Naturalists: Wilson and Audubon

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Lewis and Clark and American Naturalists

Naturalists were the first U.S. citizens other than President Jefferson to have an opportunity to examine the materials collected by Lewis and Clark. Charles Willson Peale took possession of many of the specimens of birds and mammals and both studied and exhibited them in his museum. Peale's museum attracted a series of naturalists including John Godman, George Ord, Constantine Rafinesque, and Thomas Say, who all examined, drew, and described the animals collected by Lewis and Clark.1 Lewis's botanical collections were examined by Benjamin Smith Barton and Frederick Pursh. Pursh actually used many of the specimens to illustrate his monumental two-volume study of American plants, Flora Americae(1814).

Perhaps the naturalist most influenced by Lewis and Clark was Alexander Wilson, born July 6, 1766, the son of an illiterate whiskey distiller in the town of Paisley, Scotland. After spending time apprenticing in various capacities, Wilson departed for North America in 1794. Upon his arrival he found employment in Philadelphia, where he met William Bartram, who introduced him to the world of ornithology.2

In 1803, Wilson wrote to a friend that "I have had many pursuits since I left Scotland – . . . music, drawing, etc. etc. I am now about to make a collection of our finest birds."3 However, it was not until two years later that he sent his first twenty-eight drawings to William Bartram for approval. In between these two events, Wilson made a momentous walking trip to Niagara Falls from Gray's Ferry, Pennsylvania, watching for birds with the eye of an ornithologist. Wilson seldom traveled far from Philadelphia, and his walk to Niagara Falls left a vivid impression. The trip inspired him to write a lengthy poem, The Foresters, first published in a serialized format in The Port Folio in 1809-1810 and then posthumously in 1818. He also drew several views of the falls and illustrations of two particular episodes in the poem, and commissioned John James Barralet, an Irish artist, to paint the series. He later commissioned copperplate engravings of them to illustrate his epic poem.

Fig. 11

Barralet - Niagara

General View of the Falls of Niagara
(March 1810)
John James Barralet (1747–1815)
after a sketch by Alexander Wilson
Engraving by George Cooke
4-1/2 x 7-3/8 inches

Up to the Ridge's top, high winding led,
There on a flat, dry plain, we gaily tread;
And stop, and list, with throbbing hearts to hear
The long expected cataract meet the ear;
But list in vain. Though five short miles ahead.
All sound was hushed and every whisper dead.
''Tis strange," said Duncan, "here the sound might reach."
''Tis all an April errand," answered Leech.
"Men to make books a thousand tales devise,
And nineteen-twentieths are a pack of lies.
Here, three long weeks by storms and famines beat,
With sore-bruised backs, and lame and blistered feet;
Here nameless hardships, griefs, and miseries past,
We find some mill-dam for our pains at last."
4

– Wilson, The Foresters
Lines 2007  - 2020

Coincidentally, this was the very same artist Lewis had hired to paint an image of the Great Falls of the Missouri. The only known printing of the Lewis/Barralet rendition of the falls appeared in the Dublin 1817 edition of the Lewis and Clark narrative.4

Although there is no way to know for sure, the dates make it possible for Wilson to have recommended Barralet to Lewis. We do know that Wilson appeared to have a close connection to Lewis when he wrote personally and profoundly on his death in 1809.5 We also know that Wilson had a professional reason to make contact with Lewis, as he was attempting to compile information about North American birds for his text, which would be published over many years (1808-1814). Wilson would later use the birds collected by Lewis and Clark that were exhibited at Peale's Museum to illustrate his work on North American ornithology.

While Lewis and Wilson's relationship remains ambiguous, it is obvious that Wilson not only read available accounts of explorers, but that he actively used their specimens to complete his own works.

Although he never met Meriwether Lewis, America's greatest ornithologist, John James Audubon, was just starting his career when Lewis and Clark returned, and there is ample evidence that he drew inspiration from Lewis and Clark's writings. Born in 1785, Audubon was a generation younger than Alexander Wilson and the Jeffersonian naturalists of Philadelphia. These men however, particularly Wilson, motivated Audubon to amass his great collections. Audubon's biographer, Richard Rhodes wrote that Audubon, "had Wilson's volumes in hand and commented frequently and usually critically in the margins . . . indicating his renewed focus on surpassing his predecessor as he completed his collection. . . . improving on Wilson was Audubon's primary justification for seeking to publish a new American ornithology."6

In 1808, Audubon moved to Louisville, where he was introduced to the Clark family, and became an acquaintance of George Rogers, Jonathan, and William. Audubon got along well with this military family; his own father was a naval captain. There is little doubt that during his time in Louisville Audubon heard numerous stories of Western exploration from the Clarks.7 As a frontier resident, it was difficult not to encounter someone who had a connection to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1811, Audubon met a number of the French engages from the Expedition, including Toussaint Charbonneau, and wrote that he "was delighted to learn from them many particulars of their interesting journey."8

Although there is no direct evidence that Audubon ever read the Biddle/Allen narrative of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, there is reason to believe that Audubon thought about, and even romanticized the Expedition. Over the next thirty years, while he collected and painted birds, the desire to retrace Lewis and Clark's route lingered in his mind. Audubon unsuccessfully attempted to convince the government to fund his "Great Western Journey." With age beginning to slow Audubon, he finally gathered corporate support for his plan from the Chouteau family in 1843. As a token to Audubon's admiration of Lewis and Clark, D.D. Mitchell, the superintendent of Indian Affairs who approved Audubon's plan to tour Indian country, reportedly presented him with one of William Clark's manuscript journals from 1805.9 The source and eventual resting place of this journal is uncertain, but it is clear that the artist's attempt to capture a portion Lewis and Clark's West on canvas and in text was an important motivator for one of America's leading naturalists.


1. See Paul Russell Cutright's Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists(Bison Books Edition, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003) for a detailed overview of the Lewis and Clark specimens and the naturalists who studied them.

2. Alexander Wilson Website, University of Virginia, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~public/wilson/front.html (accessed May 4, 2007).

3. Clark Hunter, ed., (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1983), Letter 35.

4. The author speculates that this was not the first printing of this image, though at the time of this publication no other editions of this print have been found.

5. Alexander Wilson, "Particulars of the Death of Capt. Lewis," The Port Folio (Philadelphia), Vol. 7 (January 1812): 34-47.

6. Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (New York, Knopf, 2004), 199.

7. Ibid., 53.

8. Ibid, 86.

9. Ibid., 422.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program.