Audubon, John James (1785–1851)

By: Ben W. Huseman

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: November 1, 1994

John James Audubon, naturalist and painter of American wildlife, was born on April 26, 1785, in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (Haiti), the illegitimate son of Jean Audubon and Jeanne Rabin(e), a servant who died soon after his birth. His father, a successful French ship captain, merchant, planter, and slave dealer, took him to Nantes, France, where he was adopted and raised by Jean Audubon's wife, Anne (Moynet). Young Audubon, called variously Fougère, Jean Rabin, Jean Jacques Fougere Audubon, or La Forest, showed an early interest in drawing wildlife. From 1796 until 1800 he attended a naval training academy at Rochefort-sur-Mer. He later claimed to have studied under the renowned French painter Jacques Louis David.

In 1803 he traveled to Pennsylvania to manage an estate that his father had purchased in 1789. After a brief return to France between 1805 and 1806, he returned to the United States and married Lucy Bakewell at her home in Pennsylvania in 1808. They moved west to Kentucky, where he attempted several unsuccessful business ventures. After he was temporarily jailed for debt in 1819, he went to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a taxidermist, portraitist, and art teacher.

With the idea of documenting American birds and animals by publishing engraved copies of his wildlife drawings, Audubon traveled along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and the Great Lakes from 1820 to 1824, collecting wildlife specimens while his wife supported their family by running a school. In 1826, after failing to find an American publisher for his project, The Birds of America, he went to England. He supported himself by selling oil copies of his watercolor drawings while he canvassed for subscribers to his project among the wealthy and influential in Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh, London, and Paris. To engrave his works, Audubon employed William Lizars of Edinburgh and, later, Robert Havell, Jr., of London. In 1829 he briefly returned to America to exhibit his drawings and collect support for his project before heading back to Europe with his wife. His fame grew as the elephant-folio-size plates of Birds of America began to appear, and when he returned to the United States in 1831 he exhibited them in the Library of Congress and the Boston Athenaeum. For the next several years he traveled up and down the Atlantic coast from Florida to Labrador in search of birds and subscribers. In Charleston, South Carolina, he met Rev. John Bachmann, a Lutheran minister and amateur naturalist. Audubon's sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse Audubon, later both married into the Bachmann family, and increasingly the two families assisted Audubon on his various projects. In 1834 and 1835 Audubon was again in Edinburgh, Scotland, to oversee the preparation of The Birds of America and its accompanying text, the Ornithological Biography. By September 1836 he was back in the eastern United States, where he purchased specimens collected in California.

In April 1837 Audubon and his son John left New Orleans aboard the United States revenue cutter Campbell on an expedition along the Gulf Coast to the new Republic of Texas. They arrived at Galveston Bay toward the end of the month and were officially greeted there by the secretary of the Texas Navy, Samuel Rhoads Fisher. They next visited the capitol at Houston, where they met with President Sam Houston in his dog-trot cabin. While in Texas they observed a large number of previously known birds including blue-winged teals, black-necked stilts, least terns, roseate spoonbills, skimmers, ivory-billed woodpeckers, black-throated buntings, and varieties of sandpipers, ducks, and herons. Later in 1837, after stops in New Orleans and Charleston, Audubon returned to England and Scotland, where for the next couple of years he oversaw the completion of The Birds of America and the Ornithological Biography. Afterwards he returned to America and worked on the miniature or octavo edition, lithographed by John T. Bowen, which immediately became a best seller. With the money made from its sales, he bought land on the Hudson River and built a home.

During the 1840s Audubon worked on a second great project, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. He collected specimens sent to him, toured Canada to canvass for subscriptions in 1842, and made a final expedition up the Missouri River in 1843 to collect specimens and notes. The Quadrupeds was issued as lithographs in both large portfolio in 1845–48 and a smaller, multivolume edition in 1854. About half of the original drawings for the work were by Audubon; the rest were by his son John. Audubon died on January 27, 1851, at his home on the Hudson, before his friend, the Reverend Bachmann, had completed the text. He is buried in Trinity Cemetery.

Quadrupeds contains more plates drawn from Texas specimens than does the Birds of America. In fact, apparently only one plate from the octavo Birds of America, the Texas Turtle Dove, fits this category. Among the Texas Quadrupeds drawn by John James Audubon are the Orange-bellied Squirrel, the Cotton Rat, the Collared Peccary, and the Black-Tailed Hare. Many of the Quadruped specimens were obtained by John W. Audubon on his second trip to Texas in 1845–46. Although important parts of John James Audubon's journal, including information on his 1837 Texas trip, were lost, Samuel Wood Geiser attempted a reconstruction of the Texas trip from the Birds in "Naturalists of the Frontier" in the Southwest Review for 1930.

Alice E. Ford, Audubon's Animals: The Quadrupeds of North America (New York: Studio Publications, 1951). Alice Ford, John James Audubon (New York: Abbeville, 1988). Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Scribner, 1928–81). S. W. Geiser, "Naturalists of the Frontier: Audubon in Texas," Southwest Review 16 (Fall 1930). Francis Hobart Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist: A History of His Life and Times (2 vols., New York: Appleton, 1917). John H. Jenkins, Audubon and Texas (Austin: Pemberton Press, 1965).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ben W. Huseman, “Audubon, John James,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994