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A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen (Volume 8) online

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with his fowling piece in his hand, and only n few shillings in his pocket, with-
out a friend or letter of introduction, or any definite idea in what manner
he was to earn his future livelihood. He, nevertheless, set out cheerily on
foot towards Philadelphia a distance of thirty-three miles delighted with
everything he saw ; and it was curious enough, that almost his very first action
was shooting a red-headed woodpecker, as if indicative of the nature of his
future studies. It ought here to be remarked, that, previously to this time, Wil-
son had never manifested the slightest disposition to the study of ornithology.
On arriving at Philadelphia, an emigrant countryman, a copper-plate printer,
(from motives of charity, we presume,) employed him for some weeks at this
new profession ; but it is probable that both soon grew mutually tired of the
agreement. Wilson, at least, speedily relinquished the occupation, and betook
himself to his old trade of weaving, at which he persevered for about a twelve-
month. Having amassed some little savings, he resumed his old profession of
peddler, chiefly with the view of exploring the scenery and society of the
country, and traversed the greater part of the State of New Jersey, experiencing
considerable success with his pack. Upon his return, he finally abandoned the
professions of weaver and peddler, and betook himself to an occupation, which
of all others it might be supposed he was the least fitted by education and dis-
position to undertake, that of a schoolmaster. But it is evident that Wilson
adopted this profession, as much as a means of self-improvement, as of a live-
lihood. His first school was at Frankford, in Pennsylvania : thence he re-
moved to Milestown, where he continued for several years, assiduously culti-
vating many branches of learning, particularly mathematics and the modern
languages : thence to Bloomfield, New Jersey ; where he had scarcely settled
himself, when (in 1802) he was offered and accepted an engagement with the
trustees of a seminary in Kingsessing, on the river Schuylkill, about four miles
from Philadelphia ; and this was the last and most fortunate of all his migra-
tions. During all these eight years of shiftings and wanderings, Wilson's
career was almost one continued struggle with poverty, the principal part of
his income being acquired by occasional employment in surveying land for the
farmers ; yet his mind did not, as is usual with most men, become soured or
selfish under the incessant pressure of difficulties. On the contrary, he con-
tinued to write home such flattering accounts of his adopted country, as to
induce his nephew, William Duncan, (whose father was then dead,) to follow
him across the Atlantic, with his mother and a large family of brothers and sisters.
Wilson was at this time at Milestown; but when he heard of their arrival, he set
out on foot for New York, a distance of four hundred miles, for the sole pur-
pose of assisting in getting them comfortably settled. An American biographer
says, that, by the kindness of a Mr Sullivan, Wilson was enabled, in conjunc-
tion with his nephew, to purchase and stock a small farm, for the accommoda-
tion and support of his relatives ; after which he returned again on foot to the
ungracious labours of the school-room, accomplishing a journey of eight hundred
miles in twenty-eight days. To this family he continued ever afterwards to
pay the most unremitting and benevolent attention ; keeping up a constant
correspondence with his nephew, advising and encouraging him amid his diffi-
culties, and even redoubling his own exertions, by keeping a night-school, and
other laborious expedients, that he might contribute to the support of the
family. " Be assured," he says, in one of his letters to his nephew, " that I
will ever as cheerfully contribute to your relief in difficulties, as I will rejoice
with you in prosperity. But we have nothing to fear. One hundred bushels
of wheat, to be sure, is no great marketing; but has it not been expended in
the support of a mother, and infant brothers and sisters, thrown upon your

TV. 3 O


bounty in a foreign country ? Robert Burns, when the mice nibbled away liis
corn, said

' I'll get a blessing wi' the lave,
And never miss 't.'

Where he expected one, you may expect a thousand. Robin, by his own con-
fession, ploughed up his mice out of ' ha' and hame.' You have built for your
wanderers a cozie bield, where none dare molest them. There is more true
greatness in the affectionate exertions which you have made for their subsistence
and support, than the bloody catalogue of heroes can boast of. Your own
heart will speak peace and satisfaction to you, to the last moment of your life,
for every anxiety you have felt on their account." Nor did Wilson forget the
ties of relationship that still united him to the land of his birth. To his father
he wrote fully and regularly ; and his letters, both to him and his brother
David, are no less replete with sound sense, than ardent affection and excellent
moral feeling.

Wilson's removal to Kingsessing was the first lucky step towards the attain-
ment of that fame which hallows his memory. His salary was extremely in-
adequate to his labour, and almost to his subsistence ; but this situation
introduced him to the patronage of many kind and influential friends, and
afforded him opportunities of improving himself which he had never before en-
joyed. Amongst the former was William Bartram, the American Linnaeus of
the period, in whose extensive gardens and Avell-stocked library Wilson found
new and delightful sources of instruction and enjoyment ; and Mr Law-
son, the engraver, who initiated him into the mysteries of drawing, colouring,
and etching, which afterwards proved of such incalculable use to him when
bringing out his Ornithology. About this time Wilson tasked his powers to
their very utmost in the duties of his school and his efforts at self-improvement.
This severe exertion and confinement naturally preyed upon his health and de-
pressed his spirits ; but Messrs Bartram and Lawson, who seem to have known
little, personally, of the exhausting process of " o'er-informing the tenement
of clay," mistook the despondency and lassitude of body and mind thereby oc-
casioned in their friend, for the symptom of incipient madness. This
melancholy fact they attributed to his " being addicted to writing verses and
playing on the flute ;" and it would appear, that, in their efforts to wean him
from such perilous habits, they were at little pains to conceal their opinion even
from himself. While rambling in the woods one day Wilson narrowly escaped
destruction from his gun accidentally falling against his breast when cocked ;
and in his diary (which he uniformly kept), he blesses God for his escape, as,
had he perished, his two worthy friends would undoubtedly have loaded
his memory with the imputation of suicide. He complied, however, with their
request so far as to substitute drawing for poetry and music ; but he attained
not the slightest success until he attempted the delineation of birds. This de-
partment of the art, to use our old Scottish expression, " came as readily to his
hand as the bowl of a pint stoup," and he soon attained such perfection as
wholly to outstrip his instructors. His success in this new employment seems
to have first suggested the idea of his ornithological work, as we see from let-
ters to his friends in 1803, that he first mentions his purpose of " making a
collection of all our finest birds." Upon submitting his intentions to Messrs
Bartram and Lawson, these gentlemen readily admitted the excellence of his
plan, but started so many difficulties to its accomplishment, that, had Wilson
been a man of less nerve, or confidence in his own powers, he would have
abandoned the idea in despair. But he treated their remonstrances with


indifference, or something- more like scorn : he resolved to proceed at all risks
and hazards, and, for some time afterwards, busily employed himself in
collecting all the rarer specimens of birds in his own neighbourhood. In
October, 1804, he set out, accompanied by his nephew Duncan, and another
individual, upon an expedition to the Falls of Niagara, which wondrous scene,
according to his own account, he gazed upon with an admiration almost
amounting to distraction. On their return, the three friends were overtaken
by the storms of winter. Wilson's companions successively gave in t and left
him at different parts of their route ; but he himself toiled on through the mud
and snow, encumbered with his gun and fowling bag, the latter of which was of
course always increasing in bulk, and arrived safely at home, after an absence
of fifty-nine days, during which he had walked nearly 1260 miles, 47 of which
were performed the last day. Instead of being daunted by the fatigues and
hardships of the journey, we find him writing an account of it to his friends
with something like exultation, and delightedly contemplating future expedi-
tions of the like nature ; and this when his whole stock of money amounted to
three-fourths of a dollar! For some time after his return, he amused himself
with penning a poetical narrative of his journey, called " The Foresters," (af-
terwards published;) a piece much superior to any of his former descriptive
poems, and containing many even sublime apostrophes. From this time
forward, Wilson applied his whole energies to his ornithological work,
drawing, etching, and colouring all the plates himself, for he had in vain
endeavoured to induce his cautious friend Mr Lawson, to take any share in
the undertaking. In the spring of 1806, a favourable opportunity seemed to
present itself for prosecuting his researches, by a public intimation being given
of the intention of president Jefferson to despatch parties of scientific men to
explore the district of Louisiana. At Wilson's request, Mr Bartram, who was
intimate with the president, Avrote to him, mentioning Wilson's desire,
character, and acquirements, and strongly recommending his being employed
in the proposed survey. Wilson also wrote a respectful and urgent letter to
Jefferson, detailing the extensive plans of his work, and explaining all his pro-
ceedings and views. To these applications the president vouchsafed not one
word in reply ; a circumstance which convinced Wilson more and more nor
did he shrink from the conviction that he must stand self-sustained in the exe-
cuting of his great national undertaking. But his intrinsic and sterling merits
soon procured him a patronage which to his independent mind was, perhaps,
infinitely more gratifying than the condescending favours of a great man.
He received a liberal offer from Mr Bradford, a bookseller of Philadelphia, to
act as assistant editor in bringing out a new edition of Rees's Cyclopcedia, and
he gladly relinquished the toilsome and ill-rewarded duties of a schoolmaster to
betake himself to his new employment. Soon after this engagement, he laid
before Mr Bradford the plan of his Ornithology, with the specimens of com-
position and delineation which he had already executed ; and that gentleman
was so satisfied of Wilson's ability to complete it, that he at once agreed to
run all the risk of publication. All obstacles to the fulfilment of his great de-
sign being now removed, Wilson applied himself night and day to his double
task of author and editor, occasionally making a pedestrian excursion into
various districts for the benefit at once of his health (which was beginning to
decay) and of his great work. At length, in 1808, the first volume of
the American Ornithology made its appearance, and, much as the public had
been taught to expect from the advertisements and prospectuses previously is-
sued, the work far exceeded in splendour anything that had ever been seeii in
the country before. Immediately on its publication, the author set out on an ex-


petition through the eastern states, with the design of exhibiting his book and
soliciting subscribers. It is not our purpose to trace his course in this journey,
wherein he encountered hardships, vexations, and disappointments innumera-
ble but insufficient to check his ardour. The extent of his journey may bo
guessed at from the following extract from one of his letters when about to re-
turn : "Having now visited all the towns within one hundred miles of

the Atlantic, from Maine to Georgia, and done as much for this bantling book
of mine as ever author did for any progeny of his brain, I now turn my wish-
ful eyes towards home." Upon the whole the result of his expedition
was unsuccessful, for although he received most flattering marks of respect
wherever he went, the sacrifice of 120 dollars (for the ten volumes) proved a
sad check upon the enthusiasm of his admirers. His letters to his friends, in
which a full account of every part of this, as well as his subsequent journeys is
given, are in the highest degree interesting. In 1810, the second volume was
published, and Wilson immediately set out for Pittsburg, on his way to New
Orleans for the same purpose as before. On reaching Pittsburg, he was puz-
zled to think by what means he should descend the Ohio ; but at last
determined in spite of the remonstrances of his friends, to voyage it in a small
boat alone, lie accordingly bought a batteau, which he named the Ornitho-
logist, put in a small stock of provisions and water, (he never carried spirils
with him,) with his never-failing fowling piece and ammunition, and pushed off
into the stream fora solitary voyage of between 500 and GOO miles. This was
exactly such a situation as was calculated to arouse all the romantic feelings of
Wilson's soul : the true lover of nature experiences a delight approaching to
ecstasy when alone in the uninhabited desert. But the whole tract of his
iourney was rich with the objects most attractive to the lonely voyager ; he
collected an immense stock of ornithological riches for his future volumes, and
amused his mind at his hours of repose with the composition of a descriptive
poem entitled " The Pilgrim." He reached New Orleans on the Gth of June,
and arrived at Philadelphia on the 2nd of August, having been travelling since
the beginning of January ; during which time his whole expenses did not
amount to 500 dollars. This was the most extensive of all Wilson's excursions,
and although he took several others to various districts, as the volumes of the
Ornithology successively appeared, we do not think it necessary here to advert
to them particularly. Writing to his brother David, a year or two afterwards,
in reference to these exertions to further the sale of his works, he says :
" By the first opportunity I will transmit a trifle to our old father, whose
existence, so far from being forgotten, is as dear to me as my own. But
David, an ambition of being distinguished in the literary world, has re-
quired sacrifices and exertions from me with which you are unacquainted ;
and a wish to reach the glorious rock of independence, that I might from
thence assist my relations, who are struggling with and buffeting the billows of
adversity has engaged me in an undertaking more laborious and extensive than
you are aware of, and has occupied every moment of my time for several years.
Since February 1810, I have slept for several weeks in the wilderness alone,
in an Indian country, with my gun and my pistols in my bosom ; and have
found myself so reduced by sickness as to be scarcely able to stand, when not
within 300 miles of a white -settlement, and under the burning latitude of 25
decrees. I have, by resolution, surmounted all these and other obstacles, in
my way to my object, and now begin to see the blue sky open
around me."

Wilson's reputation, indeed, and the merits of his great undertaking, had
now forced themselves into notice, not only in A/nericn, but throughout


all Europe, and one of his biographers says, that there was not a crowned head
in the latter quarter of the globe but had then become a subscriber to the
American Ornithology. Honours as well as profit began to pour in upon
him. In 1812, he was elected a member of the American Philosophical
Society, and subsequently of other learned bodies. In 1813, the literary
materials for the eighth volume of the Ornithology were ready at the same
time that the seventh as published. But its progress was greatly retarded for
want of proper assistants to colour the plates, those whom he could procure
aiming rather at a caricature than a copy of nature. He was at last obliged
to undertake the whole of this department himself in addition to his
other duties, and these multifarious labours, by drawing largely upon his hours
of rest, began rapidly to exhaust his constitution. When his friends re-
monstrated with him upon the danger of his severe application, he answered,
" Life is short, and without exertion nothing can be performed." A fatal
dysentery at last seized him, which, after a few days' illness, carried him off,
upon the 23rd of August, 1813, being then only in his forty-eighth year. Ac-
cording to the authority of an American gentleman who was intimate with
him, his death was accelerated by an incident in singular keeping with
the scientific enthusiasm of his life. While sitting in the house of one of his
friends, he happened to see a bird of a rare species, and which he had been long
seeking for in vain, fly past the window. He immediately rushed out of the
house, pursued the bird across a river, over which he was compelled to
swim, shot and returned with the bird, but caught an accession of cold which
carried him oft". He was buried next day in the cemetery of the Swedish church
in the district of Southwark, Philadelphia, with all the honours which the in-
habitants could bestow on his remains. The clergy and all the public bodies
walked in procession, and wore crape on their arms for thirty days. A simple
marble monument was placed over him, stating shortly the place and
year of his birth, the period of his emigration to America, and the day and
cause of his death.

The whole plates for the remainder of the Ornitholog-y having been com-
pleted under Wilson's own eye, the letter-press of the ninth volume wr.s
supplied by his friend Mr George Ord, Mho had been his companion in several
of his expeditions, as also a memoir of the deceased naturalist. There have
been few instances, indeed, where the glowing fire of genius was combined
with so much strong and healthy judgment, warmth of social affection, and cor-
rect and pure moral feeling, as in the case of Alexander Wilson. The bene-
volence and kindness of his heart sparkle through all his writings, and it is
cheering to the true Christian to observe, that his religious principles became
purified and strengthened in proportion to the depth of his researches into the
organization of nature. He is said to have been strikingly handsome in per-
son, although rather slim than robust, with a countenance beaming with intelli-
gence, and an eye full of animation and fire. His career furnishes a
remarkable example of the success which, sooner or later, is the reward of
perseverance. It is (rue he did not attain riches, but upon the possession of these
his happiness was not placed. He wished, to use his own words, " to raise some
beacon to show that such a man had lived," and few have so completely achieved
the object of their ambition. Wilson's father survived him three y ears.

Three supplementary volumes of the Ornithology, containing delineations ot
American birds not described by Wilson, have been published by Charles Lucien
Bonaparte. In 1832, an edition of the American Ornithology, with illustrative
notes, and a Life of Wilson, by Sir William Jardine, was published in London, in
three volume?.


WILSON, FLORENCE, an author of some note, was born on the banks of the
Lossie, near Elgin, about the year 1500. He is commonly known by his Latin-
ized name of Florentius Volusenus, which has been usually translated Wilson,
though it is doubted whether his name was not Wolsey, Willison, Williamson, or
Voluzene. He studied at Aberdeen, and afterwards repaired to England, where
cardinal Wolsey appointed him preceptor to his nephew. Accompanied by the
latter he went to Paris, where, after the death of Wolsey and the consequent
loss of his pupil, he found another patron in cardinal du Bellai, archbishop of
Paris. Along with this prelate he intended to visit Rome, but was prevented
by illness, and was left behind at Avignon. Here he recommended himself by
his scholarship to cardinal Sadolet, who procured for him the appointment of
teacher of Latin and Greek in the public school of Carpentras. He is best
known by his dialogue "Do Animi Tranquillitate," which was published at Lyons
in 1543, and reprinted at Edinburgh in 1571, 1707, and 1751. Wilson died at
Vienne, in Dauphiny, in 1547, when returning to his native land. Several other
works have been ascribed to him besides the well known dialogue, but the works
themselves are not extant. His death was celebrated by Buchanan in the
following epigram:

"Hie Musis, Volusene, jaces cr.rissime, ripara
Ad Rhodani, terra quam procul a patria!
Hoc meruit virtus tua, tellus quee foret altris
Virtutum, ut eineres conderet ilia tuos."

WINRAM, JOHN, superintendent of Fife and Stratherne, was descended of
the Fifeshire family of the Winrams of Ratho. He is supposed to have
entered the university of St Andrews (St Leonard's college) in 1513, and in
1515 lie took the degree of B. A., on which occasion he is designated a
pauper ; that is, one who paid the lowest rate of fees. From that period till
1532, no trace has been discovered of him, but at the last mentioned date he
is noticed under the title of " Canonicum ac baccalarium in Theologia " as one
of the rector's assessors, and in a deed dated the same year he is called a canon
regular of the monastery of St Andrews. Two years afterwards he is men-
tioned as third prior, and in 1536, as subprior, in which situation he continued
till the Reformation.

The first occasion on which AVC have found Mr John Winram making a pub-
lic appearance was the trial of George Wishart, the martyr. On that occasion
he was appointed to open the proceedings by a sermon, and he accordingly
preached on the parable of the wheat and tares : he mentioned that the word
of God is " the only and undoubted foundation of trying heresy Avithout any
superadded traditions," but held that heretics should be put down, a position
strangely inconsistent with the command to let the tares and wheat grow to-
gether till harvest. About the same period, archbishop Hamilton ordered the
subprior to call a convention of Black and Grey friars for the discussion of
certain articles of heretical doctrine. At this meeting, John Knox demanded
from Winram a public acknowledgment of his opinion, whether these heretical
articles were consistent or inconsistent with God's Avord ; but this the wary subprior

Online LibraryRobert ChambersA biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen (Volume 8) → online text (page 1 of 52)