François DaCosta and John James Audubon arrive safely in New York City in the summer of 1803 and just in time for Audubon to contract yellow fever. Audubon is able to stagger no further than Norristown, Pennsylvania. DaCosta locates a boarding house that two Quaker women own and manage. The Quaker women take Audubon into their care and point Dacosta in the direction of Philadelphia to find accommodations.
Audubon breaks his fever, completes his recovery, and lives for a short time in Norristown learning English and giving drawing lessons. Audubon finally arrives at his father’s farm called Mill Grove in the spring of 1804. Within a year’s time, America’s landscape of rivers, streams, wildlife, and forests sets its grip on Audubon and never lets go.
Audubon Arrives at Mill Grove
François Dacosta joins Audubon at Mill Grove. While Dacosta focuses on developing the lead mine on the farm, Audubon roams the surrounding fields and forests and nearby Perkiomen Creek. The creek flows close to Mill Grove and empties into the Schuylkill River. Just downriver and on the other side of Perkiomen Creek is where George Washington and his division of the Continental Army chose to winter in 1777. The severe cold and disease on the hallowed ground now called Valley Forge cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers.
Mill Grove’s tenant farmer, William Thomas, attempts to guide Audubon in the management of Mill Grove, but to no avail. There are too many plants and birds for Audubon to discover and admire. Thomas discovers Audubon hunting birds not so much for consumption but for propping up as still-lifes to draw and others for his collection of specimens in his private “museum” in the attic of the farm’s house.
It was maybe a shock for a Pennsylvania settler to watch dead creatures getting either stuffed or sealed in jars of spirits, but they were common practices for scientists and naturalists. Although the method Audubon used to position dead birds to draw may well have been a shock for anyone to see. Audubon utilizes wire, pins, and skewers to stage the birds onto boards in natural poses. Audubon also grids the background of the dead bird to the same grid on his drawing paper. Thus Audubon is able to scale the birds extremely close to their exact size.
The Louisiana Purchase
The geography that Audubon eventually has to cover in order to include all of the birds of America in a book he eventually names Birds of America expands dramatically after the United States government negotiates the Louisiana Purchase on April 30, 1803. France agrees to sell to the United States 828,000 square miles that covers much of the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains for a mere $15 million dollars. The land roughly doubles the size of the United States.
Napolean Bonaparte might have attempted to expand France’s empire in North America further if it had not been for the loss of St. Domingue (present-day Haiti) to rebels. Bonaparte was also facing imminent war with England. Although access is the key element in the deep discount for the land that the United States purchases from France. Indigenous people already claim and occupy the area and are fully prepared to fight for it.
The Corps of Discovery
President Thomas Jefferson’s first step towards how best to manage the Louisiana Purchase windfall is to fund an expedition to explore the area. He commissions Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to lead the expedition that they name the Corps of Discovery. The expedition is not just for taking notes, map making, and the search for easy crossings over the Rocky Mountains. Lewis and Clark must communicate to Indigenous people the land on which they are living is under the sovereignty of the United States.
Lewis and Clark meet near Louisville on the Ohio River to organize the Corps of Discovery. The town’s population is around 1,000 people. Drawing settlers to the town are the efforts required to circumnavigate the Falls of the Ohio. The Falls are more like a three-mile stretch of rocks, boulders, sandbars, and white water that forbid all but the smallest and most agile boats.
The treacherous rapids make Louisville, Shippingport, and Portland on the south side of the Ohio River and New Albany and Jeffersonville on the north ideal locations for inns, trading posts, and portage services. There is also Clarksville on the north side of the river. William Clark’s older brother, George Rogers Clark, founded the town and lives on a nearby farm. George Rogers Clark encourages Lewis and his brother William to stay at his farm while they organize their expedition and recruit nine others to join them. The men had to be “good hunters, stout, healthy, unmarried men, accustomed to the woods, and capable of bearing bodily fatigue in a pretty considerable degree.”
On October 26, the Corps of Discovery sets out on a 9,000-mile trek that takes close to three years to complete. Lewis and Clark and the rest of the members of the expedition undertaking and successfully completing such a grueling mission further signify that nothing short of a Pacific Ocean is to block the United States from expanding westward.
John James Audubon Meets Lucy Bakewell
Audubon’s path also leads to Clarksville but not before he tires of having to cover his new homeland on foot. He begins inquiring about a riding horse. Mill Grove’s tenant farmer William Thomas has stock but none to spare. He refers Audubon to William Bakewell, the owner of a neighboring farm called Fatland Ford. Audubon visits Fatland Ford but is not permitted to see Bakewell. Audubon is told that the gentleman is resting after a long journey that he had just completed.
Horseless Audubon returns to Mill Grove and soon receives an invitation to return to Fatland Ford but ignores it. When Audubon and Bakewell meet each other by chance while out hunting, Audubon apologizes for not responding to Bakewell’s invitation and accepts a second one. Audubon arrives at Bakewell’s front door, knocks, is shown in, and is led into Bakewell’s parlor. It is not the master of the house in the parlor to greet Audubon but his daughter Lucy. Given how their lives unfold, it would be a safe wager to say it was love at first sight.
Audubon goes from avoiding Fatland Ford to making frequent visits. Audubon captivates Lucy and her siblings with his dancing, playing the flute and fiddle, and drawing. Lucy and the other Bakewell children, especially William Gifford Bakewell, also accompany Audubon on his ramblings through the countryside. Though they are not without mishap.
Audubon’s Cold Brush With Death
In late 1804 on a frigid winter day, Audubon is leading a party of skaters on the frozen Schuylkill River. Audubon’s skating abruptly turns into a deadly cold swim when he slips into an air hole. Audubon re-emerges from another hole a few yards downriver where Lucy and the others are able to pull Audubon out of the water, remove his icy clothes, and spare enough of their own clothing to re-dress him and return safely to Fatland Ford. Audubon later writes that in his lifetime of almost constant risk to life and limb his plunge into the Schuylkill River is the closest he comes to an early death.
In early spring of 1805, one of William Bakewell’s workers espies Audubon and Lucy walking together regularly to a cave that is situated above Perkiomen Creek. The worker alerts Lucy’s father, who then locates William Thomas to question him about his knowledge of Audubon’s and Lucy’s forays to the cave. Thomas assures Bakewell that their intentions are pure by describing Audubon’s success of “taming” a nesting pair of Eastern phoebes (in Birds of America, Audubon calls the bird a Pewet flycatcher) and the pleasure he takes in showing the birds to Lucy.
It is with these same birds that Audubon begins the practice of bird banding. To prove that they are the same birds returning each year to the same location, Audubon attaches to their young “a light silver thread to the leg of each, loose enough not to hurt the part, but so fastened that no exertions of theirs could remove it.” Audubon locates two of the birds the following spring building nests of their own not far from their parent’s nest site.
Cornell University’s e-Bird
Away from the creek and in Mill Grove’s “meadows and green-fields,” Audubon observes the Upland sandpiper nesting. Sandpipers are normally associated with shorelines and water, but the Upland sandpiper seeks grasslands and plains for habitat. Audubon is told the bird tends to keep to itself, but when he sees the bird on an expedition through Louisiana and Texas during the spring of 1837, they arrive “in great bands.” There are still prairies and grasslands available to the Upland sandpiper, but not near enough to prevent their great bands turning into small bands. According to Cornell University’s e-Bird, the Upland sandpiper has vanished from the Mill Grove area and barely appears anywhere in Pennsylvania. Between Louisiana and Texas, the most that have been counted is 412.
Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White founded Cornell University in 1865. The college is located in Ithaca, New York, and consistently ranks among the top schools in the United States. The first graduate program in ornithology in the United States was offered at Cornell in 1915. In 1954, Lyman Stuart and others acquired land near Cornell that was donated to Cornell for the purpose of establishing a bird sanctuary now known as Sapsucker Woods.
Sapsucker Woods has been used for numerous bird studies, including the first recording of breeding Yellow-bellied sapsuckers in the Cayuga Lake Basin. In 2002 Cornell and the National Audubon Society created on the internet a website called e-Bird. Anyone can access the website and enter their list of birds and the counts. These lists are then stored and made available for other users to see which birds are occurring where, when, and how many. collaborating organizations and scientists monitor the lists to maintain the integrity of the species and their counts.
Close to 600,000 birders have submitted almost 48 million lists to e-Bird, but no one can match the variety of species, locations, and counts that John James Audubon describes in his Birds of America. Even over the last 50 years, there has been a precipitous drop in bird populations. In October of 2019, Science magazine issued a report showing the loss to be approximately three billion birds. Compared to Audubon’s counts and documentation, it is more like birds have fairly disappeared.
National Audubon Society
The idea for The National Audubon Society began with George B. Grinnell. In 1874, Grinnell traveled with General George Custer to see and study the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota. Any hopes that Indigenous people had for maintaining their rights to this land changed much for the worse when gold was discovered in French Creek. Custer publicized the discovery and ignited the Black Hills Gold Rush.
Custer returned to the Black Hills to fight Indians and make the area more accessible to speculators and settlers. His efforts ended at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. Grinnell’s concern was not fighting for gold. He wanted to study and learn about the wildlife living in the western United States.
Grinnell was not at Little Bighorn the day Custer and the rest of his troops died there. He was exploring other parts of the west writing about hunting and wildlife in a magazine he edited called Forest and Stream. In the edition of Forest and Stream dated February 11, 1886, Grinnell wrote: “We propose the formation of an association for the protection of wild birds and their eggs, which shall be called the Audubon Society.”
Grinnell rapidly gained members to his society. Then other associations started forming such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896. In February of 1899, Frank M. Chapman recognized 15 Audubon Societies in the first issue of a magazine he published called Bird-Lore. In 1905, the Audubon Societies began joining the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals. In 1940, the organization changed its name to the National Audubon Society. The National Audubon Society purchased Bird-Lore from Chapman in 1935. The name of the magazine was changed to Audubon Magazine in 1941, and then shortened to Audubon in 1966.
If there was ever a name that would live on, it was John James Audubon. In one of the many ways this has happened is George Grinnell once being in a classroom of children with Audubon’s wife Lucy as their teacher.