In December of 1810, John James Audubon agrees to move deeper into the American western frontier with his partner, Ferdinand Rozier. The idea is to re-establish their trade business in St. Louis. With the unknowns too great, Audubon is able to make arrangements for his wife Lucy and their one-year-old son Victor to continue living in Henderson, Kentucky, with Dr. Adam Rankin and his family at their farm called Meadow Brook. Rozier and Audubon secure a keel boat that they load with stock for trade and a few belongings. Another intrepid individual named John Pope joins them.

The torrid heat of the summer has turned into snow and blustery winds. Audubon, Rozier, and Pope float about 200 miles and almost reach the mouth of the Ohio River. When ice on the river prevents them from moving any further downstream, they go ashore to build their camp. As the days go by, Rozier watches after the camp while Audubon and Pope enter the grasslands and forests to explore and shoot game. The days turn into weeks. Audubon’s and Pope’s rambling and gun firing draws the attention of Shawnee warriors. When approached, Audubon and Pope describe their stranded condition and their interest in hunting and trading. Any other purpose for being in Shawnee territory might have meant John James Audubon being remembered by no more than his scalp. Instead, the Shawnee encourage Audubon and Pope to hunt with them.

The Shawnees

The territory of Indiana was among the last strongholds for Native Americans east of the Mississippi. The first Anglo-American settlers in this region, like those who were the first to settle anywhere in North America, were frequently unwelcome to common lands. Indigenous people tried to repel settlers but lacked their numbers and guns. Therefore Native American warriors resorted to other tactics to scare settlers away from common lands. To settle in America meant for most the constant threat of ambushes and raids and unspeakable acts of torture.

Chiefs like Tecumseh of the Shawnees were given no other choice. “Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun. Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without a struggle, give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, ‘Never! Never!'”

The Battle of Tippecanoe

Establishing peace, hunting, and trading with the Shawnees allows Audubon, Rozier, and Pope a safe passage to Ste. Genevieve in the territory of Missouri. Whether disinterested in pursuing further the trade business or pining for Lucy, or both, Audubon decides in April 1811 to return to Henderson. Ferdinand Rozier buys Audubon’s interest in the trade business and remains in Ste. Genevieve rather than forging on to St. Louis.

As Audubon is traveling northeast towards Henderson, his path intersects the one on which the Shawnee chief Tecumseh is traveling. Tecumseh is heading south from Prophetstown in the Indiana territory to recruit warriors to fight the Americans. He appeals to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and other Indigenous people. Other Indigenous chiefs and tribes had tried to form large forces to fight the Americans with little to no success. Tecumseh’s fate is no different.

While Tecumseh is away from his people, the governor of the territory of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, leads 1,000 American soldiers in an attack on the Shawnees and decimates them near a river named Tippecanoe in the fall of 1811. The victory earns for Harrison the nickname “Tippecanoe.” The Whigs later use a campaign song titled “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” that helps lift Harrison to victory in the United States presidential election of 1840.

The Death of Tecumseh

On June 18, 1812, the United States declares war on England. One concern is keeping shipping lanes open while England is at war with France. But mostly the war is for control of disputed land and territories in North America. Many leaders of Indigenous people, including Tecumseh, see the War of 1812 as an opportunity to stem the tide of Americans flooding westward and establish alliances with the English. The hopes for Indigenous people crash when Tecumseh dies at the Battle of the Thames near Chatham in southwestern Ontario, Canada, on October 5, 1813.


The Birds of Henderson

While spared violence in Henderson and relieved of trade obligations with Ferdinand Rozier, Audubon channels all of his energies into his hunting and drawing. Two birds that Audubon sees in May of 1811 are Carbonated warblers. Audubon spots them “busily engaged in searching for insects along the branches and amongst the leaves of a dogwood tree.” Although rather than a dogwood, it is among the branches of the Serviceberry tree that Audubon places the bird for the drawing in Birds of America. “It seldom attains a greater height than thirty or forty feet, and is usually found in hilly ground of secondary quality. The berries are agreeable to the taste, and are sought after by many species of birds, amongst which the Red-headed Woodpecker is very conspicuous.”

John James Audubon's drawing of the Red-headed woodpecker.

Neither the Carbonated warbler nor the Red-headed woodpecker could be regarded as conspicuous today. The Red-headed woodpecker relies heavily on dead trees for nesting. Unless attacked by pests such as the Emerald ash borer or Southern Pine Beetle, or struck by disease such as chestnut blight, too few dead trees are left standing due to development, timber harvesting, and fire suppression. A count on Cornell’s e-Bird of more than a few Red-headed woodpeckers in the Henderson area is extraordinary. More extraordinary is Audubon’s Carbonated warbler. There has never been another sighting of the bird.