1902 Encyclopedia > Alexander Wilson

Alexander Wilson
American ornithologist

ALEXANDER WILSON, (1766-1813), "the American ornithologist," was born in Paisley, Scotland, on 6th July 1766. His father, a handloom weaver, soon removed to the country, and there combined weaving with agriculture, distilling, and smuggling,—conditions which no doubt helped to develop in the boy that love of rural pursuits and adventure which was to determine his career. At first he was placed with a tutor and destined for the church; but his father's circumstances soon compelled him to apprentice the boy to his own trade. The lad's real life, however, was spent in reverie and versification, and in long woodland rambles, in the course of which he combined his poetic musings with the keen observation of a naturalist, supplemented by the woodcraft of an accomplished poacher. As these tastes developed, he decided to exchange the loom for the pedlar's pack, and then spent a year or two in travelling through Scotland, recording in his journal every matter of natural history or antiquarian interest, like another Sibbald or White of Selborne. Having incurred a short imprisonment for lampooning the master-weavers in a trade dispute, he emigrated to America in 1794. After a few years of weaving, peddling, and desultory observation, he became a village schoolmaster, and in 1800 obtained an appointment near Philadelphia, where he formed the acquaintance of Bartram the naturalist, from whom he received much instruction and encouragement. Under his influence Wilson commenced to draw birds, having conceived the idea of illustrating the ornithology of the United States; and thenceforward he steadily accumulated materials and made many expeditions. In 1806 he obtained the assistant-editorehip of Rees's Encyclopaedia, and thus acquired more means and leisure for his great work, the first volume of which appeared in the autumn of 1808, after which he spent the winter in a journey "in search of birds and subscribers." By the spring of 1813 seven volumes had appeared; but the arduous expedition of that summer, in search of the marine waterfowl to which the remaining volume was to be devoted, gave a shock to his already impaired health, and soon after he succumbed to dysentery after a short illness, dying at Philadelphia on 23d August 1813.

Of his poems, not excepting the Foresters (Philadelphia, 1805), nothing need now be said, save that they no doubt served to develop his descriptive powers. His American Ornithology, however, remains a fundamental classic. In the words of Jardine, "He was the first who studied the birds of North America in their natural abodes and from real observation; and his work will remain an ever to be admired testimony of enthusiasm and perseverance, one certainly unrivalled in description; and, if some plates and illustrations may vie with it in finer workmanship or pictorial splendour, few indeed can rival it in fidelity and truth of delineation." The eighth and ninth volumes were edited after his decease by his friend Ord, and the work was continued by Lucien Bonaparte (4 vols., Philadelphia, 1828-33). The American Ornithology was also republished by Sir William Jardine (3 vols., London, 1832), and an edition of his entire works has been edited by Rev. A. B. Grosart (Paisley, 1876). A statue was also erected to him at Paisley in 1876.

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