Alexander Wilson was born on July 6th, 1766, in Paisley, Scotland, the son of a smuggler turned weaver. He originally was educated with the eye of going into the ministry, but his mother died when he was nine, his father remarrying, and Alexander was soon taken out of school. That was the only formal education Wilson ever had.
As a young man, Wilson had a variety of jobs, though mostly he worked as a weaver and peddler, yet at heart he was of a more philosophical bent. Wilson grew to love nature and wandered widely through the Scottish woods. He read extensively, especially poetry which he also wrote, achieving some success as a poet in his native land. Wilson’s most famous poem, though published anonymously, was, Watty and Meg, a favorite among the Scots which was sometimes was attributed to Robert Burns.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Wilson got himself into trouble by publishing satires in support of Paisley’s weavers against the mill owners, eventually being arrested for trying to blackmail a mill owner by using the threat of publishing a pamphlet against him. As a result, Wilson spent time on and off in jail. This, and his concern over the possible repercussions of his connections with political radicals, finally decided Wilson that he should emigrate to America, which he did in 1794.
In America, Wilson continued to wander in the woods and he came to have a particular interest in birds, partly as a hunter but also as a naturalist. Wilson was particularly amazed by the variety and beauty of American birds compared to those in Europe. William Bartram took notice of his new neighbor, clearly a budding naturalist, and he befriended Wilson, especially encouraging him in his ornithological interest. Bartram allowed Wilson to explore his extensive woods, use his library and introduced Wilson to the world of Philadelphia naturalists.
At some point in this period, Wilson devised a plan to produce an illustrated natural history of “all the birds of this part of North America.” He had about 100 finished drawings of birds and decided that he could produce a book of hand-colored engravings, with text, which would document all the birds of America. In order to show what these prints would look like, Wilson borrowed tools from his friend and fellow Scotsman, Alexander Lawson, who was a Philadelphia engraver, and between November 1805 and January 1806 etched plates for the Blue Jay and the Eagle, which he then printed and hand colored as sample prints for his intended publication.
Wilson then tried to convince Lawson to join him in publishing this proposed work. His plan was to produce a set of 10 volumes with 10 plates in each, which would sell for $120 for the whole set, but would be sold by subscription at $12 per volume. Wilson planned to start with the more popular birds in the first volume, so as to entice people to subscribe, and then he would be able to use the money that came in from each volume in order to produce the next volume and also to continue to travel around the country to collect specimens.
Unable to secure financial support from his friend Lawson, Wilson was very fortunate when in early 1806, Philadelphia publisher Samuel Bradford hired him as assistant editor for the American edition of Ree’s Cyclopaedia. Bradford was intrigued by Wilson’s ornithological project and he decided to back Wilson in the publication of this proposed work. Bradford realized there was an opportunity to piggy-back the Wilson book with the Cyclopedia, for he could have Wilson travel around the country selling subscriptions for both works, and at the same time Wilson could gather information for future volumes of the bird book.
So, Wilson began a series of extensive trips around the United States to sell the Cyclopedia and, more importantly to him, to get subscribers for American Ornithology. Over the next five years, Wilson was to travel more than 10,000 miles, much of it on foot, visiting every state in the United States, as well many of its territories. Wilson visited anywhere there were people interested in scientific subjects who he thought might subscribe.
Subscriptions went slowly at first and throughout the publication history of the book there was considerable financial pressure on Wilson because subscribers did not pay anything until they actually received the volumes. When he wasn’t out drumming up subscriptions, Wilson was busy with his drawings, writing up his notes, and personally checking on the plates and colorings as the prints came out.
On the latter trip Wilson sold a subscription to Thomas Jefferson, met and befriended Georgia naturalist John Abbot—-who was a regular help to Wilson thereafter—-and was at last able to meet Bradford’s demand for 200 subscribers. It seemed that the American Ornithology would be a success, with Wilson even convincing Bradford to increase the run of plates to 500.
In early 1811, Wilson quit as editor of Ree’s Cyclopaedia so he could concentrate on American Ornithology. The financial situation was not good, as the volumes were taking longer to produce than anticipated and no monies came in until they were delivered. Not only that, but by late 1811 the tensions which would lead to the War of 1812 had begun to affect the country’s economy, causing some subscribers to drop out and making supplies harder and more expensive to get.
In the spring of 1813, the seventh volume of American Ornithology was issued, but just four months later Wilson died of dysentery. George Ord was named one of his executors and he undertook the publishing of the final two volumes. All the plates for these had already been drawn, but one plate for Volume 8 still needed to be engraved and Ord had to edit Wilson’s notes on the birds for the last volume. These two volumes were published in 1814, the last volume containing only 4 prints.
In a following blog, I look, with more in detail, at Wilson's American Ornithology and its plates.