Alexander Wilson

This extraordinary man, who, from being originally an operative weaver, became by his own unaided exertions one of the most celebrated ornithologists of his day, was born in Paisley on the 6th of July 1766. His father was a distiller, poor in fortune, though said to have been endowed with an active and sagacious mind. He was so unfortunate as to lose his mother at the early age of ten, and was left without the tender and judicious care which a mother alone can give. On attaining his thirteenth year, he was bound apprentice for three years to his brother-in-law, to learn the business of a weaver, and on the expiry of this term, continued to work as a journeyman for four years more.

The employment of a weaver was by no means congenial to the disposition and propensities of the future ornithologist; but as his father, though a highly respectable man in character, was in very indifferent circumstances, young Wilson had no choice left, but was compelled to adopt that which was readiest and most easily attained. It is much to his credit, however, that though he must have felt - indeed it is certain that he did feel, and that at a very early age - that he was fitted for higher things, he yet diligently labored at the humble but honorable calling to which destiny had appointed him, and never allowed such feelings to interrupt his industry. At this period of his life he indulged in a predilection for poetical composition, and wrote several pieces which appeared in the Glasgow Advertiser;' but in these juvenile attempts he was not very successful, nor was he ever, at any after period, fortunate in this department of literature, though his poetical productions are certainly not without very considerable merit.

Having continued at the loom, as already said, for four years as a journeyman weaver, at the end of this period he abandoned the business, to accompany his brother-in-law, who had commenced traveling merchant or pedlar, in a tour through the eastern districts of Scotland - an employment which, though it could scarcely claim any sort of precedence in point of rank over that which he had left, he yet gladly embraced, as it at once released him from the confinement and dull monotony of his former occupation, and permitted him to indulge in one of his strongest propensities, which was to ramble over hill and dale, and to enjoy unfettered and unrestrained, the beauties of his native land. With such a disposition, it is not to be wondered at that, as a pedlar, he made much greater progress in the study of nature, and perhaps of man, and in the extending of his ideas, than in the improvement of his fortunes. The acquisition of money was no object with him, and of course, as it was not sought, it was not found.

At this time Burns was in the zenith of his fame, and Wilson, tempted by his success, resolved to publish his poems the accumulated pieces of preceding years and in 1789, contracted with a printer in Paisley for this purpose, but was obliged to abandon the idea for the time, for want of means to carry it into effect. He, however, published them some time. afterwards, with the title of 'Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious,' at his own risk, after having in vain endeavored to procure subscribers, and carried them about with him in his hawking expeditions but met with little or no success in the sale of them. Finding that he could make nothing of either poetry or traffic, he returned once more to his loom, at which he was again quitely seated, when he learned that a debating society in Edinburgh had proposed for discussion the question, whether Ferguson or Allan Ramsay had done most honor to Scottish poetry. Seized with an ambition to distinguish himself on this occasion, he borrowed from a friend the poems of Ferguson, which he had never read before, and in a few days produced a poem, which he entitled the Laurel Disputed,' and in which. he awarded the palm to Ferguson. With this poem in his pocket, he proceeded to Edinburgh, and recited it before the audience assembled to hear. the discussion. Before he left Edinburgh, he also recited in public two other poems, and acquired by all a considerable degree of respect and favor. He likewise contributed occasionally, about this time (1791), to a periodical work called The Bee.' But though Wilson's poetical efforts procured him some reputation, they did nothing for him in the way of advancing his worldly interests. The volume of poems which he published in 1789, at which period he was only twenty-two years of age, went through two small editions in octavo, but without yielding the author any pecuniary advantage. His literary reputation was, nevertheless, considerably increased by the publication of his Watty and Meg,' a poem in. the Scottish dialect, and of such decided merit, that it was universally ascribed to Burns on its first appearance, which was in 1791. It is a droll and satirical description of a drunken husband and scolding wife, and shows that the author possessed a fund of broad humor.

Having soon after this embroiled himself in some serious disputes which took place in his native town between the operative weavers and their employers, by writing some severe personal satires on certain individuals of the latter class, he found his residence in Paisley no longer compatible with his comfort or happiness, and therefore determined on proceeding to America. But before taking his departure, he called on those persons whom he had satirised, expressed his sorrow for what he had done, and solicited their forgiveness. This circumstance is a pleasing proof of the generosity of his nature that which follows a very striking one of the determination of his character. Although he had resolved on going to America, he did not possess a single shilling wherewith to pay his passage. To supply this desideratum, he instantly abandoned every other pursuit, and for four months labored with incessant industry at his loom, confining the expense of his living during this time to one shilling in the week. The result of this perseverance and rigid economy was, that at the end of the period named, he found himself in possession of the requisite sum, but nothing more. With this he set out for Portpatrick on foot, crossed to Belfast, and there engaged a passage to America; and he arrived at New York on the 14th of July 1794, with only a few shillings in his pocket, and even these were borrowed from a fellow-passenger.

Up till this period, and indeed for several years after, Wilson exhibited no indications of a genius or even predilection for that particular department of natural history in which he afterwards acquired so brilliant a name but it is said that, immediately after landing in America, and while proceeding from the place of his disembarkation to Newcastle, his attention was strongly excited by the specimens of the feathered inhabitants of the New World which he met with, and that he was particularly delighted with the splendor of the plumage of a red-headed woodpecker, which he shot by the way. Whether or not his genius received on this occasion that bent which afterwards led to such splendid results, it is certain that he always retained a lively recollection of the feelings of surprise and delight with which he for the first time contemplated the beauties of the American woodpecker.

For many years after his arrival in America, Wilson's condition underwent but little improvement. He found there nearly the same difficulties to contend with, and prospects nearly equally cheerless, with those he had left behind him in his native land. The first employment he obtained was with a copperplate printer in Philadelphia; but this he soon relinquished, and betook him to his original trade, weaving. This he again resigned for the pack; but his success as a pedler was not sufficient to induce him to continue by it, and he abandoned it also, and commenced teacher; making his first experiment in this laborious and somewhat precarious profession near the town of Frankford in Pennsylvania. While in this situation, he in a great measure repaired the defects of his early education, by close and unremitting study in various departments of science and knowledge; and, as has often been the case, by instructing others, he taught himself. He afterwards removed to Milestown, where he remained for several years, adding a little to the limited income arising from his school, by surveying land for farmers.

At the end of this period he applied for and obtained the appointment of schoolmaster of the Union School in the township of Kingsessing, within a few miles of Philadelphia; and it is from this period that his history in the pursuit of the bird creation commences, although he yet entertained that branch of natural history only in common with others, and by no means confined his studies to the feathered tribes. His attention was equally engrossed by a host of other animals and his apartment, as described by himself, had the appearance of Noah's ark, being crowded with opossums, squirrels, snakes, lizards, and other animals. Finding his ignorance of drawing a serious drawback in his new pursuit, he applied to the acquisition of this art with such diligence and determination of purpose, that he in a very short time succeeded in obtaining a command of the pencil, that enabled him to sketch from nature with great fidelity and spirit. It was not, however, till the year 1803 that Wilson conceived the magnificent design of his American Ornithology, and even then his ideas on the subject fell very far short of the great work he afterwards achieved. At this period he contemplated little more than making a collection of the finest American birds,' as he himself writes to a friend in Paisley. Having mentioned his intention to some of his American friends, they endeavored to dissuade him from prosecuting it, and, with a sincere regard for his interest, pointed out to him the formidable difficulties which he would have to encounter, and which appeared to them insurmountable. But they spoke in vain. Wilson's ardor and enthusiasm was more than a match for their prudence; and trusting to his own resources, he quietly but resolutely proceeded with his design; although - and it is a curious fact - when he began his stupendous work on American Ornithology, he did not know even the names of more than three or four of the American birds. But from this moment he devoted himself with a zeal and energy to the accomplishment of his enterprise, which removed all obstacles as fast as they presented themselves, and swept away all difficulties, as straws are swept away by the stream.

In October 1804, with his gun on his shoulder he made the first of that series of perilous journeys through the wilds of America, which he found it necessary to perform to obtain an accurate and intimate knowledge of the birds of the forest and amidst privations and hardships which few men but himself would have voluntarily encountered, he completed a journey of twelve hundred miles on foot, through deep snows, boundless forests, deep and dangerous rivers, and over wild and desolate mountains. But the experience of this perilous and painful excursion, instead of damping his ardor, had the effect only of increasing it. In the spring of the following year, he had completed drawings of twenty-eight rare birds, and about this time also made an attempt to acquire the art of engraving on copper, thinking, in the devotedness of his enthusiasm, that he might, by diligence and perseverance, soon attain such a proficiency in this art as would enable him to execute the plates for his contemplated work; and he actually completed two: but when he had got this length, he became dissatisfied with the result of his labors, and abandoned the pursuit. At this period the general aspect of his affairs, and those, in particular, which related to his undertaking, were exceedingly gloomy. He was without means and without money, and was persevering in a course which his friends thought an imprudent one, and was therefore without even words of encouragement to cheer him on his way. But neither these disheartening considerations, nor any other, could deter him from prosecuting his great design. So far from being discouraged by the difficulties which surrounded him, he declared that he would proceed with his plan even if it should cost him his life and, in that noble spirit which belongs to true genius alone, exclaimed, I shall at least leave a small beacon to point out where I perished.'

At the close of the year 1805, he made an unsuccessful attempt to be appointed to take part in an exploratory expedition which the American government was then about to send to the valley of the Mississippi. He addressed his application on this occasion to President Jefferson, stating to that functionary what he had done in the prosecution of his intended work on American ornithology, and representing the advantages which the being permitted to accompany the party would afford him in furthering his views. To this communication from what cause is now unknown - he obtained no reply, and of course did not join the expedition. Soon after this, more cheering prospects presented themselves to the enterprising ornithologist. A Mr. Samuel F. Bradford, a publisher in Philadelphia, who was about to print an edition of Rees's Cyclopedia, engaged Wilson, on what the latter himself called liberal terms, to superintend the publication of that work. But this connection presented another inducement to Wilson, and one which had infinitely greater attraction for him than any which related to his own personal advantage. This was the prospect it afforded him of procuring a publisher for his work; and so far he was not disappointed. On his explaining the nature and object of his undertaking, Mr. Bradford readily consented to become his publisher; and in September 1808, the first volume of American Ornithology' appeared, one of the most splendid books by far which had then emanated from the American press; but unfortunately the price was, though necessarily, much too high for a country comparatively in its infancy, and which had not then had time to turn its attention to the arts or sciences, or to acquire a sufficient taste for them to encourage such an expensive appeal on their behalf. The price of the work, when completed, was to be one hundred and twenty dollars. It is not therefore at all surprising to find that, even a considerable time after its publication, its ingenious, but in this respect certainly injudicious author, could only boast of forty-one names on his list of subscribers. This number, however, he afterwards increased to two hundred and fifty, by traveling through the country, and visiting the different towns in quest of patrons; but these, he himself says, were obtained at a price worth more than five times the amount; ' and they no doubt were so, if wounded feelings, fatigue of body and mind, and all the humiliations to which such a mission must of necessity have frequently subjected him, be taken into the account. From this tour he returned to New York in March 1809.

Two hundred copies only of the first volume of the Ornithology had been printed, but it was now thought advisable to throw off three hundred more; which was accordingly done: and in the meantime Wilson assiduously employed himself in preparing the second volume for the press, although he neither had yet benefited to the extent of a single dollar by the publication of his work, nor was likely to do so. The second volume appeared in January 1810; and immediately after its appearance, the author set out on another tour in quest of support and patronage. This time he penetrated into the western part of the States, or valley of the Ohio and Mississippi. At Pittsburg, he succeeded beyond his expectations in getting subscribers; and after ascertaining that the roads were such as to render a land journey impossible, he bought a small boat, which he named the Ornithologist, intending to proceed in it down the Ohio to Cincinnati, a distance of more than five hundred miles. Some advised him not to undertake the journey alone; but he had made up his mind, and only waited, exploring the woods in the interval, till the ice had left the the stream. At length the time arrived for his departure on this inland voyage. His provision consisted of some biscuit and cheese, and a bottle of cordial, given him by a gentleman in Pittsburg: one end of the boat was occupied by his trunk, greatcoat, and gun; and he had a small tin vessel, with which to bale his boat, and to drink the water of the Ohio. Thus equipped, he launched into the stream. The weather was calm, and the river like a mirror, except where fragments of ice were floating down. His heart expanded with delight at the novelty and wildness of the scene. The song of the red-bird in the deep forests on the shore, the smoke of the various sugar-camps rising gently along the mountains, and the little lo g -huts which here and there opened from the woods, gave an appearance of life to a landscape which would otherwise have been lonely and still. He could not consent to the slow motion of the river, which flowed two miles and a half an hour; he therefore stripped himself for the oar, and added three miles and a half to his speed. Our traveler's lodgings by night were less tolerable than his voyage, as he went down the desolate stream. The first night was passed in a log-cabin, fifty-two miles below Pittsburg, where he slept on a heap of straw.

Having reached Cincinnati, he there got a few subscribers for his work, and then proceeded to Louisville, where he sold his boat. He next walked a distance of seventy-two miles to Lexington, whence he traveled to Nashville, exploring on his journey some of the remarkable caverns of Kentucky. He had thoughts of extending his tour to St. Louis; but after considering that it would detain him a month, and add four hundred miles to his journey, without perhaps adding a single subscriber to his list, he g ave up the plan, and prepared for a passage through the wilderness towards New Orleans. He was strongly urged not to undertake it, and a thousand alarming representations of hardship and danger were set before him; but, as usual, he gave fears to the winds, and quietly made preparations for the way. He set out on the 4th of May, on horseback, with a pistol in each pocket, and a fowling-piece belted across his shoulder. During this adventurous journey he suffered severely from the heat of the sun, and all the changes of the weather. His exposure by night and day brought on an illness, which he with difficulty surmounted. He had occasion to travel among the Indians, who, it seems, treated him with great kindness; and though dreadfully worn out with fatigue, he enjoyed the journey very much. He reached New Orleans on the 6th of June, and shortly after embarked in a vessel for New York, and from thence he proceeded to Philadelphia, where he arrived on the 2d of August 1810.

Wilson new applied himself with unwearied industry to the preparation of the third volume of his Ornithology. At this time, he says that the number of birds which he had found, and which had not been noticed by any other naturalist, amounted to forty. Between this period and 1812 he made several other journeys throughout the country, partly with the view of promoting the sale of his publication, and partly to procure materials for his study, an object which he never lost sight of - seldom traveling, whatever might be the immediate or ostensible cause of his changing place, without his fowling-piece.

In the year above named, he received a gratifying proof of the estimation in which his merits were beginning to be held. This was his being chosen a member of the Society of Artists of the United States: and in the spring of the following year, he was admitted to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. But this extraordinary man was not destined to see either the completion of his meritorious labors, or to enjoy the triumph of achieving all that he designed. The excessive labor and fatigue of both body and mind to which he had for many years subjected himself, gradually undermined his constitution, and prepared it to yield to the first act of indiscretion to which it should be exposed; and this, unfortunately, now very soon occurred.

While sitting one day with a friend, he caught a glimpse from the window of a rare bird, for which he had long been vainly looking out. The instant he saw it he seized his gun, rushed out of the house in pursuit of it, and after an arduous chase, during which he swam across a river, succeeded in killing it; but he succeeded at the expense of his life. He caught a violent cold; this was followed by dysentery, which carried him off after an illness of ten days. He died on the morning of the 23d August 1813, in the forty-seventh year of his age, and was buried in the cemetery of the Swedish church in Southwark, Philadelphia. A plain marble monument, with an inscription intimating his age, the place and date of his birth, and of his death, marks the place of his sepulture.

Wilson had completed the seventh volume of his Ornithology before he died, and was engaged, when seized with his last illness, in collecting materials for the eighth. At this he labored with an assiduity and unintermitting industry which called forth the remonstrances of his friends. His reply, while it seems to indicate a presentiment of his premature fate, is at the same time characteristic of his extraordinary enthusiasm and diligence. Life is short,' he would say on these occasions, and nothing can be done without exertion.' Nor is a wish which he repeatedly expressed to a friend some time before his death, less characteristic of his amiable nature and deep admiration of the works of his Creator. This wish was that he might be buried where the birds might sing over his grave.

His person is described as having been tall and handsome, rather slender than robust; his countenance expressive and thoughtful, and his eye intelligent. Unfortunately for himself, the speculation in which he engaged with so much ardor yielded him no remuneration; for he had committed the serious error of issuing his work on too expensive a scale. From the publication he derived no profits whatever; and the heavy expenses he had to incur in his journeys, as well as his ordinary outlays, were only paid by the wages he received in the capacity of colorer of his own plates. Of the many active men whose biographies are before the public, there is not, perhaps, one whose life presents such a heroic resolution in the pursuit of science as Wilson. Although this most indefatigable genius did not live to enjoy the reward of his diligence, he certainly anticipated what has come to pass - that this work would always be regarded as a subject of pride by his adopted country, as it certainly is by the country which gave him birth, and would secure a high degree of honor for him whose name it bears.