Alexander Wilson, weaver, peddler, poacher, poet, engraver, surveyor, schoolteacher, artist, writer and ornithologist, died on the 23rd of August, 1813.
Alexander Wilson died on the same day as William Wallace, but substantially more peacefully and over five hundred years later. Wilson isnae as famous as Wallace, unless you’re big into ornithology, but he was just as Scottish, albeit American ornithologists would claim him as their own, not least as he became an American citizen. Wilson began his adult career weaving patterns in Paisley, before he became inspired by the poetry of Robert Burns and had a go at writing the odd bit poem himsel’. Sadly for his aspirations, he wisnae vera guid at the versification and took himsel’ off to America, where he became famous as an observer of birdies. In the United States and elsewhere, due to his ‘American Ornithology’, Wilson is regarded as the ‘founding father’ of that science in the ‘New Continent’. There are lots of Scottish ‘founding fathers’ – it must be in the DNA.
Wilson’s acclaimed, 13-volume ‘Ornithology’ was the first comprehensive work on the birds of the eastern United States. His Meisterwerk contains masterly prose, in concise, descriptive essays, and vivid illustrations, noted for their accuracy in depicting the plumage of individual birds. His poetry aside, Wilson was undoubtedly as good a writer as the artist he came to be, writing of the eagle as “fierce, contemplative, daring and tyrannical – attributes not exerted but on particular occasions, but, when put forth, overpowering all opposition.” Each volume contains information regarding 40 or so species of birds, 26 of which were previously unknown and discovered by Wilson. As a pioneering endeavour, Wilson’s ornithological volumes have never been surpassed and his discoveries included the whippoorwill, the song sparrow, the canvasback and the Mississippi kite, together with another 34 distinct American species. In addition, several species were named in his honour, including Wilson’s Plover, and Wilson’s Warbler.
Alexander Wilson was born in Paisley on the 6th of July, 1766. He hardly went to school and biographies suggest that he was entirely self-educated. In any case, when he was thirteen, he was apprenticed as a weaver and spent five (or ten?) years practicing that trade. He then started to practice writing poems and became an itinerant peddler and (at times) a poacher, but interspersed that with periods back at the loom, which is probably why some count his weaving period as ten years. Wilson’s poems were written in the Scots vernacular after the fashion of Burns and in travelling, he gained inspiration for his versification. An early poem, written in 1791 and called ‘Watty and Meg’ became fairly well known and as a result, he got a bit of a reputation as a minor bard. Wilson contributed to ‘The Glasgow Advertiser’ and ‘The Bee’ in Edinburgh, and tried his hand at satire, where he made the mistake of poking fun at some capitalists from Paisley. Those toffs lacked a sense of humour and, after one libellous poem entitled ‘The Shark’, directed against a local mill owner, “[Wilson] was immediately prosecuted before the sheriff, sentenced to a short imprisonment, and compelled to burn the libel at the public cross of Paisley with his own hand.”
Opinion differs on the literary merits of Wilson’s poetry, but in any case, in 1794, released from jail, discouraged by lack of literary success, poverty and the enmity of tyrannical industrialists, Wilson emigrated to America. The penniless Wilson went ashore from the ‘Swift’ at New Castle and thereafter, he gained work around Delaware and Pennsylvania, picking up odd jobs, and even following in his father’s footsteps with a little illegal distilling on the side. Wilson kept himself alive and busy until, around 1802, he took charge of a country school at Gray’s Ferry, in Philadelphia, in a building that looked uncomfortably like the jail he’d left behind in Scotland. That was the turning point in Wilson’s life; when he met the naturalist, William Bartram, who triggered his nascent interest in ornithology and encouraged him on the path of scientific endeavour.
Bartram should also be credited with helping Wilson to learn to draw birds, from copying illustrations from his library, and teaching him botany and the Latin he needed in order to be able to classify species. Wilson began by sketching owls on the backs of old letters and once, using a stuffed owl as a model, he drew it with a live mouse tied to its claws. Wilson then made the decision that was to make him famous. As he said himself, “Think for thyself one good idea, but known to be thine own, is better than a thousand gleaned from fields by others sown.” His one good idea was to produce a comprehensive, illustrated work on the ornithology of the United States.
In 1807, Wilson got a job in Philadelphia as assistant editor to the publisher of an encyclopaedia and, in 1808, he travelled all over the eastern United States in search of subscribers to his plan. With a few plates tucked under his arm, he intended to sell enough subscriptions for the first volume, at $12 a throw, get that printed and then carry on to sell full subscriptions at $120 for a 10-volume set. He calculated he’d need 200 subscriptions to fund his travels and enable him to complete the remaining nine volumes. One of his early, notable customers was Thomas Paine. On his first fund raising trip, Wilson sold only 41 subscriptions, but he persevered and got enough to persuade Samuel Bradford, the encyclopaedia publisher, to finance the first book. He then borrowed some copperplates and an engraver’s tool and set about engraving his own drawings. Armed with that first book, Wilson set off on yet another fundraising trip and managed to get 250 subscribers and the green light to ‘go’.
On the 23rd of February, 1810, Wilson then set off down the Ohio River to complete his task. All told, he spent ten years roaming the American wilderness, from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River and from Florida to Niagara Falls, bird-watching in search of new species, and gathering specimens and materials for his classic work. He walked long distances with little food and shelter, carrying his drawing equipment with him, and with near total disregard for his health, which suffered as a result. On his return from Niagara Falls, after a 1,200 mile stroll in the woods, Wilson wrote a book-length poem called ‘The Foresters’, in which he accounted for every pheasant and quail, duck and plover that he shot on the journey. The first seven volumes of ‘American Ornithology’ were published between 1808 and 1813 and, while he was preparing the eighth volume, Wilson’ health broke down.
During the War of 1812, Wilson was arrested as a spy, but unlike Wallace, he wasn’t sentenced to death by disembowelling and dismemberment. Alexander Wilson died, of dysentery, in Philadelphia, on the 23rd of August, 1813. Wilson’s eighth volume was completed from his manuscript notes and published in 1814 by his friend and biographer, George Ord, who also completed a ninth volume. Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon, published four additional volumes between 1825 and 1833. A collection of Wilson’s poetry was also published posthumously, in 1816, as ‘Poems; Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’.