Alexander Wilson

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 3:649-51.

Alexander Wilson, the celebrated American Ornithologist, also distinguished as a writer of Scottish poetry, was born at Paisley, July 6, 1766. His father was a distiller in a small way, and, being in poor circumstances, was not able to give him more than an ordinary education. In his thirteenth year he was bound apprentice for three years to his brother-in-law, William Duncan, a weaver, and, after completing his indenture, he worked for four years as a journeyman, at first in Paisley, afterwards in Lochwinnoch, where his father was then residing, and latterly at Queensferry with his old master and relative Duncan, who had removed to that place. An American biographer tells us, that he acquired the nickname of "the lazy weaver," from his love of reading, and attachment to the quiet and sequestered beauties of Nature. He derived from his mother, who died when he was ten years of age, a taste for music, and he gave early indications of possessing poetical talent of a high order. Disgusted with the confined and monotonous nature of his employment, he resolved to abandon the shuttle, and betake himself to the wandering trade of a pedlar; and accordingly he carried a pack for a period of about three years. In 1789 he printed, at Paisley, a volume, entitled Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious, and offered for sale his chapman's wares and his book at the same time; but finding few customers for either, he returned to Lochwinnoch, and resumed his former occupation at the loom. In 1791 he hastily composed a poem on the question — "Whether the exertions of Allan Ramsay or Robert Fergusson had done most honour to Scottish poetry?" which he recited before the members of the Debating Society, called The Forum, at Edinburgh, giving the preference to Fergusson, and soon after published it under the title of The Laurel Disputed. At this time he wrote and recited in public two other poetical essays, and also contributed some pieces to Dr. Anderson's Bee. In 1792 appeared his admirable narrative poem, Watty and Meg, which, in humour and truth of description, is not surpassed by any production of the Scottish Muse. Being published without his name, it was universally ascribed to Burns. A violent dispute having some time after this having broken out between the Paisley master weavers and the journeymen, Wilson took part with the latter, and published anonymously several bitter satires, the authorship of which was easily traced to him. For one of these, a severe and undeserved libel upon a respectable individual, he was tried, and, being convicted, was sentenced to a short imprisonment, and compelled to burn the obnoxious poem with his own hands at the public cross of Paisley. He was likewise looked upon with suspicion as a person who advocated the dangerous principles which the French Revolution had spread among the weavers, who at that period of excitement were generally accounted levelers and democrats. These circumstances weighed heavily on his spirits, and led to his determination of emigrating to the United States.

To raise funds for this purpose he became industrious and economical, working indefatigably at the loom, and living upon a shilling a week, so that, in about four months, he had saved the amount of his passage money. He then bade farewell to his friends and relatives, and walked to Portpatrick, whence he passed over to Belfast, and embarked on board a ship bound for Newcastle, in the State of Delaware. Her complement of passengers being filled, Wilson and his nephew, William Duncan, who accompanied him, consented to sleep on deck during the voyage. With no better accommodation he crossed the Atlantic, and landed at the place of destination, July 14, 1794, in the twenty-eighth year of his age. To enable him to reach Philadelphia, he borrowed a small sum from a fellow passenger, named Oliver, and, with his fowling-piece on his shoulder, he walked thirty-three miles to the capital of Pennsylvania. It is noticed by his biographers, that the first bird he saw in the Western World was a red-headed woodpecker, which he shot and carried along with him. In Philadelphia, he was employed for some weeks by an emigrant countryman as a copperplate printer. He then resumed his former trade of weaving, at which he worked for about a year, both in Philadelphia and at Shepherdstown, in Virginia. In 1795 he traveled through the north part of New Jersey as a pedlar, keeping a journal, which he had commenced at an early period in Scotland, and which he enriched with interesting observations and characteristic remarks on men and manners. On his return, he opened a school at Frankford, in Pennsylvania, and for several years he followed the profession of a teacher, having removed first to Milestown, and afterwards to Bloomfield, New Jersey. During all this time he assiduously studied those branches of learning in which he was deficient, and having successfully cultivated a knowledge of mathematics, to the business of a schoolmaster he added that of a surveyor. His sister, Mrs. Duncan, being left a widow, followed him and her son son, with a family of small children, to the United States, and, by means of a loan, Wilson was enabled to purchase and stock a small farm for them in Ovid, Cayuga County, New York.

In 1802 he was appointed schoolmaster of a seminary in Kingsessing, on the banks of the Schuykill, within four miles of Philadelphia, and at a short distance from the residence of William Bartram, the celebrated American Naturalist. With this gentleman he soon became intimately acquainted, and also with Mr. Alexander Lawson, and engraver, who instructed him in drawing, colouring, and etching, though he made no progress until he attempted the delineation of birds. His success in this department of art led him to the study of ornithology, in which he engaged so enthusiastically as to form the project of publishing an account, with drawings, of all the birds of the middle States, and even of the Union; and he undertook the several long pedestrian excursions into the woods, for the purpose of increasing his collection of birds, as well as obtaining a knowledge of their history and habits. In the meantime, with the view of being relieved from the drudgery of a school, he contributed some essays to The Literary Magazine, then conducted by Mr. Brockden Brown, and to Denny's Portfolio; but these efforts produced no change in his situation.

In October 1804, accompanied by his nephew and another individual, he made a pedestrian tour to the Falls of the Niagara, and, on his return, he wrote the poem of The Foresters, published in the Portfolio. From this time till 1806 he was busily employed on his Ornithological Work, and his friend Lawson having declined to join with him in the undertaking, he proceeded with it alone, drawing, etching, and colouring all the plates himself. In the latter year he had the good fortune to be engaged, at a liberal salary, by Mr Samuel F. Bradford, bookseller in Philadelphia, as assistant editor of the American edition of Rees' Encyclopedia. He now relinquished the office of a schoolmaster, and Mr Bradford having agreed to take all the risk of publishing the Ornithology, he applied himself to preparing it for the press. In September 1808 the first volume of this great national work made its appearance, and its splendour and ability equally surprised and delighted the American public. Immediately on its publication, Wilson set out on a journey through the Eastern States, for the purpose of showing his book and soliciting subscriptions. He went as far as Maine, and returned through Vermont to Albany and Philadelphia. He afterwards undertook an expedition on the same errand to the South, passing through Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. When at Charleston he had procured only a hundred and twenty-five subscribers; at Savannah they had amounted to two hundred and fifty, "obtained," he says, "at a price worth five times their amount."

The second volume of the Ornithology was published in January 1810, and in the following month the author proceeded to Pittsburgh. From thence, in a small boat or skiff, he descended the Ohio for about six hundred miles. He visited the numerous towns that had even then sprung up in the wilderness, and explored various parts of the country for the purpose of extending his observations, collecting specimens, and watching the habits of birds in their native haunts. "Since February 1810," he says, in a letter to his brother, David, a year or two afterwards, "I have slept for several weeks in the wilderness alone, in an Indian country, with my gun and my pistols in my bosom; and have found myself so much reduced by sickness as to be scarcely able to stand, when not within three hundred miles of a white settlement." Near Louisville he sold his skiff, and performed the journey to Natchez partly on foot and partly on horseback. In his Diary he says, "This journey, four hundred and seventy-five miles from Nashville, I have performed alone, through difficulties which those who never have passed the road could not have a conception of." He proceeded to New York, and home to Philadelphia.

Six volumes of the Ornithology were published previous to 1813, and the seventh appeared in that year. In 1812 Wilson was chosen a Member of the Society of Artists of the United States, also of the American Philosophical Society, and of other learned bodies. In 1813 he had completed the eighth volume of the Ornithology; but is publication was greatly retarded for want of proper assistants to colour the plates. Wilson was therefore obliged to undertake the whole of this department himself, in addition to his other duties; and these multifarious labours, by encroaching largely upon his hours of rest, began rapidly to undermine his constitution. When his friends remonstrated with him upon the danger of his severe application, he answered — "Life is short, and without exertion nothing can be performed." A fatal dysentery at last seized him, of which, after a few days' illness, he died, August 23, 1813, in his forty-eighth year. He was buried in the cemetery of the Swedish church, Southwark, Philadelphia, where a simple marble monument has been erected to his memory. The letterpress of the ninth volume of the Ornithology was supplied by Wilson's friend and companion in several excursions, Mr George Ord, who prefixed an interesting memoir of the deceased naturalist. Three supplementary volumes, containing American birds not described by Wilson, have been published in folio by Charles Lucien Bonaparte. In 1832 an edition of the American Ornithology, with Illustrative Notes, and a Life of Wilson, by Sir William Jardine, Baronet, was published at London in three volumes.