Much of the anger and resentment that American colonists felt towards the English monarchy revolved around taxation and trade, as evidenced by the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773. Thomas Jefferson spelled out the end of England’s unfair taxation and other injustices in the Declaration of Independence, which the Second Continental Congress passed on July 4, 1776. Even though Americans won their independence from England eight years later, trade remains tight with England, France, and other countries. In fact, by 1807 the United States Congress shuts down international trade altogether with the passage of the Embargo Act.
The act drags down many businesses, including John James Audubon‘s and Ferdinand Rozier’s trade business in Louisville. By March of 1808, Audubon views his best prospects are back at Mill Grove, his family’s farm in Pennsylvania, and being in close proximity to Lucy Bakewell. Better yet if she would agree to be his wife. Lucy’s parents have reservations about Audubon’s lifestyle and his means to support Lucy. They also fear the consequences of forbidding their daughter from marrying the person on whom her heart is set. The Bakewells decide to let love rule the day and give Lucy away to John James Audubon on April 5 at the farm Lucy’s family calls Fatland Ford.
The Audubons Head West
The newlyweds linger at Fatland Ford long enough to load a stagecoach with Lucy’s belongings and for Lucy to bid farewell to her family and Fatland Ford. The Audubons retrace the route that John James Audubon and Ferdinand Rozier took the year before to Louisville via Pittsburgh. A harbinger of Lucy’s life with John James Audubon occurs just west of Fatland Ford, near Pottsgrove. There “was a slight fall of snow at the time, although the peach and apple trees were already in full bloom.” Audubon fells five Chestnut-sided warblers. This is the first and last time Audubon encounters the species. “They all had their wings drooping, as if suffering severely from the sudden change of the weather, and had betaken themselves to the lower rails of a fence, where they were engaged in searching after insects, particularly spiders.”
Chestnut sided-warblers are no less difficult to encounter now than when Audubon sees them. They migrate at night and breed in densely wooded areas mostly at high elevations in eastern North America. On Cornell’s e-Bird system, Paul Driver has counted the most Chestnut-sided warblers in the county (Montgomery) in which Pottsgrove is located. Although he actually neither saw nor heard the birds. He took advantage of a computer, a microphone, and a recorder. His nocturnal flight recording (NFC) was for four hours beginning at 12:00 a.m. on May 21, 2014, at Elkins Park. Among the 82 different species that he recorded and counted were 45 Chestnut-sided warblers.
Crossing the Allegheny Mountains
The snow keeps falling and starts making the Allegheny Mountains just as harrowing for the Audubons as they were for Audubon and Rozier the previous spring. Traversing a ridge near Chambersburg, the weight of the stagecoach becomes too heavy for the horses. As Audubon is jettisoning Lucy’s prized possessions, the coach tips and then falls on its side. Lucy is unable to escape in time and is trapped. She is pulled free from the coach and left scraped, bruised, and traumatized. Audubon escorts Lucy to a nearby inn where she is able to rest and recover.
Once Lucy regains her resolve to continue traveling west with her adventuresome husband, the Audubons continue on to Pittsburgh and then board a flatboat for the float down the Ohio River. There can be no stronger signs of Lucy’s desire to be by Audubon’s side than toppling over in a stagecoach followed by tolerating days of sordid conditions on a flatboat.
If there was any other consolation, it would have been the smoother going that the waters of the Ohio River afforded and beholding towering hardwoods, an explosion of spring flowers, and the banks teeming with wildlife. “A Wild Turkey, a Grouse, or a Blue-winged Teal, could be procured in few moments; and we fared well, for, whenever we pleased, we landed, struck up a fire and provided, as we were, with the necessary utensils, procured a good repast.”
John James and Lucy Audubon safely disembark at Louisville. They make arrangements to stay at an inn called the Indian Queen. Audubon resumes assisting his partner Ferdinand Rozier with the trade business but mostly roams Louisville’s environs watching, hunting, and drawing birds.
The Red Phalarope
One of the more unusual sightings is near Louisville when Audubon is returning from a visit with Major William Croghan. Audubon spots a flock of 100 or so birds swimming near one of the sandbars of the Ohio River’s Falls of the Ohio. Animals can be very creative with their foraging techniques, but to feed like a Red phalarope is to have a high tolerance for the state of Vertigo.
A phalarope spins around on the water in tight circles to generate a sort of whirlpool that stirs up different types of small prey for the bird to eat. Audubon observes the birds swimming and foraging but not too long before losing the chance to collect a specimen. In one shot with his double-barrel scattergun, Audubon fells 17 birds.
Sandbars and shallow waters are now minimized on the Ohio River due to dams, levees, and other structures and modifications. Therefore, Red phalaropes have essentially vanished from Louisville and the Ohio River. The Falls of the Ohio State Park is opposite Louisville on the Ohio River and protects a hint of what was once the Falls of the Ohio. Of the 234 different species of birds that have been reported on Cornell’s e-Bird system at the park, the Red phalarope is not among them.
The less business that is conducted in Audubon’s and Rozier’s trade store, the more time Audubon is able to explore Kentucky’s forests, streams, lakes, and rivers. A key feature of the landscape is canebreaks. These areas consist of a plant that Audubon calls Vulgo Cane or The American Cane. The plant is currently called River cane (Arundinaria gigantea). The canebreaks stretch for miles and verge on impenetrable. In one of them are two Blue-headed vireos that Audubon fells, and it is with River cane that Audubon draws the Blue-headed vireo for Birds of America.
Other than soil type and temperature, occasional fire and hungry herds of buffalo were about all there was that limited the growth of canebreaks. Then Anglo-Americans erased buffalo from the American landscape and replaced them with crops, fences, and livestock. Canebreaks amount now to tiny patches scattered along roads and streams of the southeastern United States.
Horses, cows, and sheep ate most of the cane. Rather than wait for the cane to seed, flower, and grow back, farmers introduced specialized grasses for their pastures that today rely heavily on pesticides and fertilizers. The remaining canebreaks were either built on or put into cropland. Some of the cropland goes towards birdfeed. Most of the billions of birds that once relied on canebreaks for habitat and food are now in the form of billions of chickens and turkeys in poultry barns.
The Yellow-green Vireo
Another vireo that Audubon finds in Kentucky is one that William Swainson first documents as Bartram’s greenlet (Vireo Bartramii). Audubon changes the bird’s common name to Bartram’s vireo for Birds of America. John Bartram was born in 1699 and lived his whole life near Philadelphia until his death in 1777. John Bartram, like Audubon, did not receive a formal science education. He was raised to be a farmer and developed an interest in plants outside of those growing on his family’s farm. He explored many parts of the northeastern United States and collected plants, mainly those with medicinal qualities. He established a plant nursery on his family’s farm that turned into a large business once he started selling the plants. The highly educated and foremost scientist Carl Linnaeus considered John Bartram the “greatest natural botanist in the world.”
John Bartram’s son, William, was born in 1739 and died in 1823. He trained to be a naturalist by learning from his father. He then traveled extensively through the southeastern United States beginning in 1773. The book he published in 1791 about his experiences and discoveries was given the title that is a book in itself: Travels through North & South Carolina, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. The book impacts none more so than John James Audubon. As his desire to draw all the birds of America grows, so does his desire to re-trace William Bartram’s footsteps through Florida.
A recent popular edition of the book it titled simply Travels of William Bartram. Ahaya, the chief of the Alachua people, called William Bartram by the name of Puc Puggy, or the Flower Hunter. The name Bartram though now has nothing to do with Bartram’s vireo (Vireo bartramii). The current name for the bird is the Yellow-green vireo (Vireo flavoviridis). And the others that Audubon notes seeing in Kentucky are far more than the numbers today. Not one has been recorded in the state on Cornell’s e-Bird system.
The birth of Victor Gifford Audubon
On July 12, 1809, John James and Lucy Audubon have their first child. Lucy gives birth to a boy that is given the name Victor Gifford. Although for John James, supporting a family does not mean less hunting, exploring, and drawing. Audubon’s portfolio of drawings of birds is growing the way the Bartrams were introducing rare plants into their nursery. Except the Bartrams were earning income from their plants. Audubon’s drawings are generating nothing more than compliments and occasional admiration. Audubon’s whole endeavor to draw birds might have ended if it had not been for Lucy’s uncle, Benjamin Bakewell, meeting Alexander Wilson in Pittsburgh and encouraging him to call on the Audubons if at some point he visited Louisville.
To see all of Audubon’s birds, locations, and habitats, please go to AskAudubon.net.