........ ..... ... ..
John James Audubon
Charlotte M. Porter, Ph.D., Project Director
Cheryl Wilson, Project Assistant
Florida State Museum, Gainesville
with a grant from the
FLORIDA ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES
Come all ye good people one and all,
Come listen to my song;
Afew remarks I have to make,
It won't be very long.
'Tis of our vessel, stout and good,
As ever yet was built of wood;
Among the reefs where the breakers roar,
The wreckers on the Florida shore.
J.J. Audubon, "The Wrecker's Song"
Special thanks to:
Florida Audubon Society
North Florida Regional Hospital
New-York Historical Society
In 1831, John James Audubon (1785-1851) arrived in
Florida to collect water birds for the third volume of his
great illustrated book, Birds of America. After disembark-
ing at St. Augustine on November 20, he traveled on foot
and by pony over log roads and Indian trails. Audubon
explored the east coast of Florida and the Florida Keys for
the next six months. He followed the waterways by canoe,
skiff, cutter, and schooner, and of course, the mosquitoes
followed him. "Reader," he wrote, "if you have not been in
such a place, you cannot easily conceive the torments we
Let us follow this self-styled "American Woodsman" along
"the Florida shore" to rediscover the frontier he described
The man and his book
Audubon was born on April 26, 1785, at Les Cayes,
Santo Domingo. His father was an affluent French sea cap-
tain and planter; his mother was a Creole. Young Audubon
was raised in France by his father's French wife, but de-
spite later exaggerated claims, he received little formal edu-
cation. Eventually, the youth was sent to America, and he
lived on his father's estate outside Philadelphia from 1803
to 1805. After a brief sojourn in France, Audubon returned
to the United States and operated a lead mine near
In 1808, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell and moved to
Kentucky, where he operated stores in the frontier towns
of Louisville and Henderson. An unsuccessful merchant,
he began drawing birds. In 1819, an ill-advised grist mill
and lumber operation failed, and he turned to his paints
to make ends meet. From 1819 to 1826, he worked as an
itinerant portrait painter throughout the Mississippi river
valley, as a taxidermist in Cincinnati, Ohio, and as a draw-
ing teacher in New Orleans and St. Francisville, Louisiana.
He also gave dancing lessons and was an accomplished fid-
dler. While he traveled, his wife Lucy worked as a governess
to support their two sons, Victor and John.
Audubon decided to publish his bird drawings in 1820
and spent the next six years seeking support. Meeting with
little encouragement, he took his project to Great Britain.
After 1826, he procured publishers, first in Scotland and
then in England. While the monumental Birds of America
was in production, Audubon traveled as a celebrity
throughout Europe and sold $1,000 subscriptions to his
book. He also made several trips to the United States. Au-
dubon explored the middle Atlantic states in 1829; two
years later, he explored the Southeast to the Florida Keys.
After he left Florida in 1832, Audubon continued north to
Labrador and west to Texas to search for new birds for his
last volumes. When he finished, Birds of America was liter-
ally the biggest bird book the world had ever seen. Audu-
bon portrayed 1065 birds, representing 489 species.
Audubon's renown is based upon magnificent engrav-
ings for Birds of America. The 435 finished plates show
birds life size in natural habitats. These large and elaborate
pictures required the talents of more than one artist. Audu-
bon first drew his specimens in watercolor. Floral details
were then added by Joseph Mason, a gifted young painter
Audubon met in 1820. In Florida, the seascapes and other
backgrounds were drawn by a Swiss professional named
George Lehman who accompanied Audubon. Lehman is
also said to have drawn one of the finest Florida plates,
plate 321, which shows the "beautiful and singular" roseate
spoonbill. Other details for the last plates were drawn by
Maria Martin, the sister-in-law of Audubon's later col-
laborator, the Reverend John Bachman, a southern clergy-
man and naturalist whose daughters married Audubon's
Audubon's hand-colored illustrations are beautiful, but
are they as scientific as the claim "Drawn from Nature" on
the bottom of each plate? In fact, Audubon and other 19th
century bird artists did not draw living birds. They
sketched mounted or stuffed birdskins. Audubon preferred
to wire his dead birds in life-like positions and to draw
them immediately. To create the illusion of flight, he hung
birds upside down so that the wings opened. He did not
keep these specimens.
In Florida, Audubon discovered 52 types of birds new to
him. His letters home and other published writings also
recorded the scenery, settlements, and colorful inhabi-
tants. Some of these descriptions were published in his Or-
nithological Biography and several bird plates also provide
insight on frontier conditions.
Despite internal Indian troubles, in 1831, Florida was
enjoying a period of peace from oversea invasion, and in
plate 269, Audubon has drawn the old Spanish cannon
lying unused on the beach below the Castillo de San Marco
in St. Augustine. Audubon did not enjoy his stay in this
lovely old city. "St. Augustine," Audubon wrote Lucy on
November 23, 1831, "resembles some old French village"
with "streets about 10 feet wide and deeply sanded." Audu-
bon boarded at a tavern for $4.50 a week. Although he
dined upon "hare, fish and venison" three times a day, he
complained about the company, "principally poor Fisher-
man," and he grumbled about supplies: "I wish thee to for-
ward me," he wrote his wife, "some good socks ... the salt
marshes through which I am forced to wade every day are
the ruin of everything."
Although timber on public land was reserved for the
United States Navy, the federal government was unable to
police cutting in Florida. The timber thieves, whom Audu-
bon called "live-oakers," came from the northeastern states.
During the winter months, they worked the live oak forests
shown in plate 247 of the "Hooping" crane. Audubon's
humor was more consistent than his spelling. "Their provi-
sions," Audubon wrote with some envy, "consist of beef,
pork, potatoes, biscuit, flour, rice, and fish together with
"This is the way in which we spend the day," Audubon
reported in 1831. "We get into a boat, and after an hour of
hard rowing, we find ourselves in the middle of most exten-
sive marshes, as far as the eye can reach. The boat is an-
chored, and we go wading through mud and water, amid
myriads of sand-flies and mosquitoes, shooting here and
there a bird." Audubon wanted to hire some helpers, but
the "residents of St. Augustine," he found were "all too
leazy [sic] to work, or if they work," their high prices "put
it out of the question to employ them." Plate 387, the glossy
ibis, shows the simple wooden buildings and split-rail
fences of the surrounding countryside.
By late winter, Audubon felt defeated by Florida: "We are
surrounded by thousands of Alligators and I dare not suffer
my... good Newfoundland Dog Plato to go in the River."
Disappointed, he returned to Charleston. Once there, he
decided to give Florida a second chance. Audubon was by
now a famous man, and the federal government assisted
his efforts by furnishing him sea passage to the Florida
Keys on theU.S. Cutter Marion.
Audubon arrived in the Florida. Keys in late April of
1832. As the Marion approached safe harbor at Indian Key,
Audubon recalled that his "heart swelled with uncontrolla-
ble delight." "The air," he wrote Lucy, "was darkened by
whistling wings." Audubon's enthusiasm was contagious,
and he collected liberally with the aid of a pilot, cook, and
"sturdy crew" armed with guns. The "mass of birds" they
obtained looked not unlike a "small haycock." On Sandy
Key, the nests were so numerous that "ere long we had a
heap of eggs that promised delicious food."
Audubon the opportunist
Audubon certainly viewed nature with the eye of an art-
ist, but was he a true "woodsman" or simply an oppor-
tunist? In 1827, Noah Webster published the first Amer-
ican dictionary. That very same year, Audubon published
the first volume of his spectacular bird book, a work which
reflected a similar American interest in words new names
for new species as well as news, numbers, and lists of all
kinds. Audubon's tales of the Florida frontier and his new
bird trophies appeased a reading public eager for exciting
books by Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper,
but was his art good science?
During his lifetime, some naturalists criticized Audu-
bon's bird art as being too "flamboyant" for science, too
"unrestrained and painterly." In his eagerness, Audubon
was bound to make mistakes; for example, his illustration
of mockingbirds shows a rattlesnake attacking the nest.
Rattlers, his critics correctly claimed, do not climb trees,
and furthermore, they do not feed on bird eggs. Audubon's
achievements were also compromised by primitive condi-
tions. He was a good marksman, but cleaning birds in the
hot Florida sun and storing them without the benefit of
refrigeration was not pleasant work, and Audubon was not
able to save his specimens for others to examine.
Some North American birds were already becoming
scarce in Audubon's time. There were no laws protecting
endangered species, and today we forget that songbirds
were commonly sold in city markets as food. Although he
enjoyed shooting birds, Audubon worked to create a public
awareness of birds, and he benefitted from this attention.
Retiring to New York, Audubon built a comfortable house
called "Minnie's Land" on the banks of the Hudson River,
and began a large work on North American mammals with
the help of his two sons. When Audubon died in 1851, a
reporter for Harper's Magazine remarked that Audubon
had "linked himself with the undyingness of nature."
Today Audubon's name is linked with the conservation
movement through the many state and local agencies
which bear Audubon's name. Does he deserve this associa-
Audubon published the first volume of his Birds of
America at just the time when Andrew Jackson was suc-
cessfully campaigning for the presidency of the United
States. Under Jackson, the earlier ideal of preserving a vir-
tuous republic gave way to the ideal of preserving indi-
vidual opportunity and ensuring that the United States
would remain a nation of self-made men. Audubon quite
literally embodied the Jacksonian ideal. He was a self-made
man like Jackson, and when the artist John Vanderlyn
painted his full-length portrait of Jackson he drew the In-
dian fighter's face from life, but persuaded Audubon to
model for the body.
Like Jackson, Audubon mastered the politics of oppor-
tunity. In Florida, he did not hesitate to purchase natural
history specimens from "wreckers," men who are said to
have lured ships onto rocky reefs in order to steal their
cargos. Although Audubon was a worldly man who desired
fame and fortune, in Florida, he found himself "increas-
ingly amazed at the appearance of things." The appearance
of things has changed since Audubon traveled in Florida.
Twentieth-century wreckers have taken their toll on the
Florida shore, but the images of Audubon's great bird book
continue to amaze viewers around the world.
The one week's cruise we'll have on shore,
But we do sail again;
And drink success to the sailor lads
That are plowing of the main.
And when you are passing by this way,
On Florida reef should you chance to stray,
Why, we will come to you on the shore,
Amongst the rocks where the breakers roar.
When daylight dawns we are under weigh,
And every sail is set;
And if the wind it should prove light,
Why then our sail we wet.
To gain her first each eager strives,
To save the cargo and the peoples' lives;
Amongst the rocks where the breakers roar,
The wreckers on the Florida shore.*
*Dale and Linda Crider have recently recorded "The Wrecker's Song," for "Amer-
ican Woodsman: Audubon in Florida," a documentary for public television by the
Florida State Museum with a grant from the Florida Endowment for the
Audubon drew the elegant White-tailed Tropicbirdfrom specimens obtained by a navalfriend on the
Dry Tortugas in 1832.
John James Audubon
A Florida Portfolio
Florida State Museum, Gainesville
with a grant from the
FLORIDA ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES
Audubon's assistant, George
Lehman, drew this beautiful plate of
the Roseate Spoonbill.
Greater Yellowlegs (Tell-tale Godwit) Blue Jay
Joseph Mason added
many floral details to
many of which show the
This finished plate of the rare Scarlet Ibis was
drawn from specimens collected outside the
In an effort to produce dramatic illustrations,
Audubon showed a rattlesnake attacking
Mockingbirds, and he bent the neck of the
Great Blue Heron to fit the bird
on the page.
Eastern Bluebird Yellow Warbler
The White-crowned Pigeon, Mangrove
Cuckoo, and Key West Quail-Dove are
all "Key specialties."
Florida Scrub Jay
Many consider this plate of the Wild
Turkey cock in bamboo to be
The background of this plate of the
Noddy Tern incorrectly pictures the
Florida Keys with high white cliffs.
Audubon imitated flight by wiring
specimens and hanging them
Magnificent Sooty Tern
Green-bac kea neron
Audubon's Travels in Florida
Arrival in St. Augustine
Visit to the Hernandez Plantation of St. Augustine
Christmas Day spent on foot to the Bulow Plantation
Hunting trip with Bulow down the Halifax River to Live
To Spring Garden, the plantation of Col. Orlando Rees
Passage in St. Augustine to South Florida
Return because of seasickness and rough seas
Departure to the St. Johns River
Return to St. Augustine on an Indian trace
With live-oakers near St. Augustine, hunting birds
On to Charleston
Arrival at John Bachman's home
Government passage to the Florida Keys
From Indian Key to Sandy Key, Cape Sable, and
Arrival at Key West
Departure for the Dry Tortugas
Departure from Florida
ST. cAUGUSTINE b
4\ Hernandez Plantation )Z
C Lake ISpring, Gace
Cape Sable A'' /
GKEY an Key
Dry Tortugas I%%. G W ES Tian K>/
Audubon did not see hisfirstflock offlamingos until he sailed awayfrom Indian Key on May 7, 1832.
As he watched, the birds advanced in "Indian line, with well-spread wings, outstretched necks, and
long legs directed backwards." He continued, "I thought I had now reached the height of all my
expectations, for my voyage to the Floridas was undertaken in great measure" to study "these lovely
birds in their own beautiful islands."