Monday, 6 May 2013

The Fluctuating Fortunes of the Mercurial Merchants

                     He was not above middle height, with a gaunt face dominated by a hooked nose and high cheekbones, dressed in a short coat, trousers and waistcoat of grey cloth that look out of place in Louisville, Kentucky. Under his arm, he carries two books and he approaches the table where John James Audubon sat, in the counting house of his general store. 

Alexander Wilson

His name is Alexander Wilson, originally from Paisley in Scotland, but he had emigrated to America in search of a better life, like so many of his countrymen, and now he was looking for subscribers for his book about American ornithology, samples of which he carries with him. Regardless of the cost, Audubon is keen to add his name to the list of subscribers, until his business partner, Frederick Rozier, intervenes. Speaking in French, he says to John, 
My dear Audubon, what induces you to subscribe to this work? Your drawings are certainly far better; and again, you must know as much of the habits of American birds as this gentleman.” 

Alexander Wilson

We don’t know if Wilson understood the words, but he certainly understands the change in Audubon’s demeanour, as he lays his pen aside. His friend’s encomiums and his own vanity have put an end to his subscription, and Wilson’s crest falls further when the Frenchman takes out a portfolio of drawings of his own. 

Illustration from Alexander Wilson - American Ornithology

Birds. So many birds. He shudders in trepidation as he asks if the artist intends to publish and allows himself a sigh when he replies in the negative. He asks if he might borrow some of the drawings during his stay in Louisville, and accompanies Audubon on a collecting trip of species he has not yet seen. Audubon suggests a correspondence, that Wilson may like to include some his drawings in his opus, all he asks is that he receives credit for the works used. Five days later, he leaves for Philadelphia, where Audubon later visits him. He is received cordially, but there is no mention of birds, the drawings or the letters, and they part, never to meet again. 

Alexander Wilson - Title Page - American Ornithology

But Audubon is surprised, if not shocked, when he later reads in volume nine of Wilson’s American Ornithology
I bade adieu to Louisville, to which place I had four letters of recommendation, and was taught to expect much of everything there; but neither received one act of civility from those to whom I was recommended, one subscriber, nor one new bird; though I delivered my letters, ransacked the woods repeatedly, and visited all the characters likely to subscribe. Science or literature has not one friend in this place.” 
Wilson died, unexpectedly, in 1813, and there would be further controversy as his executors saw to the publication of his works, to which I will return later. Meanwhile, the once prosperous Audubon and Rozier business began a downturn in its fortune, as competition moved into the area, with other stores being opened, and the economic repercussions of the political policies taken prior to, and during, the Revolutionary War began to be felt. Trade embargoes affected European imports, and Audubon and Rozier felt that a move further down the Ohio river might prove to be advantageous, so they took the hundred and twenty-five mile journey to Henderson, where they opened another store. It was an ill-judged move, as the country was so sparsely populated that they only sold the most basic of provisions, largely guns and fishing lines, and another move was proposed, to St Geneviève on the Mississippi river. 

Out Birding in the Wilds

Audubon and Rozier set out on a raft for the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi, but they became stranded in the winter ice, and laid up in the wilderness, hunting game for food and making the acquaintance of the local indigenous people, from whom Audubon learned a great deal about the flora and fauna. With the spring thaw, they proceeded to St Geneviève, where they had a little success selling whisky they had bought for 25c per gallon for $2 per gallon, but Audubon had no love for the French-Canadians of St Geneviève, found the place dirty and noisy, and eventually he and Rozier agreed to part, with Rozier, who had married a local woman, buying out Audubon’s share of the stock. Audubon bought a horse and returned to Henderson, where his wife and infant son had stayed, narrowly avoiding being murdered by drunken Indians along the way. 

Letter from Audubon to Rozier

Shortly after his return, his second son was born, and in November 1813, an earthquake struck the area around Henderson. Audubon entered into a business partnership with Thomas Bakewell, his brother-in-law, selling flour, lard, pork and other foodstuffs on commission, but this enterprise faltered with the outbreak of the 1812 war, but Audubon persevered and made a success of small store located in a log cabin in Henderson. 

The Mill, Henderson

He was persuaded by Bakewell to invest in a steam-driven mill, in partnership with an Englishman, Thomas Pears, with whom had had previously worked in the Bakewell family offices in New York. The mill had a grist mill and a steam driven saw, and the three were certain that they would make their fortunes, which they would had it not been for the simple reason that there was no grain grown around Henderson and there was no lumber trade, meaning that for most of the time, the mill stood idle. Audubon received news from France that his father had died a year previously, leaving the estate there to him (which he eventually signed over to his sister, Rosa), and seventeen thousand dollars. However, by the time Audubon obtained the proof of identity required by the merchant holding the money, that merchant had died in insolvency, and the inheritance was lost. 

Another view of the Mill

The mill proved to be a money pit, and eventually went broke, ruining all involved with mounting debts. Audubon, his wife and two sons left Henderson in the clothes they stood up in, with only a gun, a dog and his bird drawings, and took lodgings with a relative in Louisville, where he eked out a living selling portraits to the locals for $5 per picture.

Tomorrow – Changes all round.

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