Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Mill Grove, Montgomery County
Naturalist and artist John James Audubon first began drawing his famous life-like sketches of birds when he emigrated from France to Mill Grove.
Born April 26, 1785, in Les Cayes, Haiti, John James Audubon would become one of the most famous early Americans. After spending his adolescence in Philadelphia, he traveled throughout the United States creating the first exhaustive collection of paintings of North American birds for his book, Birds of America. He created new ways to depict the birds he painted and advanced the study of natural history with his research. Audubon died in New York City in 1851 while working on a second project to document the land mammals of North America; his sons finished his last work.
John James Audubon was born Jean Rabin on April 26, 1785, on his father’s plantation in Les Cayes, Haiti (formerly Saint Domingue). His mother was a French chambermaid named Jeanne Rabin; she died of an infection shortly after giving birth. In 1789, Audubon’s father, Captain Jean Audubon, brought him and his half-sister, Rose, to Nantes, France; both were adopted by Ann Moynet Audubon, their father’s wife. Jean Rabin’s name was changed to Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon to conceal his illegitimacy and protect his inheritance. Once back in France, the family moved to Couron, five miles south of Nantes, where his father would spend the rest of his life. As a child, Audubon studied at a naval academy at Rochefort, France, before his father recognized his enthusiasm for the outdoors and began encouraging his son to study natural history and painting. In 1803, at the age of 18, John Audubon moved from France to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army. He moved to Mill Grove, an estate located on the banks of the Perkiomen River, northwest of Philadelphia. At Mill Grove, the young Audubon lived with William Thomas and his family, Quakers who Captain Audubon had appointed to care for his estate. Here he took advantage of ample time and space to study and draw the birds that would become his life’s passion. Two years later, Audubon traveled back to France to secure his father’s permission to marry Lucy Bakewell, the eldest daughter of his neighbor at Mill Grove. Jean Audubon wanted his son to have the means for supporting a family before he was married. Therefore, before returning to America in 1806, Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier, son of Jean Audubon’s close friend Claude Rozier, entered into a partnership to mine the lead vein that ran through the Mill Grove property. The lead mine failed because the ore was not pure enough to financially support its extraction. Rozier and Audubon were forced to sell their shares of the mine in 1806. In need of work, Audubon moved to New York to clerk for Benjamin Bakewell, Lucy’s uncle. In the meantime, Rozier and Audubon began plans to open a general store in Louisville, Kentucky. Once the store was set up, John returned to Philadelphia in 1808 to marry Lucy Bakewell. The Audubons’ first son, Victor Gifford Audubon, was born June 12, 1809. The next year the family moved to Henderson, Kentucky, expanding the retail business. In 1812, Lucy gave birth to John Woodhouse Audubon, and the family lived happily in Henderson, enjoying relative success. In 1816, Audubon began a flour milling business with Lucy’s brother, Thomas Bakewell. Unfortunately, the mill’s steam engine was poorly constructed, forcing Audubon to spend a great deal of time and money repairing it, ultimately leading Audubon into debt. Three years after opening the mill he was imprisoned for failing to pay his creditors; he declared bankruptcy shortly after. After declaring bankruptcy, Audubon gave up on his mercantile endeavors and decided to focus on his first love: natural history, specifically ornithology—the study of birds. In 1820 he moved his family to Cincinnati using money he earned painting portraits. He soon began working as a taxidermist, portraitist, and landscape painter for the Western Museum in Cincinnati. He also began to teach painting at several academies in the area. For the previous 15 years, Audubon had been spending every possible moment hunting and drawing birds. Later that year he finally decided to go ahead with his ambitious dream of drawing every bird in North America. Audubon, accompanied by his mostpromising student, Joseph Mason, would travel down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to search for new specimens. The pair set out on October 12, 1820, leaving Lucy, Victor, and John Woodhouse in the care of friends. Upon arriving in New Orleans with many new specimens and drawings, Audubon and Mason prepared to support themselves while continuing to collect birds. Audubon painted portraits and sent most of the proceeds to Lucy and the children, while renting a meager apartment for himself. Over the next several years Audubon traveled around finishing more drawings for his immense work. His family moved back to Kentucky and Lucy began teaching to help support them. After amassing an impressive number of drawings, Audubon traveled back to Philadelphia in 1824 to look into publishing his work. He was not well received in Philadelphia, convincing him that he would be forced to travel to England to find the requisite skill and technology to publish his life’s work. He did, however, publish papers in the Lyceum Society Annals, including one on the migratory patterns of swallows, something he had researched intently while living in Louisville. In 1826 Audubon was prepared to leave for England; he sailed on April 25, arriving in Liverpool in July. Over the course of the next year, Audubon traveled throughout England and Scotland exhibiting his paintings and soliciting subscriptions for his Birds of America. Along the way he met William Lizars in Edinburgh, an engraver who admired his work and agreed to publish it. The first ten paintings for Birds of America were engraved and printed by Lizars. However, with Lizars’ workers on strike and the quality of the engravings deteriorating, Audubon was forced to find another man to take over the publication. In 1827 he met Robert Havell Sr. in London. He and his son agreed to finish publishing Audubon’s project. After much miscommunication between husband and wife caused by the slowness of overseas mail, Audubon decided to return to the United States with the dual purpose of appeasing his wife and collecting more specimens to make his book more exhaustive. This time he would travel down the East Coast into the Florida Keys, drawing waterfowl along the way. He returned to America in 1831, making his way down the coast through South Carolina. In Charleston he met the Reverend John Bachman, who would become a lifelong friend. After Audubon finished Birds of America, he and Bachman began a work cataloging the land mammals of North America. After his trip to Florida, Audubon collected his family from Louisiana, where Lucy had been teaching, and moved to New York. He then took a trip north to Labrador, Canada, to search for more species to paint. In 1834, Audubon returned to England with his family to oversee Havell’s work and to add more subscriptions to his list. Once back in England, Audubon found William MacGillivray to assist in writing Ornithological Biography, which would supplement Birds of America. MacGillivray would contribute the scientific information, while Audubon would describe his observations and the events surrounding his discoveries. In 1837, Audubon returned once more to Florida to complete his list of specimens, and John Woodhouse returned to marry Maria Bachman, the reverend’s eldest daughter. Father, son, and the new bride sailed back to England in July with the last set of paintings for Birds of America. In 1838, the final numbers of Birds of America were published and bound into the fourth volume; the total number of engravings was 435. Audubon would finish Ornithological Biography in the next year. The family moved back to the United States after the final volume of Audubon’s life work was published. They settled in New York while Audubon and his sons went about publishing an octavo edition of Birds of America with John T. Bowen, a lithographer from Philadelphia. This edition of Birds would be smaller and cheaper to buy than the original, allowing for a wider pool of subscribers. With the money earned from the octavo sales, Audubon bought a 14-acre estate on the Hudson River. He had also decided to begin work with John Bachman on Quadrupeds of North America, forcing him, at 58-years-old, to make another journey into the country. He left in March 1843 traveling down and back on the Missouri River, collecting specimens for the new book. After six months of traveling, Audubon returned home with fewer drawings than Bachman had hoped. From here his health deteriorated until 1847, when dementia began to debilitate his mind. His health declined to the point where he spent his last few months of life in silence. He died on January 27, 1851. His sons completed Quadrupeds of North America in 1854. In tribute to his lasting contributions to natural history and ornithology, the Audubon Society was founded in 1886 by George Bird Grinnell. The group has worked to conserve and restore the natural habitats of the creatures in which Audubon had so passionately invested his life. His Philadelphia home, Mill Grove, has been preserved and turned into a museum to honor his achievements and recognize his impact on the state of Pennsylvania.
Birds of North America. London: Published by the Author, 1827-38.
Ornithological Biography, or An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America; Accompanied by Descriptions of the Objects Represented in the Work Entitled The Birds of America, and Interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners. Edinburgh: Published by the Author, 1831-39.
“Facts and Observations Connected with the Permanent Residence of Swallows in the United States.” Lyceum Annals, 1824.
“Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard (Vultur aura).” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal2: 1826-27, 172-84.
“Observations on the Natural History of the Alligator.” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 2: 1826-27, 270-80.
“Notes on the Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 3: 1827, 21-30.