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The “American Woodsman”
As the frontier moved westward and wildlife declined, the tireless Audubon drove himself to record its wonders
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
On his tireless rounds Audubon also took subscriptions—with remarkable results—for the work on animals, just under way, at three hundred dollars a complete set. He also tried to unload his very few remaining sets of the big Birds , and dunned laggard subscribers to that work. Of these, the most famous and notorious was without question Daniel Webster, whose subscription Audubon had exultantly reported in his journal of 1836. In October, 1840, the naturalist called upon Webster at his Boston office and reported that the statesman “was greatly surprised that I have not received a Dollar yet on a/c of what he owes us … and said that he would attend to that business at once, and indeed settle it to my satisfaction by Wednesday next. Nous verrons! ”
Three months later Audubon got a payment on account for one hundred dollars only (plus, however, a subscription for the little work with payment guaranteed by Little and Brown!). But he tracked his quarry as remorselessly as ever he chased a bird of the forest. Webster must have come to dread the sight of him. In the heat of the Washington summer two years later, Audubon hunted the “godlike Dan—l” in his office but found him engaged with Lord Ashburton: one of those private conferences, no doubt, by means of which the two finally settled the long disputed northeastern boundary of the United States. (A few days later Audubon distracted Ashburton from his diplomatic mission long enough to sell him a copy of Birds of America for one thousand dollars in gold.) Webster was still “not in” when Audubon returned to his office the next week, but the bird man finally ran him down in the Senate lobby. “He told me that he particularly wished to see me on my return from Richmond I” Audubon entered in his journal. “What for I know not.” A week later he knew. “Mr. W. would give me a fat place was I willing to have one; but I love indepenn and piece more than humbug and money 1” In other words, apparently, he would not be bought off.
Between his wide-ranging business trips Audubon applied himself to the projected book on mammals, a task he had neither the time, the energy, nor the knowledge to complete. “Don’t flatter yourself that this book is child’s play—,” John Bachman warned him at the outset; “the birds are a mere trifle compared with this. I have been at it all my life … we all have much to learn in the matter.” However, Audubon’s determination was fixed on this new goal; as he wrote Bachman, “My spirits are as enthusiastical as ever.” When he was within reach of his drawing papers he worked on them from daylight to bedtime. He dispatched his son John first to the wilds of the Southwest, then to the zoos and museums of Europe to record specimens he himself had no hope of collecting or examining. The indispensable Bachman was commandeered to provide an authoritative text, which he completed under great difficulties and discouragements.
Over the years that followed he got diminishing help from Audubon, whose own time was now really running out. Yet in 1843, with a final burst of his incredible energy, the toothless, grizzled veteran took off on an expedition to gather more material. He went as far as Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, farther west than he had ever been but not so far as he had always yearned to go. It was Audubon’s last sortie into the wilderness. There were still birds in abundance to collect, new varieties that he had missed earlier, as well as the animals he went to hunt and record. He made an adequate killing for his purposes.
But the time was also running out for some of the wild life Audubon was determined to put down in his second great book of discovery. The great auk had already disappeared before he had seen a living specimen. Now, as Audubon witnessed the endless slaughter that went on about him near this hunter’s paradise, he was dismayed at the prospect. “Surely,” he concluded as the mounds of beaver, buffalo, and wolves piled up on the Plains, “this should not be permitted.”
It was too late for his concern to matter. His own shooting days were, in any case, just about over. “I am getting an old man,” he lamented to his journal on September 28, 1843, “for this evening I missed my footing on getting into the boat, and bruised my knee and my elbow, but at seventy and over I cannot have the spring of seventeen.” From contemporary descriptions he already looked to be a patriarchal seventy, but he was in fact only fifty-eight and he knew it.
Within two years of his return from the Yellowstone the “old man” completed about one half the drawings that were to be reproduced in the mammals book; then he laid down his brushes. He had done what he could in life and this was an end to it. As if by some deeply felt persuasion, he released himself from further care by slipping into a benign, helpless senescence.
For the few remaining years of his life he was barely aware that the vital industry he had set in motion never faltered. John returned from England and finished the remaining drawings; Bachman worked as hard as Audubon ever had to compile the texts, which a half-dozen others helped to prepare for the printer; and, among other tasks, Victor saw the abundant flow of material through to final publication.