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John James Audubon (1785 - 1851) was born in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). His father, Capt. Jean Audubon, was a French merchant captain and planter, his mother, Jeanne Rabine, a French domestic who died when he was an infant. At the age of four he was taken to France and adopted by his father's legal wife, who raised John and his half-sister as if they were her own. In 1803, Capt. Audubon sent his eighteen year old son to Pennsylvania to manage the family's estate there, and to escape Napoleon's draft. There he met, and eventually married Lucy Bakewell.

Audubon spent more than a decade in business, eventually traveling down the Ohio River to western Kentucky - then the frontier - and setting up a dry-goods store in Henderson. He continued to draw birds as a hobby, amassing an impressive portfolio. While in Kentucky, Lucy gave birth to two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse, as well as a daughter who died in infancy. Audubon was quite successful in business for a while, but hard times hit, and in 1819 he was briefly jailed for bankruptcy.

With no other prospects, Audubon set off on his epic quest to depict America's avifauna, with nothing but his gun, artist's materials, and a young assistant. Floating down the Mississippi, he lived a rugged hand-to-mouth existence in the South while Lucy earned money as a tutor to wealthy plantation families. In 1826 he sailed with his partly finished collection to England and began to attain his fame as an artist. His life-size, highly dramatic bird portraits, along with his embellished descriptions of wilderness life, hit just the right note at the height of the Continent's Romantic era. Audubon found a printer for the Birds of America, first in Edinburgh, then London, and later collaborated with the Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray on the Ornithological Biographies - life histories of each of the species in the work.

The last print was issued in 1838, by which time Audubon had achieved fame and a modest degree of comfort, traveled this country several more times in search of birds, and settled in New York City. He made one more trip out West in 1843, the basis for his final work of mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, which was largely completed by his sons and the text of which was written by his long-time friend, the Lutheran pastor John Bachman (whose daughters married Audubon's sons). Audubon spent his last years in senility and died at age 65. He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.

Twenty-two of the original 435 Havell plates represent birds Audubon observed and painted in Florida in 1831 - 1832. In Key West, he had a letter of introduction to Dr. Benjamin Strobel, who had a house on the property now occupied by the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens and the Geiger Family Historic Home. At that time the property was owned by one of the island's founders, Pardon Greene, and occupied the homes of Strobel, Greene, the Geigers (who eventually bought the property and erected the present house), and at least one other family. The center of the lot was a garden of native and imported tropical plants which Audubon used in his images of local birds.

An excerpt from an 1895 book entitled "The Story of Audubon The Naturalist" is provided here. It is a quaint, very romanticized, and often historically inaccurate, story of Audubon, in the moralistic tone of 1895, which provides an interesting glimpse into his life and times.

Business career in America
Audubon's father decided to send his son to America, where he owned a farm near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At first the boy lived with friends of his father. They tried to teach him English and other things, but after a time he demanded to live on his father's farm. There Audubon continued living the life of a country gentleman—fishing, shooting, and developing his skill at drawing birds, the only occupation to which he was ever willing to give effort. When Audubon began his work in the early nineteenth century, there was no such profession as a "naturalist" in America. The men who engaged in natural history investigations came from all walks of life and paid for their work—collecting, writing, and publication—from their own resources. Audubon developed a system of inserting wires into the bodies of freshly killed birds in order to move them into natural poses for his sketches.

In 1805 Audubon returned briefly to France after a long battle with his father's business agent in America. While in France he formed a business partnership with Ferdinand Rozier, the son of one of his father's associates. Together the two returned to America and tried to operate a lead mine on the farm. Then in August 1807 the partners decided to move west. There followed a series of business failures in various cities in Kentucky, caused largely by Audubon's preference for roaming the woods rather than keeping the store. During this period he married Lucy Bakewell. After the failures with Rozier, Audubon, in association with his brother-in-law, Thomas Bakewell, and others, attempted to start several more businesses, the last being a lumber mill in Henderson, Kentucky. In 1819 this venture failed and Audubon was left with only the clothes on his back, his gun, and his drawings. This disaster ended his business career.

"Birds of America"
For a time Audubon made crayon portraits (drawings of individual people) for $5 per portrait. Then he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became a taxidermist (one who stuffs and mounts the skins of animals) in the Western Museum that had been recently founded by Dr. Daniel Drake. In 1820 the possibility of publishing his bird drawings occurred to him. He set out down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, exploring the country for new birds and paying his expenses by painting portraits. For a while he supported himself in New Orleans by tutoring and painting. His wife also worked as a tutor and later opened a school for girls. She became the family's main financial support while Audubon focused on publishing his drawings.

In 1824 Audubon went to Philadelphia to seek a publisher. He met with opposition, however, from the friends of Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), the other major American ornithologist with whom Audubon had begun a bitter rivalry in 1810. He finally decided to raise the money for a trip to Europe, where he felt he would find greater interest in his drawings. He arrived in Liverpool, England, in 1826, then moved on to Edinburgh, Scotland, and to London, England, signing up subscribers for his volumes in each city. Audubon finally reached an agreement with a London publisher, and in 1827 volumes of Birds of America began to appear. It took eleven years in all for the publication and reprintings of all the volumes.

The success of Audubon's bird drawings brought him immediate fame, and by 1831 he was considered the leading naturalist of his country, despite the fact that he possessed no formal scientific training. There was an intense popular interest in the marvels of nature during this era. Anyone who could capture the natural beauty of wild specimens was certain to take his place among the front ranks of those recognized as "men of science." Audubon had succeeded in giving the world the first great collection of American birds, drawn in their natural habitats as close to nature as possible.
Later years

With his great work finally finished in 1838, and the Ornithological Biography (a text-only book about birds) in publication, Audubon returned to America to prepare a "miniature" edition. He also began drawings for a new book (in collaboration with John Bachman), Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, for which his sons contributed many of the drawings.

In 1841 Audubon bought an estate on the Hudson River and settled down to advise and encourage young scientists. It was during this period that the romantic picture of Audubon as the "American Woodsman," the great lover of birds, began to emerge. After several years of illness, Audubon suffered a slight stroke in January 1851, followed by partial paralysis and great pain. Audubon died on January 27, 1851.

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