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Robert Cantwell
December 24, 1956
Alexander Wilson, an obscure 18th century Scottish poet, devoted a career to painting the birds of America. Here is his story and, reproduced from original plates, a gallery, of his great work
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December 24, 1956

First Artist Of The Winged Wild

Alexander Wilson, an obscure 18th century Scottish poet, devoted a career to painting the birds of America. Here is his story and, reproduced from original plates, a gallery, of his great work

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Having already sent some of his bird drawings to President Jefferson, he now asked Bartram to relay to the President his application for a job as naturalist with an exploring expedition that was setting out for the Rockies under Lieutenant Zebulon Pike. At this point the whole business becomes a mystery. Jefferson replied with enthusiasm about Wilson's bird pictures. But he never mentioned Wilson's request for a job. After Wilson's death, Jefferson was attacked for his "contemptuous neglect" of the naturalist.

Distressed, the aged ex-President searched his records and could find no mention of Wilson's application. He wrote to the former Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, and to General James Wilkinson, the two officials besides himself who knew of Pike's expedition before it set out. Their replies convinced Jefferson that by the time Wilson's letter reached him it had not contained Wilson's request for a job. Contemporary scholars believe that a page was abstracted from Wilson's letter before Jefferson had received it, or that a subordinate pigeon-holed the request. The importance of the mix-up was that while Wilson and Jefferson became friendly, Wilson was never given any official standing.

Wilson still had no money to publish his books, but he had been given a $900-a-year job in Philadelphia as assistant editor of an encyclopedia and he used the post to promote the sale of his bird books. Traveling to New York to get Robert Fulton's article on steamboats, he showed Fulton his bird pictures, and Fulton subscribed. Tom Paine, then living in crusty old age in Greenwich Village, put his name down for a set of 10. The Governor of New York threw Wilson out of his office, saying he wouldn't give $100 for all the birds in the books, even if they were alive. But, by and large, people were interested. From friends around Philadelphia, including an impressive array of Biddies, Rittenhouses and other eminent names, Wilson secured enough subscribers to induce Samuel Bradford, the publisher of the encyclopedia, to finance the books. Lawson was hired to make the engravings. Robert Carr, an intimate friend of Wilson's, who later became Colonel Carr of the United States Army with Wilson's help, did the actual printing, cutting a special type face for the job, which was a superlative one.

The first volume appeared in September 1808. Twenty-five hundred copies of a prospectus were sent to wealthy individuals, and the book was favorably reviewed, but no one had any advance knowledge that it would be as fine as it turned out to be. Late in the month Wilson set out on the first of his great journeys selling his book. He later described how, as he went from house to house, he noticed people beginning to point him out until he felt himself to be the most conspicuous individual in every town he entered. The professor of natural history at Princeton turned out to be a man who could not tell a sparrow from a woodpecker, and Wilson did not get an order. He went on through Rutgers College at New Brunswick, then to Elizabeth and Newark without selling a single subscription.

In New York City he did a little better, for the Columbia College library subscribed to the set, and the professors introduced him to people who were interested in his work. De Witt Clinton subscribed, as did Gouverneur Morris, Robert Livingston, Rufus King and John Gardiner of Gardiner's Island, where Captain Kidd's treasure had been found—a picturesque old aristocrat whose hobby was the study of eagles.

Wilson sailed to New Haven, where he interviewed the professors at Yale without getting an order. He made his way to Middletown, Connecticut on foot, where he met a man who gave him some stuffed birds, and a young woman who gave him some information about the bay-breasted warbler, but where he could not sell any subscriptions. Passing on through Hartford, Worcester and Springfield, he reached Boston, where the great merchant, Israel Thorn-dike, as well as two clergymen and a physician, subscribed. But Harvard turned him down. At Salem, General Elias Hasket Derby, the great New England sea captain, bought a set, and after passing through Maine without success, Wilson sold another to Dartmouth College. He got back to Philadelphia after three months, sick and exhausted, having sold only 41 subscriptions.

In desperation Wilson then called on President Jefferson at the White House. He did not ask anyone to introduce him, nor did he write in advance. He merely sent in his name and waited. Jefferson was delighted to see him. He had himself identified many American birds in his Notes on the State of Virginia and wanted to ask Wilson some questions about the ground robin.

With the President's backing, Wilson's fortunes improved. He secured 17 subscriptions in Washington and 34 in Virginia. Meriwether Lewis, who became his personal friend, gave him the rarest specimens of the unknown birds he had shot on the Lewis and Clark expedition and visited him personally to tell him all that he knew about the extreme point of the northern migrations of the blue jay or the strange black-and-white crow seen near the mouth of the Columbia. Wilson made three of his greatest paintings—the Louisiana tanager, Clark's crow and Lewis' woodpecker—as a result of Meriwether Lewis' specimens and information. And the doors of southern plantation houses were now opened freely to him. In another three months' trip on horseback that took him as far south as Savannah, he secured 250 subscribers to his set of books. He was even paid $12 in advance—the first actual cash he received—when he sold a set to General James Wilkinson, then the ranking general of the United States Army.

Back in Philadelphia, Wilson finished the text for volume two, and as soon as it appeared in January of 1810 hurried to the state capitol to persuade the legislators to buy a set of the books for the state library. From Harris-burg he made his way over the mountains on foot to Pittsburgh, a disappointing trip ornithologically, although he did see a great snowy owl and delighted in the moonlight "shining in deathlike stillness on the icy plain."

Pittsburgh was booming, with clouds of smoke rising from its furnaces and glassworks—"a noble picture," he said—and Wilson lined up 19 subscribers among its industrialists. As soon as the ice broke on the Ohio, on February 23, 1810, he set out in a rowboat down the river. The weather was warm and serene, though cakes of ice still floated with the current beside him. He heard a redbird whistling on the shore, a bird he always regarded with particular affection, considering it one of the most elegant and beautiful in the American woods. He made 52 miles the first day and spent the night in an abandoned log cabin, a night made hideous by the hollering of great horned owls—a fowl "so recluse, solitary and mysterious, and so discordant in the silence and gloom, that it always aroused sensations of awe and abhorrence."

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