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John James Audubon, American Artist


On June 5, 1843, John James Audubon first entered what is now North Dakota.

Born April 26, 1785, Audubon was an American artist and ornithologist with a particular interest in birds, mammals, plants and other nature subjects. He was the dominant U.S. wildlife artist for over 50 years.

The son of a French sea captain and a Creole mother, he was born in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (now Haiti). He grew up and studied art in Nantes, France, and, at age 18, he was sent to America to avoid conscription in Napoleon’s army and to manage family farm property in Pennsylvania.

He lived on the family-owned estate near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and sketched birds. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiments in North America, learning that the birds return to the same nesting sites each year. His real passion was painting wildlife in watercolor, especially birds.

Audubon married Lucy Bakewell and had two sons, who eventually became his assistants, and two daughters, who died in infancy. He operated a variety of businesses to support his family, but they all failed and, in 1819, he was sent to debtors’ prison briefly. He then returned to his art.

The family settled in Cincinnati in 1820, where Audubon worked as a taxidermist. Unhappy with that occupation, he decided to travel the Mississippi in search of bird specimens. Accompanied by an assistant, a gun and art supplies, Audubon appeared to be a seasoned frontiersman, rather than a businessman. He embraced the life of an explorer and naturalist.

From 1822-1824, Audubon created an impressive collection of bird drawings. He then traveled to Philadelphia to find support for his bird project. Unable to find a publisher in the U.S., he sailed to England in 1827 with his partially completed collection. The American Woodsman was an overnight success there.

The next year, he published his first volume of Birds of America, a collection of 435 colored plates. The first edition was known as the “elephant folio” because it was so big. It remains the standard against which 20th and 21st century bird artists measure their work. The fourth volume was completed in 1838.

Audubon traveled out West to the upper Missouri River and the Dakotas in 1843 for his final work, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which he worked on with his friend, John Bachman. While in the Dakotas, Audubon encountered many mammal species that were new to him—mink, porcupine, badger, 13-lined ground squirrel, elk, bighorn sheep and many more.

Audubon and Bachman completed the first volume in 1845. Two more were completed before Audubon became ill and could no longer work.

Though there is an organization named after him, Audubon was not involved in it. The connection was George Bird Grinnell, a noted anthropologist and one of the founders of the Audubon Society in 1886. He was tutored by Audubon’s widow, Lucy. The name was based on Audubon’s reputation and the organization’s early work to protect birds and their habitats.

Audubon died on January 27, 1851, and is buried in New York City.

by Cathy A. Langemo