Alexander Wilson

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Alexander Wilson

Alexander Wilson (born July 6, 1766 in Paisley , Scotland , † August 23, 1813 in Philadelphia ) was an American ornithologist , draftsman and writer . The trained weaver first wrote socially critical poems in his Scottish homeland, in which he accused the upper class of the misery of the Scottish lower class . Due to various problems, Wilson emigrated to America in 1794. There he began from 1804 with the encyclopedic representation of the North American bird world in the form of the book series "American Ornithology". In August 1813, Alexander Wilson died before the last two volumes of his encyclopedia were finished.


Childhood and youth

Wilson was born the fifth of six children of a Scottish weaver and distiller in Seedhills, a borough of Paisley, and was given the same name as his father. His mother Mary M'Nab died of tuberculosis when the boy was ten years old. After his father quickly remarried, Alexander Wilson left high school at the age of twelve or thirteen, to which he had been sent with the aim of training as a priest , first to work as a shepherd and in 1779 with his brother-in-law William Duncan To learn weaving craft. After completing his three-year apprenticeship, he traveled to Scotland as a peddler , repeatedly interrupted by brief periods of employment as a weaver, sometimes with various relatives. Letters from this period show that Wilson was reluctant to work as a weaver and peddler and, above all, suffered health problems from working on the loom. Wilson is said to have shown great interest in nature even in his youth.

The socially critical poet

During this time, Wilson came into contact with a style of Scottish poets who wrote works in their native dialect . Robert Burns in particular made a great impression on him. Soon he began even poems to write. Some youth works were published in the Glasgow Advertiser newspaper. Wilson's works of this early creative phase range from naive nature and love poetry to socially critical and naturalistic poems. Critical writing dominated his final years in Scotland. They deal with crumbling families, disputes between employers and employees and, in general, the life of the Scottish lower classes of this time. These works were primarily descriptive and accusatory towards the upper class . They did not put the demand for a specific politico-social solution to these problems in the foreground.

Wilson tried several times to find a publisher for his works, but was not successful until 1789. The collection of his works with the title Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious appeared in 1790. It comprised 308 pages in octave form and appeared in two editions, first with 700, then with 500 copies. Wilson tried to sell the book during his peddling tours. The demand was low, so that he probably made financial losses with his first story book. Perhaps because of this, Wilson moved from Paisley to nearby Lochwinnoch . From there he traveled to Edinburgh several times to submit poetic works for Bee magazine and various literary societies. His ballad Watty and Meg or the Taming of a Shrew , published in 1792, was the only one to achieve greater circulation with seven or eight editions and is still regarded today as Wilson's most successful poetic work.

In 1793 Wilson got increasingly into social and political difficulties, which eventually led to his emigration to America. His portrayals of the misery of the lower classes had been increasingly influenced by the American independence movement and the French Revolution and had brought him into conflict with the authorities. He was accused of stirring up unrest among Edinburgh's weavers. He had also written satirical texts that ridiculed factory owners in the region. In particular, a publication entitled The Shark, or Lang Mills detected led to complaints and court judgments against him, as the manufacture owner William Sharp felt personally attacked by it. Wilson had his writings publicly burned at a crossroads in Paisley and received a brief jail sentence for failing to pay a fine for defamation.

A failed love affair with a woman named Mathilda, to whom he dedicated one of his more popular poems, may also have played a role in the decision to emigrate. Wilson was also doing poorly financially, presumably because writing his poems left him little time for his work as a weaver and peddler. Fines for his socially critical writings exacerbated his situation, which is why he had to borrow money several times.

New start in America

In Belfast , the poet went with his 16-year-old nephew William Duncan as a deck passenger on board the ship The Swift , with which he cast off on May 23, 1794 and which he left in Delaware in the USA on July 14 . Wilson moved up the Delaware River to Philadelphia with his nephew and worked during this time as a day laborer , peddler, printer and weaver. Especially during his peddler trips, which took him to New Jersey , among other places , he made notes about nature. In 1796 Wilson found a job as a teacher at a school in Milestown, Pennsylvania , about 30 kilometers from Philadelphia. He stayed there until 1801, when he had to leave the place because of an affair with a married woman to whom he continued to dedicate poems some time later. For a short time he found work again as a teacher in Bloomfield, New Jersey, before moving to a well-paid teaching position at a school in Gray's Ferry, Pennsylvania . There he began to write poetry again, which showed a significantly higher quality compared to his early work in Scotland. Around 1800, Wilson had for a short time been planning to settle down as a farmer in New York State , which he quickly gave up. The family of his nephew William Duncan settled there, but had little economic success.

In Gray's Ferry, Wilson began to focus more on nature observation. The impetus for this was his acquaintance with his neighbor William Bartram , who ran one of the first botanical gardens in North America. Bartram made his extensive library available to Wilson and directed his already existing interest in nature and especially in ornithology in Scotland in a scientific direction. On the advice of Bartram and other friends, Wilson also began drawing, mainly of mammals and trees. First of all, this should counteract the young teacher's depression . During this time, Wilson also met George Ord, who would later become one of the most important contributors to the creation of American Ornithology . Presumably there was also an affair with William Bartram's niece Ann, which was ended by the Bartram family.

Turn to ornithology

Bunting and falcon from American Ornithology

In the period up to 1803 Wilson began his long journeys through the little explored landscape of North America. By 1808, he said he visited all American cities west of the Atlantic coast between St. Lawrence River and Florida. One of the first tours took him together with William Duncan and Isaac Leech, the son of his landlady, from Gray's Ferry to Niagara Falls . He mainly concentrated on observing birds as well as shooting birds and preparing them as objects to be seen. In a letter from this year, he reported on the plan to create an illustrated list of all the birds in the country.

The style of his nature observation corresponded only partially to a scientific approach. Rather, one can speak of the gaze of a committed nature lover who focused on the encyclopedic representation of the North American bird world and not on the discussion of various scientific theses. Scientific controversies, insofar as they were even known in the thin research infrastructure of North America, seem to have hardly been taken up by Wilson. Reasons for this approach were Wilson's lack of scientific training (according to his executor , he only had an ornithological book in his possession when he died) and the fact that the largely unexplored wildlife of the continent offered enough space for such a broad rather than deep approach . For example, many birds did not have any generally binding names at all. The naming was a problem that appeared several times in Wilson's letters and repeatedly led to disputes with other naturalists. In part, Wilson leaned on Carl von Linné's Systema Naturae , but he only had basic knowledge of this taxonomy system.

Although natural science became his new main occupation and American ornithology would remain his only scientific work, Wilson continued to write poems that often revolved around observations on his travels and celebrated the nature of the " New World ". The hike to Niagara Falls was reflected in the ballad The Foresters , published in 1809. Wilson also authored a few ornithological articles in the emerging natural history journals of North America. Some of these texts were later incorporated into American Ornithology .

In the years that followed, the mostly lonely journeys would become the most important sources for Alexander Wilson's work. On June 9, 1804, he became an American citizen . In 1805 the first set of 28 bird drawings was completed, which was to become the basis for American ornithology .

The year 1806 was marked by setbacks for Wilson. At first he tried to win his friend, the Scottish engraver Alexander Lawson, to make printing plates based on his drawings. Since Wilson had little money for the project, Lawson did not tackle the project. In the same year Wilson learned of a planned US government expedition to explore the country west of the Mississippi River , and applied in a personal letter to President Thomas Jefferson to participate. However, he received no answer. The letter was probably lost at the time, because Wilson later had a very good relationship with Jefferson. The politician was also very interested in natural history. In letters he exchanged information with Wilson about the correct naming of the birds he observed.

American Ornithology

The change for the better came in late summer of the same year: Wilson was hired by Samuel Bradford as an assistant in his publishing house in Philadelphia, where he immediately moved. His first occupation was as co-editor of Rees' Cyclopedia . But he continued to work intensively on his drawings for the ornithology project. By the beginning of the following year, Wilson managed to persuade Bradford to go to press.

From 1807 Wilson worked almost exclusively for the planned American Ornithology . He traveled long distances through Pennsylvania, mostly alone. During his stays in Philadelphia he made drawings. Since Bradford supported the project, Alexander Lawson now also agreed to collaborate. Later other engravers also took part. In September 1808 the first of nine volumes of American Ornithology appeared in an initial edition of 200 copies with 158 pages and 34 hand-colored color plates. Not only the drawings, but most of the text came from Wilson. In addition, he had also colored some of the printed drawings himself.

The American Ornithology has a clear patriotic approach. From the texts and from various letters from Wilson it emerges that he saw them as an alternative to the view held by many European naturalists that the American fauna is “inferior” to the European one. Especially in letters from Wilson, in which the naming of bird species is concerned, he calls for the European primacy that had prevailed up to this point to be countered with American “sovereignty” in naming one's own animal world. The patriotism even went so far that Wilson endeavored to have the books made exclusively from paper and other raw materials from the USA.

After the first volume was published, Wilson went on promotional trips to collect subscribers for the book series. The total price for all nine volumes was $ 120 - more than Wilson's annual salary as a teacher. Accordingly, only the wealthiest citizens came into question as customers. Wilson collected a total of 250 subscribers on his first sales trip, which will certainly benefit him from his experience as a peddler in Scotland. In addition, he cleverly alluded to the patriotic dimension of his work. One of the first subscribers was US President Thomas Jefferson , with whom Wilson shared some views of his "patriotic natural history". Overall, Wilson's attempts to sell in the agrarian southern states had disproportionately more success than in the more bourgeois north. The numerous letters that Wilson wrote to friends and acquaintances about his sales trips still serve as meaningful sources for society and the economy in the early years of the USA.

In 1809 he extended the radius of his advertising trips to Florida and covered the entire route on foot. In 1810 he sailed the Ohio River in a small boat . In Louisville (Kentucky) he met John James Audubon , a few years his junior , the other great American ornithologist of the time. His travelogues about the way to Nashville partly took on the character of a leather stocking narrative.

At the end of 1810 the second volume of American Ornithology appeared with some delay , and two volumes were published in the following two years. Wilson lived mostly at William Bartram's house in Gray's Ferry at the time. In the meantime he had become a popular figure among educated circles in the United States: in March 1812 he became a member of the Society of Artists of the United States and a year later of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. In 1812 or 1813, Wilson must have got engaged to Sarah Miller, sister of the Pennsylvania congressman.

The last few years

American Ornithology ducks

In September 1812, Wilson set out on his last sales trip to the New England States , where he had little success. At this point in time, he had already turned more scientifically to water birds , which were to form the focus of the last ornithology volumes. The seventh volume appeared in 1813. Shortly thereafter, Wilson and George Ord went on a trip to Great Egg Harbor to watch waterfowl. During this four-week journey, Wilson's health, which had never been particularly robust, appears to have deteriorated dramatically. Around this time, after several previous disputes, all the draftsmen who had been responsible for the coloring of Wilson's drawings quit. Wilson took over the completion of the eighth volume himself and began working simultaneously on both the final volume of American Ornithology and a project on mammals.

Apparently he was putting too much strain on his health. In August 1813, after wading through a river in search of a bird, he fell ill with dysentery and died at the end of the month. Although he had decreed that he should be buried “where the birds sing over me”, his grave is in the churchyard of the Church of Sweden in Philadelphia. The executors were George Ord and Wilson's fiancée Sarah Miller.

The eighth and ninth volumes of American Ornithology appeared under the editorship of George Ord until 1814, who added a brief biography of Wilson to the last volume. In total, the work presented 268 species of birds, 26 of which had not been described before.

Several American bird species have been named for Wilson, including Wilson's Storm-petrel ( Wilson's Storm Petrel ), Wilson's Plover ( Large-billed plover ) and Wilson's phalarope ( Wilson's phalarope ). Charles Lucien Bonaparte , who oversaw a four-volume edition of Ornithology in Edinburgh in 1831 , named the wood warbler genus Wilsonia with the three species Canada warbler , hooded wood warbler and monk warbler after him.

Ultimately, Wilson's work disappeared relatively quickly from the public eye, as the Birds of America , published from 1827 by John James Audubon, became considerably more popular.

The Wilson Ornithological Society

In 1888 bird lovers joined forces to form the Wilson Ornithological Society . Today it has around 2500 members and sees itself as a community of committed amateur bird watchers.

Works (selection)

Nature research

  • American Ornithology. Nine volumes. Bradford and Inskeep, Philadelphia 1808-1814.


  • Poems. J. Neilson, Paisley 1790.
  • Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious. 2nd Edition. P. Hill, Edinburgh 1791.
  • Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect by Alexander Wilson with an Account of His Life and Writings. J. Neilson, Paisley 1816.
  • The Poetical Works of Alexander Wilson. J. Henderson, Belfast 1844.
  • The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson. Ed. Rev. Alexander Balloch Grosart . 2 vol. Alexander Gardner, Paisley 1876.


  • Robert Cantwell: Alexander Wilson - Naturalist and Pioneer. JB Lippincott Company, Philadelphia 1961.
  • Clark Hunter: The Life and Letters of Alexander Wilson. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia 1983, 1984, ISBN 0-87169-154-X .
  • Edward H. Burtt, William E. Davis: Alexander Wilson. The Scot who Founded American Ornithology . Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2013, ISBN 978-0-674-07255-8 .

Web links

This article was added to the list of excellent articles on May 12, 2006 in this version .