LOADING: John Audubon's autobiography as published in Scribner's Magazine. / Volume 13, Issue 3 March, 1893 - Divided into two parts for purposes of loading.


 

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Scribner's magazine. / Volume 13, Issue 3

Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons : March, 1893, pages 267 -288

 

AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

page 267

 

INTRODUCTION.

By Maria P. Audubon.

THE following pages of autobiography of my grandfather, John James Audubon, the naturalist, were found accidentally in an old calfskin-bound volume where for many years they had been hidden. They have proved of so much interest to those who have read them or heard them read, that it is deemed well to publish them unchanged, though in one or two instances paragraphs and names which bear on purely family matters have been omitted. Indeed, with the pictured faces of the father who wrote the sketch and those of the two sons for whom it was written looking from the wall of the room wherein the ancient book lies, it has seemed impossible to 'make any alteration in the quaint phraseology and rather irregular arrangements of incidents; all, therefore, has been left untouched. Those who are - the manuscript must long have passed away; and it is hoped, therefore, that there is no objection to be raised as to retaining the few names to be found in it.

That a transcript from these pages was part of the material placed by my grandmother, Mrs. Audubon, in the hands of the editor of her Memoir of her husband, is probable from the appearance there of several brief extracts from it, and of a summary of the events here described; but the narrative had never been even privately printed.

Written at a time when the struggle was over, fame and wealth having then come to the man who rose so successfully after such heavy losses and such continuous and unlooked - for misfortunes, the manuscript shows that these things had cut deep into the sensitive heart and mind of him of whom we may surely say

 

"No bird that cleaves the air

But his revealing thought has made more fair.",

 


MYSELF, J. J. AUDUBON.

THE precise period of my birth is yet an enigma to me, and I can only say what I have often heard my father repeat to me on this subject, which is as follows: It seems that my father had large properties in Santo Domingo, and was in the habit of visiting frequently that portion of our Southern States called, and known by the name of, Louisiana, then owned by the French Government.

During one of these excursions he married a lady of Spanish extraction, whom I have been led to understand was as beautiful as she was wealthy, and otherwise attractive, and who bore my father three sons and a daughter, I being the youngest of the sons and the only one who survived extreme youth. My mother, soon after my birth, accom-

 

 

AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

page 268

panied my father to the estate of Aux Cayes, on the island of Santo Domingo, and she was one of the victims during the ever-to-be-lamented period of the negro insurrection of that island.

My father, through the intervention of some faithful servants, escaped from Aux Cayes with a good portion of his plate and money, and with me and these humble friends reached New Orleans in safety. From this place he took me to France, where, having married the only mother I have ever known, he left me under her charge, and returned to the United States in the employ of the French Government, acting as an officer under Admiral Rochambean. Shortly afterward, however, he landed in the United States and became attached to the army under La Fayette.

The first of my recollective powers placed me in the central portion of the city of Nantes, on the Loire River, in France, where I still recollect particularly that I was much cherished by my dear stepmother, who had no children of her own, and that I was constantly attended by one or two black servants who had followed my father from Santo Domingo to New Orleans and afterward to Nantes.

One incident, which is as perfect in my memory as if it had occurred this very day, I have thought of thousands of times since, and will now put on paper as one of the curious things which perhaps did lead me in after times to love birds, and to finally study them with pleasure infinite. My mother had several beautiful parrots, and some monkeys; one of the latter was a full-grown male of a very large species. One morning, while the servants were engaged in arranging the room I was in, "Pretty Polly" asking for her breakfast as usual, "Da pain an lait pour le perro~juet Miguonne," the man of the woods probably thought the bird presuming upon his rights in the scale of nature; e this as it may, he certainly showed his supremacy in strength over the denize~n of the air, for, walking deliberately and uprightly toward the poor bird, he at once killed it, with unnatural composure. The sensations of my infant heart at this cruel sight were agony to me. I prayed the servant to beat the monkey, but he, who for some reason preferred the monkey to the parrot, refused. I uttered long and piercing cries, my mother rushed into the room, I was tranquillized, the monkey was forever afterward chained, and Mignonne buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one.

This made, as I have said, a very deep impression on my youthful mind. But now, my dear children, I must tell you somewhat of my father, and of his parentage. John Audubon, my grandfather, was born and lived at the small village of Sable d'Olhonne, and was by trade a very humble fisherman. He appears to have made up for the want of wealth by the number of his children, twenty-one of whom he actually raised to man and womanhood. All were sons, with one exception; my aunt, one uncle, and my father, who was the twentieth son, being the only members of that extraordinary numerous family who lived to old age. In subsequent years, when I visited Sable d'Olhonne, the old residents assured me that they had seen the whole family, including both parents, at church many times.

When my father had reached the age of twelve years, his father presented him with a shirt, a dress of coarse material, a stick and his blessing, and urged him to go and seek means for his future support and sustenance.

Some ldnd whaler or cod-fisherman took him on board as a "Boy." Of his

 

 

 

Profile of J. J. Audubon from his Death Mask.

(Since destroyed by fire.)

 

 

 

John J. Audubon.

 

(Reproduced from an engraving by C. Turner, A.R.A., of the portrait by F. Cruickshank.)

 

 

 

 

AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

page 270

 

life during his early voyages it would be useless to trouble you, let it suffice for me to say that they were the usual most uncomfortable nature. How many trips he made I cannot say,

 

 General Washington.

(From a portrait presented to J. J. Audubon, by Washington, a few days
before going into winter-quarters at Valley Forge.)

 

 but he told me that by the time he was seventeen he had become an able seaman before the mast; when twenty-one, he commanded a fishing-smack,and went to the great Newfoundland Banks; at twenty-five he owned several small crafts, all fishermen, and at twenty-eight sailed for Santo Domingo - with his little flotilla heavily loaded with produce of the deep. "Fortune," said he to me one day, "now began to smile upon me. I did well in this enterprise, and after a few more voyages of the same sort gave up the sea, and purchased a small estate on the Isle a Vaches; the prosperity of Santo Domingo was at its zenith, and in the course of ten years I had realized something very considerable. The then Governor gave me an appointment which called me to France, and having received some favors there, became once more a seafaring man, the Government having granted me the command of a small vessel of war."

How long my father remained in the service it is impossible for me to say. The different changes occurring at the time of the American Revolution, and afterward during that in France, seem to have sent him from one place to another as if a foot-ball; his property in Santo Domingo augmenting, however, the while, and indeed till the liberation of the black slaves there.

During a visit he paid to Pennsylvania when suffering from the effects of a sunstroke, he purchased the beautiful farm of Millgrove, on the Schuylkill and Perkiomen streams. At this place, few days only before the memorable bat-

 

 

 

AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

page 271

 

tie (sic) of Valley Forge, General Washington presented him with his portrait, now in my possession, and highly do I value it as a memento of that noble man and the glories of those days.*

 

 

Admiral Audubon, Father of the Naturalist*

 

 

At the conclusion of the war between England and her child of the 'West, my father returned to France, and continued in the employ of the naval department of that country, being at one time sent to Plymouth, England, in a seventy - five - gun ship, to exchange prisoners. This was, I think, in the short peace that took place between England aud France in 1801. He returned to Rochefort, where he lived for several years, still in the employ of Government. He finally sent in his resignation and returned to Nantes and La Gerbertlltre. He had many severe trials and afflictions before his death, having lost my two older brothers early in the French Revolution; both were officers in the army. His only sister was killed by the Chouans of La Vendee, and the only brother he had was not on good term with him. This brother resided at Bayonne, and, I believe, had a large family, none of whom I have ever seen or known.

In personal appearance my father and I were of the same height and stature, say about five feet ten inches, erect, and with muscles of steel; his manners were those of a most polished gentleman, for those and his natural understanding had been carefully improved both by observation and by self-education. In temper we much resembled each other also, being warm, irascible, and at times violent, but it was like the blast of a hurricane, dreadful for a time, when calm almost instantly returned. He greatly approved of the change in France during the time of Napoleon, whom he almost idolized.

 

 * The family still own this portrait of General Washington.

 

 

AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

page 272

 

 

 

Fatland House on the Schuylkill, Pa., as Rebuilt about 1846.

 (The home of Lucy Bakewell, whom Auduhon married.)

 

My father died in 1813, regretted most deservedly on account of his simplicity, truth, and perfect sense of honesty. Now I must return to myself.

My stepmother, who was devotedly attached to me, far too much for my good, was desirous that I should be brought up to live and die "like a gentleman," thinking that fine clothes and filled pockets were the only requisites needful to attain this end. She therefore completely spoiled me, hid my faults, boasted to everyone of my youthful merits, and, worse than all, said frequently in my presence that I was the handsomest boy in France. All my wishes and idle notions were at once gratified; she went so far as actually to grant me carte blanche at all the confectionery shops in the town, and also of the village of Coneron, where during the summer we lived, as it were, in the country.

My father was quite of another, and much more valuable, description of mind as regarded my future welfare he believed not in the power of gold coins as efficient means to render a man happy. He spoke of the stores of the mind, and having suffered much himself through a want of education, he ordered that I should be put to school, and have teachers at home. "Revolutions," he was wont to say, "too often take place in the lives of individuals, and they are apt to lose in one day the fortune they before possessed; but talents and knowledge, added to sound mental training, assisted by honest industry, can never fail, nor be taken from anyone once the possessor of such valuable means." Therefore, notwithstanding all my mother's entreaties and her tears, off to a school I was sent. Excepting only, perhaps, military schools, none were good in France at this period; the thunders of the Revolution still roared over the land, the Revolutionists covered the earth with the blood of man, woman, and child. But let me forever drop the curtain over the frightful aspect of this dire picture. To think of these dreadful days is too terrible, and would be too horrible and

 

 

 

 

AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

page 273

 

painful for me to relate to you, my dear Sons.

The school I went to was none of the best ; my private teachers were the only means through which I acquired the least benefit. My father, who bad been for so long a seaman, and who was then in the French Navy, wished me to follow in his steps, or else to become an engineer. For this reason I studied much as I pleased; it was therefore drawing, geography, mathematics, fencing, etc., as well as music, for which I had considerable talent. I had a good fencing-master, and a first-rate teacher of the violin; mathematics was hard, dull work I thought ; geography pleased me more. For my other studies, as well as for dancing, I was quite enthusiastic; and I well recollect how anxious I was then to become the commander of a corps of dragoons.

My father being mostly absent, on duty, my mother suffered me to do not to be wondered at that, instead of applying closely to my studies, I preferred associating with boys of my own age and disposition, who were more

 

 

John J. Audubon 

(From a painting by his son, J.W. Audubon, about 1841.)

 

 

AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

page 274

 

Victor Gifford Audubon aged about Thirteen. 

(Painted by his father, J. J. Audubon, about 1828.)

 

 

fond of going in search of birds' nests, fishing, or shooting, than of better studies. Thus almost every day, instead of going to school when I ought to have gone, I usually made for the fields, where I spent the day; my little basket went with me, filled with good eatables, and when I returned home, during either winter or summer, it was replenished with what I called curiosities, such as birds' nests, birds' eggs, curious lichens, flowers of all sorts, and even pebbles gathered along the shore of some rivulet.

The first time my father returned from sea after this my room exhibited quite a show, and on entering it he was so pleased to see my various collections that he complimented me on my taste for such things; but when he inquired what else I had done, and I, like a culprit, hung my head, he left me without saying another word. Dinner over he asked my sister for some music, and, on her playing for him, he was so pleased with her improvement that he presented her with a beautiful book. I was next asked to play on my violin, but alas! for nearly a month I had not touched it, it was stringless; not a word was said on that subject. "Had I any drawings to show?" Only a few, and those not good. My good father looked at his wife, kissed my sister, and humming a tune left the room. The next morning at dawn of day my father and I were under way in a private carriage; my trunk, etc., were fastened to it, my violin-case was under my feet, the postilion was ordered to proceed, my father took a book from his pocket, and while he silently read I was left entirely to my own thoughts.

After some days' travelling we entered the gates of Rochefort. My father had scarcely spoken to me, yet there was no anger exhibited in his countenance; nay, as we reached the house where we alighted, and approached the door, near which a sentinel stopped his walk and presented arms, I saw him smile as he raised his hat and said a few words to the man, but so low that not a syllable reached my ears.

The house was furnished with servants, and everything seemed to go on as if the owner had not left it. My father bade me sit by his side, and taking one of my hands, calmly said to me: "My beloved boy, thou art now

 

 

John Woodhouse Audubon, aged Eleven. 

(Painted by his father, J. J. Audubon, about 1828.)

 

 

 

AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

page 275

 

safe, I have brought thee here that I may be able to pay constant attention to thy studies, thou shalt have ample time for pleasures, but the remainder must be employed with industry and care. This day is entirely thine own, and as I must attend to my duties, if thou wishest to see the docks, the fine ships of war, and walk round the wall, thou may'st accompany me." I accepted and off together we went; I was presented to every officer we met, and they noticing me more or less, I saw much that day, yet still I perceived that I was like a prisoner-of-war on parole in the city of Rochefort.

My best and most amiable companion was the son of Admiral, or Vice-Admiral (I do not precisely recollect his rank) Vivien, who resided nearly opposite to the house where my father and I then resided; his company I much enjoyed, and along with him all my leisure hours were spent. About this time my father was sent to England in a corvette with a view to exchange prisoners, and he sailed on board the man-of-war L'Institution for Plymouth. Previous to his sailing he placed me under the charge of his secretary, Gabriel Loyen Dupuy Gaudeau, the son of a fallen nobleman.

Now this gentleman was of no pleasing nature to me; he was, in fact, more than too strict and severe in all his prescriptions to me, and well do I recollect that one morning, after having been set to a very arduous task in mathematical problems, I gave him the slip, jumped from the window, and ran off through the gardens attached to the Marine Secretariat. The unfledged bird may stand for a while on the border of its nest, and perhaps open its winglets attempt to soar away, but his youthful imprudence may, and indeed often does, prove inimical to his prowess, as some more wary and older bird, that has kept an eye toward him, pounces relentlessly upon the young adventurer and secures him within the grasp of his more powerful talons. This was the case with me in this instance. I had leaped from the door of my cage and thought myself quite safe, while I rambled thoughtlessly beneath the shadow of the trees in the garden and grounds in which I found myself; but the secretary, with a side glance, had watched my escape, and, ere many minutes had elapsed, I saw coming toward me a corporal with whom, in fact, I was well acquainted. On nearing me, and I did not attempt to escape, our past familiarity was, I found, quite evaporated; he bid me, in a severe voice, to follow him, and on my being presented to my father's secretary I was at once ordered on board the pontoon in port. All remonstrances proved fruitless, and on board the pontoon I was conducted, and there left amid such a medley of culprits as I cannot describe, and of whom, indeed, I have but little recollection, save that I felt vile myself in their vile company. My father returned in due course, and released me from these floating and most disagreeable lodgings, but not without a rather severe reprimand.

 

Shortly after this we returned to Nantes, and later to La Gerbertiere. My stay here was short, and I went to Nantes to study mathematics anew, and there spent about one year, the remembrance of which has flown from my memory, with the exception of one incident, of which, when I happen to pass my hand over the left side of my head, I am ever and anon reminded. 'Tis quite safe; one morning while playing with the boys of my own a quarrel arose among us, a battle ensued, in the course I was knocked down by a

 

 

Audubon

(From a picture made not long before his death.)

 

 

 

 AUDUBON'S STORY OF HIS YOUTH.

Page 276

 

 

Mill Grove, now Audubon's, on the Schuylkill, Pa &emdash; Early Home of Audubon in America. 

(From a photograph made in 1884.)

DRAWN BY 0. H. BACHER.

 

Audubon's Story of his Youth continued

 


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