Alexander Wilson

Charles D. Cleveland, in Compendium of American Literature (1858) 138-40.

If one's nationality is to be determined by the country where he was chiefly educated, by the soil which proved kindred to his genius, by the scenes which called forth his powers, and by the field where he won his fame, then is Alexander Wilson, though of foreign origin, truly an American.

He was born in Paisley, Scotland, on the 6th of July, 1766, of humble parents, who could afford to him but the mere rudiments of an education, and at the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to a weaver, with whom he worked till he was eighteen. He early evinced a taste for literature, spending all his leisure time in reading and study, and from his youth to the day of his death, presents an eminent instance of the successful pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. The genius of Burns, who was but six years older, had just burst upon his countrymen, and the spirit of emulation so fired the breast of Wilson, that he soon put forth a volume entitled Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious. But it was not received with much favor, and certainly "put no money in his purse," so that he returned to his trade as a more sure means of gaining a livelihood. In a few years, he became disgusted with it, and resolved to try to better his fortune in the United States. Working hard and living very economically, he soon saved enough to pay for his passage, and sailing in a vessel from Belfast, he arrived at New Castle, Delaware, on the 14th of July, 1794, but without a shilling in his pocket. Shouldering his fowling-piece, he set forward on foot towards Philadelphia, and on his way shot a woodpecker. This little incident was doubtless the germ of his future fame, for the peculiar habits and rich plumage of this native of our forests made a deep impression upon his mind, and led him by degrees to that train of thought and those plans of action which resulted in placing him at the head of American ornithologists.

At Philadelphia, he at first worked at his old trade; but as soon as he became acquainted with the people and their manners, and had made a little money, he resolved to devote himself to the pursuits of literature. To this end he taught a school at Milestown, about six miles from Philadelphia, where he remained several years, studying diligently, and adding something to the income from his school by surveying land for the farmers in the neighborhood. He then travelled into the Genesee country in New York to see some friends, and on his return accepted the invitation to become the head teacher of Union School, in the township of Kingsessing, a short distance from Gray's Ferry, on the Schuylkill, on the banks of which river Audubon likewise caught his inspiration. Here he contracted an affectionate intimacy with the venerable naturalist, William Bartram, whose magnificent botanic garden was in the vicinity of the school-house.

From this time (about 1803) must be dated the beginning of his history as an ornithologist. Seeing the imperfections of books on the subject of the birds of our country, how imperfectly and often falsely they were represented in drawings, he determined to devote himself exclusively to the pursuits of a naturalist, with a glimmering hope of giving to the world a complete work on American Ornithology. Still, how could he accomplish an undertaking so vast, ignorant as he was of drawing, and other requisite branches of knowledge But to an enthusiastic and determined spirit nothing seems impossible. He at once devoted himself to the study of drawing and engraving, and soon made very commendable progress in those arts. In October, 1804, he set out on foot for the Falls of Niagara, making everything on his journey subsidiary to his favorite pursuit. On his return, he published an account of his journey in the Port Folio, in a poem called The Foresters, and continued in his vocation as a teacher, devoting all his spare time, as before, to his favorite science. By the spring of 1805, he had completed the drawings of twenty-eight birds, mostly residents of Pennsylvania, and at the close of the next year entered into an engagement with Mr. Samuel F. Bradford, a publisher in Philadelphia, to publish his AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGY, the first volume of which was given to the world in September, 1808. Immediately he set off on a tour to the Eastern States to exhibit his work, procure subscribers, and at the same time add to his stock of ornithological science. But the price of the work completed (one hundred and twenty dollars) was so far beyond anything the public had been accustomed to, that he did not meet with the encouragement he hoped. Still he was not disheartened. He returned home, and then made an extensive tour through the Southern States, of the state of things in which he gives a very amusing, though a very sad picture. He returned the next year, and in January, 1810, appeared the second volume of the ORNITHOLOGY. He then set out on a Western tour, going to Pittsburgh, and then down the Ohio, and through Kentucky, Tennessee, &c., to New Orleans, whence he embarked for New York, and arrived at Philadelphia on the 2d of August, 1811. He then took another tour through the Northern and Eastern States, and on his return, made unceasing efforts to complete his great work. As soon as the seventh volume had left the press, he went to Great Egg Harbor to collect materials for the eighth. He took cold from exposure; dysentery ensued, and he died on the 23d of August, 1813.

In his personal appearance, Wilson was tall and handsome; rather slender than athletic in form. His countenance was expressive and thoughtful, his eye powerful and intelligent, and his conversation remarkable for quickness and originality. He was warm-hearted and generous in his affections, and through life displayed a constant attachment to his friends, even after many years of separation.

Few examples can be found in literary history equal to that of Wilson. Though fully aware of the difficulty of the enterprise in which he engaged, his heart never for a moment failed him, and his success was complete, for his work has secured him immortal honor.