at home.
They received him with hospitality and



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WILSON, THE ORNITHOLOGIST



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ALXXANDBR W11.SOM.



great interest, and — as, indeed, did all who
inspected the work, or as one must do even
now who turns for the first time the pages
of the original edition — professed amaze-
ment that a work so elegant in every detail



could have come from an American press.
The Princeton Professor of Natural History,
on his part, had a surprise in store for Wil-
son. " I expected," the latter wrote, ** to
receive some valuable, information from
McLean on the ornithology of the country,
but I soon found, to my astonishment, that
he scarcely knew a sparrow from a wood-
pecker. At his particular request I left a
specimen of the plates with him, and from
what passed between us I have hopes that
he will pay more attention to this depart-
ment of his profession than he has hitherto
done." This first indication of the lack of
intelligent appreciation for his labors, even
among the presumably learned, was to be
succeeded by «ibounding evidences of the
worse than Boeotian impenetrability of the
popular mind upon a subject whose practi-
cal utility was not obvious ; and our natu-
ralist was not long in discovering that he
must create the very taste upon which the
encouragement of his labors depended.*



• To this exigency, doubtless, is to be attributed
the pains which Wilson is at, throughout his work,
to enlist the interest of the public in the birds them-
selves and the study of their habits. He argues, for
instance, that many which are really men's oenefac-
t#rs have been most basely requited, and that legis>
ktive bounty has even been offered for the exter-
mination of species which, when it had become too
late, the &rmers would gladly have recalled. To



BARTKAM'S HOUSK in botanic CARDEMS, NBAR PHILADELPHIA.



Vol. XL— 45.



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698



WILSON, THE ORNITHOLOGIST.



From Princeton he proceeded by way of
New Brunswick, Elizabeth, and Newark, to
New York, receiving, he says, wherever he
stopped, "the most extravagant compli-
ments, which I would have very willingly
exchanged for a few simple subscriptions ^
In New York, as elsewhere, Wilson found
more admirers than patrons, the latter includ-
ing Tom Paine, the author of " The Rights
of Man," already moribund and living in
seclusion. " I spent the whole of this week,"
he wrote, " traversing the streets, from one
particular house to another^ till, I believe, I
became almost as well known as the public
crier or the clerk of the market, for I could
frequently perceive gendemen point me out
to others as I passed with my book under
my arm." From here he went by schooner
to New Haven, and thence by Middletown,
Hartford, Springfield, and Worcester, to
Boston, visiting 'the colleges of Yale and
Harvard, and receiving subscriptions from
their presidents, as he did afterward from
that of Dartmouth. In the general condi-
tion of New England he seems to have
been miserably disappointed. "There is
scarcely any currency in this country but

the "vulgar prejudice" against the woodpefcker ^e
returns again and again. He argues that "it is nei-
ther from motives of mischief nor amusement that
he slices off the bark or digs his way into the
trunks ;" that "the sound and healthy tree is not in
the least the object of his attention;'* that "the
diseased, infested with insects and hastening to
putrefaction, are his favorites; there the deadly
crawling enemy have found a lodgment, between
the bark and tender wood, to drink up the very vital
part of the tree. • * * ^ And yet," he con-
cludes, «* ignorance and prejudice stubbornly persist
in directing their indignation against the bird now
before us, the constant 'and mortal enemy of these
very vermin." The ignorance of the populace was
less diseusting to Wilson than that of the natural-
ists. He protests strenuously against " the abject
and degraded character which the Count de Buffon,
with equal eloquence and absurdity, has drawn of
the whole tribe of woodpeckers ;" and he refers tri-
umphantly to the habits of the birds, and to his own
delineations of them, to dispel the notion that " the
whole family of woodpeckers must look sad, sour,
and be miserable, to satisfy the caprice of a whimsi-
cal philosopher, who takes it into nis head that they
are and ought to be so." He is especially exasper-
ated at Button*s eternal reference of every sp)ecie8 m
the new world to one of the old, which, he says,
leaves an impression that American katydids are
merely European nightingales, degenerated in voice
by residence m this country, a theory really advanced
by the Count to explain the Voicelessness of the
woodthrush, which is, in reality, a beautiful singer.
Latham also sinned in this affirmation : " Bluebirds
are never seen in the trees, though they make their
nests in the holes of them ;" to which Wilson added,
as a parallel generalization, "the Americans are
never seen in the streets, though they build their
houses by the sides of them."



paper," he writes from Boston, " and I sol-
emnly declare that I do not recollect having
seen one hard dollar since I left New York.
Bills even of twenty-five cents, of a himdred
different banks, whose very names one has
never heard of before, are continually in
circulation. I say nothing of the jargon
which prevails in the country. • • • •
Except a few neat academies," he further
specified, after having traversed the New
England States westwardly and emerged at
Albany, " I found their school-houses equally
ruinous and deserted with ours; fields covered
with stones ; stone fences, scrubby oaks and
pine-trees ; wretched orchards ; scarcely one
grain-field in twenty miles ; the taverns along
the road dirty and filled with loungers
brawling about lawsuits and politics; the
people snappish and extortioners, lazy, and
two himdred years behind the Pennsylva-
nians in agricultural improvements." The
Eastern limit of his journey was at Portland,
Maine, where he remained three days, and,
in consequence of the Supreme Court being
then in session, " had an opportunity of see-
ing and conversing with people from the
•remotest boundaries of the United States in
this quarter, and received much interesting
information from them with regard to the
birds that frequent these northern regions."
Turning back at this point, he made his
way " through regions where nature and art
have done infinitely less to make it a fit
residence for man than any country I ever
traversed, to Albany, where the Legisla-
ture was assembled, and where his canvass-
ing tour ended. At this place the ornithol-
ogist met with a characteristic discourage-
ment on the occasion of his visit to the Gov-
ernor of New York, who " turned over a few
pages, looked at a. picture or two, asked me
my price, and, while in the act of dosing
the book, added : * I would not give a hun-
dred dollars for all the birds you intend to
describe, even had I them alive.' "• As a
summary of his labors, Wilson writes : " 1

• Wilson's biographers have exercised an unmer-
ited forbearance in suppressing the name of this
enlightened ruler, which was Daniel D. Tompkins.
Another ornithological anecdote which Wilson re-
counts, at the expense of the New York Lecislature,
is worthy of preservation. The pinnated grouse
was at inis time in a fair way to oe extemunated,
and some sportsmen had introduced a bill for its
protection, calling the bird by its popular name of
"heath-hen.** The title of the bill, accordingly,
was read by the chairman of the Assembly* as "An
Act for the Preservation of the Heathen,** which
impressed the members with a momentary belief
that some philanthropist was incomprehensibly in*
tent upon preserving the Indians*



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WILSON, THE ORNITHOLOGIST.



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have labored with the zeal of a knight-
errant in exhibiting this book of mine wher-
ever I went, traveling with it, like a beggar
with his bantling, from town to town, and
from one country to another. I have been
loaded with praises — with compliments
and kindnesses ; shaken almost to pieces
in stage-coaches ; have wandered among
strangers, hearing the same Oh's and Ah's,
and telling the same story a thousand
times over — and for what ? Ay, that's it !
You are very anxious to know, and you
shall know the whole when I reach
Philadelphia." His total return, in short,
for his long and expensive Eastern tour,
was the obtaining oi forty-one subscribers, .
even the most vociferous of his admirers
having stood aloof when the author came
.to name $120 as the price of the pro-
jected nine volumes, thus justifying his
misgiving that he had published ** a work
too good for the country." The trip had,
however, not been wholly unproductive,
since Wilson had bestirred himself in
"fixing correspondents in every comer of
these northern regions, like so many pickets
and outposts, so that scarcely a wren or tit
shall be able to pass along from York to
Canada, but I shall get intelligence of it."

Undeterred by the limited success of his
first trip, after spending but a few days in
Philadelphia, Wilson sallied forth anew, in
midwinter and alone, for a tour through the
South. His first stop was at Baltimore,
where he remained a week " with tolerabl .
success, having procured sixteen subscriber^
there." Thence he went to Annapolis, and
'^passed my book through both houses of the
Legislature. The wise men of Maryland
stared and gaped from bench to bench ; but
having never heard of such a thing as one
hundred and twenty dollars for a book, the
ayes for subscribing were noM, and so it was
unanimously determined in the tiegative^
From Annapolis he journeyed "through the
^obacco-fields, sloughs, and swamps of this
illiterate comer of the State," — opening, he
records, fifty-five gates in a distance of thirty-
eight miles, each of which obliged him to
descend into the mud, — and reached Wash-
ington in the last week of December. With
the capital itself he was naturally disgusted ;
but President Jefferson received him " very
kindly," and furnished him with letters to
persons having ornithological tastes. South
of Washington, especially after passing from
Virginia into North Carolina, the difficulties
of travel became very great. The route lay
"through solitary pine woods, perpetually



interrupted by swamps, that covered the road
with water two and three feet deep, frequently
half a mile at a time, looking like a long
river or pond. These in the aftemoon were
surmountable; but the weather, being ex-



WILSON'S SCHOOI^HOUSB AT KINCSBSSIMG.

ceedingly severe, they were covered every
morning with a sheet of ice, from half an
inch to an inch thick, that cut my horse's
legs and breast. After passing a bridge, I
had many times to wade, and twice to swim
my horse to get to the shore. • • • •
The tavems are the most desolate and beg-
garly imaginable. Bare, bleak, and dirty
walls, one or two old broken chairs and a
bench form all the furniture. • • • •
At supper you sit down to a meal, the very
sight of which is sufficient to deaden the
most eager appetite ; and you are surrounded
by half a dozen dirty, half-naked blacks,
male and female, whom any man of common
scent might smell a quarter of a mile off"."

Through all these difficulties Wilson made
his way with an impunity that astounded
the natives, whose one specific for avoiding
the ague was immoderate brandy-drinking,
whereas he never relaxed his rigid abstemious-
ness. Of Charleston, which he reached in
the latter part of Febmary, 1809, he subse-
quently reported, " I found greater difficul-
ties to surmount there than I had thought of.
I solicited several people for a list of names,
but that abject and disgraceftil listlessness
and want of energy which have unnerved



Online LibraryFrancis HallThe Century, Volume 11 → online text (page 122 of 163)