John J. Audubon’s Trip Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers During 1820/1821

It’s hard to imagine how rich in wildlife the woods, fields, and streams of North America used to be. This is why I enjoy reading the journals of early explorers and settlers who described these forlorn scenes of nature. They saw more wildlife in a day than most modern people see in a year both in numbers and diversity. Audubon kept a journal of his trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, a journey that lasted from October 12, 1820 to January 7, 1821, and it is an extensive account, documenting the former abundance of wildlife in the region. Audubon had suffered business reversals when his once prosperous store went bankrupt, and he decided to travel to New Orleans where he could make money by drawing portraits of rich people and by giving art lessons. He was also working on an illustrated book of birds he hoped to sell in England. He left his family in Cincinnati, and he expected to be gone for 7 months. He traveled on a flat boat with an 18 year old young man, a boat captain, and a hunting dog named Dash that he alternatively referred to as “the bitch” or “the slut.”

J.J. Audubon and his dog. Although his name is attached to a modern conservation society, he killed as many birds as he could shoot.

Audubon and his young companion stopped to hunt every morning. Audubon carried a primitive shotgun known then as a fowling piece, and he shot just about every animal he saw. Unlike the organization that today uses his name, Audubon was not at all concerned about conservation. In his later years he did lament the reduction in game populations, but then he’d kill as many birds as he could shoot. A typical day of his journey was the first when he and his companion killed 30 “partridges” (probably quail), 27 squirrels, 1 woodcock, 1 barn owl, and 1 turkey vulture. After the morning hunt, he would draw 1 of the dead birds as the boat drifted downstream. Then he would pluck and clean the bird and throw it on the embers of the fire for his supper. Grebes were fishy, but he pronounced red-breasted thrushes (robins) to be fat and delicious. Birds that are now extinct were common during the early 19th century. Audubon often saw ivory-billed woodpeckers, and he stated they were more abundant along some parts of the river than pileated woodpeckers and flickers. He once shot 10 Carolina parakeets and fed them to his dog to see if they were poisonous. This seems strange, but Audubon often engaged in sadistic “scientific” experiments. He wrongly came to the conclusion parakeets were not poisonous when his dog didn’t get sick. He didn’t know the flesh of parakeets only became poisonous after they ate certain species of toxic plants. Audubon also wrongly thought immature bald eagles were a different species of eagle, and in another sadistic experiment he once nailed the foot of an eagle to the bottom of the boat, so he could draw it while it was alive. He claimed bald eagles were a new species and named it the bird of Washington after the first President.

Alexander’s painting of a bald eagle (top) and Audubon’s painting of a bald eagle (below). Some think Audubon simply plagiarized Alexander’s painting and falsely claimed his was based on a freshly killed eagle.

Species of birds still extant today were much more abundant and widespread during Audubon’s time. He saw a flock of 100 white pelicans on a sandbar in the Ohio River. White pelicans are not often seen on the Ohio River today. He also saw enormous flocks of thousands of ducks, geese, and blackbirds. Swans, herons, and sandhill cranes were a common sight. In addition to daily hunting, Audubon always set a line out for fish. On 1 occasion he caught a 64-pound catfish, likely a blue catfish–a new species for him. I’m sure the offal from all the birds he killed made excellent catfish bait. Big flocks of sea gulls followed the boat and fed upon the dead bird and fish parts he threw overboard. Once, his hunting led to fish and bird…he shot a merganser with a 9-inch-long sucker fish in its throat. Nearly extinct habitats were abundant then as well. They floated down parts of the river bordered by many miles of bamboo cane tangled with smilax vines. Canebrakes are very rare today.

Audubon saw a flock of 100 white pelicans on a sandbar in the Ohio River. According to range maps, this species no longer regularly occurs on the Ohio River.

Audubon reached New Orleans on January 7th. Gulls, fish crows, and robins were the most common winter birds here. Later in the season, the robins left, but tree swallows arrived to become 1 of the most common birds around the city. On his 2nd day in New Orleans, someone picked his pocket, but he was almost broke anyway. He made his living painting people’s portraits and giving art lessons. A notable incident while he was living in New Orleans was when he witnessed local hunters destroy a flock of 144,000 migrating golden plovers. Eventually, Audubon got a job tutoring the daughter of a rich plantation owner. (Audubon was unapologetically pro-slavery.) He taught her art, dancing, and math for $60 a month plus room and board. The plantation was located on Bayou Sara, and Audubon hunted daily in a nearby cypress swamp where he frequently saw prothonotary warblers, yellow-throated warblers, water thrushes, Mississippi kites, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and alligators. The women in the household where he tutored gradually cooled to him, and he quit. I wonder if they were expecting more romance from the married tutor. The lady of the house didn’t want to pay him, but the man did anyway. The private journal ends when Audubon returns to New Orleans, following his tutoring gig. Years later, Audubon did become successful selling his illustrated books about North American birds and mammals.

References:

Audubon, J.J.

Audubon: Writings and Drawings

Literary Classics 1999

Halley, M.

“Audubon’s Bird of Washington: Unravelling the Fraud that Launched The Birds of America

Bulletin of the British Ornithologists Club 110-141 2020

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