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Significant Scots
Alexander Wilson


WILSON, ALEXANDER, the celebrated ornithologist, was born in Paisley, on the 6th July, 1766. His father was at that time a distiller in a limited way; poor in circumstances, but sober, religious, and industrious, and possessed of sagacity and intelligence much beyond most men in his sphere of life. From the period of his son’s birth, he entertained the project so fondly cherished by almost every parent among our Scottish peasantry, of rearing him up to be a minister of the gospel. There is no evidence to show that young Wilson displayed any unusual precocity of intellect or bias of disposition to justify so high a destination; but even if he had, he would have been compelled to relinquish his views by the death of his mother, which left his father embarrassed with the charge of a young family. Alexander was at this time ten years of age, and although his education had necessarily been restricted to the ordinary branches of writing, reading, and accounts, the judicious and careful superintendence of his father had even then imbued his mind with a passion for reading, and a predilection for the beauties of nature, which continued to influence his character ever afterwards. In his correspondence at a later period of his life, Wilson often recurs, with expressions of warm filial gratitude, to the paternal anxiety with which his early studies were directed, to which he attributed all the eminence and honours he subsequently attained. In a letter, dated February, 1811, he says: "The publication of my Ornithology, though it has swallowed up all the little I had saved, has procured me the honour of many friends, eminent in this country, and the esteem of the public at large; for which I have to thank the goodness of a kind father, whose attention to my education in early life, as well as the books then put into my hands, first gave my mind a bias towards relishing the paths of literature, and the charms and magnificence of nature. These, it is true, particularly the latter, have made me a wanderer in life; but they have also enabled me to support an honest and respectable situation in the world, and have been the sources of almost all my enjoyments."

Wilson’s father soon married again; and three years passed away, during which time Alexander seems to have had no other occupation, but reading and roaming about, feeding in solitude habits of reflection, and an ardent poetic temperament, which led him to shun the society of his frolicksome compeers. An American biographer erroneously attributed this disposition for solitary rambling, and his ultimate departure from the paternal dwelling, to the harsh treatment of his stepmother; but it has been clearly proved by subsequent writers, that she discharged her duty towards him with great tenderness and affection; and Wilson himself uniformly speaks of her with great respect.

At the age of thirteen,—that is in July, 1779,—Wilson was apprenticed for three years to William Duncan, a weaver, who had married his eldest sister. This occupation was quite at variance with his disposition and previous habits; yet he, nevertheless, not only completed his indenture, but afterwards wrought for four years as a journeyman, residing sometimes at Paisley, at other times in his father’s house, (who had then removed to Lochwinnoch,) and latterly with his brother-in-law, Duncan, who had shifted his quarters to Queensferry. Having much of his time at his own disposal during the last four years, Wilson gave a loose to his poetical disposition; his relish for the quiet and sequestered beauties of nature, which began to assume almost the character of a passion, he indulged more and more, giving utterance to his feelings in verses—chiefly descriptive--which, if exhibiting no great power of diction, certainly display an expansion of thought, a purity of taste, and a refinement of sentiment, that are very remarkable in one so young, and so unfavourably circumstanced for the cultivation of literary pursuits. The only explanation which can be given of the fact, is, that he possessed an insatiable thirst for reading; and with that and solitary musings, passed the leisure hours which others generally devote to social amusements. An almost necessary consequent on this gradual refinement and elevation of mind, was, a disgust with the slavish and monotonous occupation of the loom; and the incongruity between his worldly circumstances and the secret aspirations of his soul, frequently occasioned fits of the deepest melancholy. Unlike, however, but too many of the like sensitive character, similarly situated, he never sought relief from his morbid despondency in the deceitful stimulant of the bottle. He yielded to its influence, only in as far as he manifested an increasing aversion to his occupation; or, as more worldly-minded people would term it, a tendency to idleness. Nor did the circumstance of several of his juvenile pieces appearing about this time in the Glasgow Advertiser, (now the Glasgow Herald,) and which attracted no small attention amongst his townsmen, tend anything to reconcile him to the shuttle. This was immediately before his migration to Queensferry; on his removal to which place, a circumstance occurred, which had a strong influence upon his future fortunes and character. His brother-in-law, Duncan, finding the trade of weaving inadequate to the support of his family, resolved to attempt that of a peddler or travelling merchant, for a while, and invited Wilson to join in the expedition. No proposal could have been more congenial to the young poet’s mind, promising, as it did, the gratification of the two most powerful passions which he cherished,--a desire for increasing his knowledge of men and manners; and a thirst for contemplating the varied scenery of nature. From a journal which he kept, indeed, (he was in his twentieth year when he set out,) during this expedition, it is evident that his sensations almost amounted to rapture; and he speaks with the most profound contempt of the "grovelling sons of interest, and the grubs of this world, who know as little of, and are as incapable of enjoying, the pleasures arising from the study of nature, as those miserable spirits who are doomed to perpetual darkness, can the glorious regions and eternal delights of paradise!" For nearly three years did Wilson lead this wandering life, during which time it appears that he paid less attention to the sale of his wares, than to gratifying his predilection for reading and composition, and indulging in a sort of dreamy meditation, little compatible with the interests of his pack. In fact, of all occupations, the sneaking, cajoling, and half-mendicant profession of a peddler, was perhaps the most unsuitable to the manly and zealously independent tone of Wilson’s mind; but he was consoled for his want of success, by the opportunities he enjoyed of visiting those spots rendered classical, or hallowed by the "tales of the days of old." He used to speak, for instance, with rapt enthusiasm, of the exultation he experienced in visiting the village of Athelstaneford, successively the residence of Blair and Home. During this happy period—the only truly happy one, perhaps, of his whole life—his muse was so busy, that, in 1789, he began to think of publishing. As he could get no bookseller, however, to risk the necessary outlay, he was compelled to advance what little gains he had stored up, and getting a bundle of prospectuses thrown off he set out on a second journey with his pack, for the double purpose of selling muslins and procuring subscribers for his poems. In the latter object, he was grievously disappointed; but Wilson was not a man to travel from Dan to Beersheba, and say all is barren, even although foiled in the immediate purpose of his heart. His journal, during this second journey, indicates the strong and rapid growth of his understanding, and exhibits powers of observation and philosophic reflection, remarkable in a young man of the immature age of twenty-three. Upon his return home, he obtained the publication of his poems by Mr John Neilson, printer in Paisley, when he again set out on his former route, carrying with him a plentiful supply of copies, for the benefit of those who might prefer poetry to packware. A less sanguine individual than Wilson, might have anticipated the prejudice with which attempts at literary eminence, emanating from such a quarter, were likely to be viewed by the world. But our author was one to whose mind nothing but the test of experience could ever carry conviction—a characteristic, which, in his subsequent career, proved one of the most valuable attributes of his mind. His expectations were soon resolved in the present instance. The amount of his success may be gathered from a passage in one of his letters from Edinburgh, wherein he says, "I have this day measured the height of a hundred stairs, and explored the recesses of twice that number of miserable habitations; and what have I gained by it? only two shillings of worldly pelf!" In short, poetry and peddlery proved equally unsuccessful in his hands; he had neither impudence, flattery, nor importunity enough, to pass off either the one or the other upon the public; and he returned, mortified and disappointed, to his father’s house at Lochwinnoch, where necessity compelled him to resume the shuttle. But his was not a heart to sink into despair under the frowns of fortune; and accident soon furnished occasion for a display of the latent vigour of his mind. A few of the rising Edinburgh literati, having formed themselves into a debating society called the Forum, were in the habit of propounding questions for discussion, in which the public were admitted to take a share. It happened about the time we are speaking of, that one of the questions for debate was, "Whether the exertions of Allan Ramsay or Robert Fergusson had done most honour to Scottish poetry?" Wilson having accidentally got notice of this, became fired with the idea of making a public appearance upon a subject, on which he felt confident he was capable of acquitting himself creditably, even although he had not then read the poems of Fergusson, and had only a fortnight to prepare himself. He accordingly borrowed a copy, read, and formed his opinion, composed a poem of considerable length for the occasion, labouring all the while double the usual time at the loom, in order to raise funds for his journey; and arrived in Edinburgh in time to take a share in the debate, and recite his poem, called the "Laurel Disputed;" in which, contrary to the opinion of the audience, he assigned the precedence to Fergusson. Wilson remained some weeks in Edinburgh, during which time he composed and recited in public other two poetical essays, and published his "Laurel Disputed;" a poem slovenly, or we should rather say hastily written, but marked by much rough vigour of thought. Some of his pieces about the same time appeared in Dr Anderson’s Bee; a fact sufficiently proving that his poetical talents were appreciated by those who constituted the high court of criticism in Edinburgh at the time; but from some cause or other—probably the poverty of his circumstances, together with his unobtrusive disposition--he met with no efficient patronage or encouragement to induce him to try his fortune in the metropolitan world of letters; and he returned home to the loom, with nothing else than some increase of reputation.

About this time, an interesting incident took place in Wilson’s career. The poems of Burns had then (1791) drawn their immortal author from his obscure situation, into the full blaze of fame and popularity. Wilson, having obtained a copy of them, wrote to Burns, strongly objecting to the immoral tendency of several of the pieces. The latter replied, that he was now so much accustomed to such charges, that he seldom paid any attention to them; but that, as Wilson was no common man, he would endeavour to vindicate his writings from the imputation laid against them; which he accordingly did. Wilson shortly afterwards made a peregrination into Ayrshire to visit Burns, and an intimacy commenced, which probably would only have been terminated by death, but for the causes which shortly afterwards doomed Wilson to expatriation. The two poets, indeed, had many striking points of resemblance in their character, especially in the manly and dauntless independence of their minds, their love of nature, and their admiration of everything generous and noble, and intolerance of everything low and mean. Yet it is singular what a contrast their respective writings exhibit. While the passion of love was the main source of Burns’s inspirations, even to the last, Wilson, even in the heyday of ardent youth, seldom alludes to such a feeling; and when he does, it is in the cool tone with which an unconcerned individual would speak of any other curious natural phenomenon.

In the following year (l792) appeared Wilson’s admirable narrative poem, "Watty and Meg." Being published anonymously, it was universally attributed to Burns; a mistake, which, of course, the author felt as the highest acknowledgment of its merits. But this was the last gleam of sunshine he enjoyed in his native land. A violent dispute broke out between the journeymen and master weavers of Paisley, and Wilson joined the ranks of the former with all the determined energy which so peculiarly characterized him. Fierce and bitter anonymous satires appeared, the paternity of which was rightly assigned to Wilson; and one individual, especially, a most respectable and benevolent man, but who was represented to the poet as a monster of avarice and oppression, was libelled by him in a manner too gross to be patiently borne. Wilson was prosecuted, convicted, imprisoned, and compelled to burn the libel with his own hands at the public cross of Paisley. In a badly regulated mind, such an infliction would only have excited thoughts of retaliation, and the desire of revenge; but, although Wilson must have smarted severely under the disgrace, he was a man of too correct and candid judgment, to persist wilfully in an evil course. He deeply repented afterwards these wrathful effusions of his pen. Before setting out to America, he called upon all those whom he had been instigated to satirize, and asked their forgiveness for any uneasiness his writings had occasioned; and many years afterwards, when his brother David, who went out to join him in the west, carried out a collection of these youthful satires, thinking they would be an acceptable present to him, after the lapse of so long a period, Wilson, without once looking at them, threw the packet into the fire, exclaiming, "These were the sins of my youth; and had I taken my good old father’s advice, they never would have seen the light." Such an anecdote is equally creditable to the father’s good sense, and the son’s moral feeling. But other public events accelerated the most important crisis in Wilson’s life. The French Revolution, with all its delusive promises of a harvest of liberty, broke out; its influence spread over the surrounding nations, and Wilson was one of those ardent men, who, in our own country, conceived a favourable opportunity to have occurred for reforming the national institutions. His well known zeal and determination of mind made him, of course, be looked upon as a man of most dangerous character; and, his previous attacks upon the authorities of Paisley being yet fresh in their recollection, he was watched with a suspicion proportioned to the dislike with which he was regarded. From these causes, Wilson’s situation soon became intolerably unpleasant to him; and he then, for the first time, resolved upon emigrating to America. By what means he purposed to support himself there, it is not very easy to conjecture; but having once resolved, he proceeded immediately to put his plan into execution. His chief, if not his only, obstacle, was the want of funds; and, to raise them, he applied himself so indefatigably to the loom, that in four months he realized the amount of his passage money. He has himself recorded that, during this period, his expenses for living did not exceed one shilling per week; so little does man actually require for the bare sustenance of life.

Having bidden adieu to his friends and relatives, he walked on foot to Port-patrick, whence he passed over to Belfast, and there embarked on board a vessel bound for Newcastle in the Delaware State, being necessitated to sleep on deck during the voyage. He landed in America on the 14th July, 1704, with his fowling piece in his hand, and only a few shillings in his pocket, without a friend or letter of introduction, or any definite idea in what manner he was to earn his future livelihood. He, nevertheless, set out cheerily on foot towards Philadelphia—a distance of thirty-three miles--delighted with everything he saw; and it was curious enough, that almost his very first action was shooting a red-headed woodpecker, as if indicative of the nature of his future studies. It ought here to be remarked, that, previously to this time, Wilson had never manifested the slightest disposition to the study of ornithology. On arriving at Philadelphia, an emigrant countryman, a copper-plate printer, (from motives of charity, we presume,) employed him for some weeks at this new profession; but it is probable that both soon grew mutually tired of the agreement. Wilson, at least, speedily relinquished the occupation, and betook himself to his old trade of weaving, at which he persevered for about a twelve-month. Having amassed some little savings, he resumed his old profession of peddler, chiefly with the view of exploring the scenery and society of the country, and traversed the greater part of the State of New Jersey, experiencing considerable success with his pack. Upon his return, he finally abandoned the professions of weaver and peddler, and betook himself to an occupation, which of all others it might be supposed he was the least fitted by education and disposition to undertake, that of a schoolmaster. But it is evident that Wilson adopted this profession, as much as a means of self-improvement, as of a livelihood. His first school was at Frankford, in Pennsylvania: thence he removed to Milestown, where he continued for several years, assiduously cultivating many branches of learning, particularly mathematics and the modern languages: thence to Bloomfield, New Jersey; where he had scarcely settled himself, when (in 1802) he was offered and accepted an engagement with the trustees of a seminary in Kingsessing, on the river Schuylkill, about four miles from Philadelphia; and this was the last and most fortunate of all his migrations. During all these eight years of shiftings and wanderings, Wilson’s career was almost one continued struggle with poverty, the principal part of his income being acquired by occasional employment in surveying land for the farmers; yet his mind did not, as is usual with most men, become soured or selfish under the incessant pressure of difficulties. On the contrary, he continued to write home such flattering accounts of his adopted country, as to induce his nephew, William Duncan, (whose father was then dead,) to follow him across the Atlantic, with his mother and a large family of brothers and sisters. Wilson was at this time at Milestown; but when he heard of their arrival, he set out on foot for New York, a distance of four hundred miles, for the sole purpose of assisting in getting them comfortably settled. An American biographer says, that, by the kindness of a Mr Sullivan, Wilson was enabled, in conjunction with his nephew, to purchase and stock a small farm, for the accomnmodation and support of his relatives; after which he returned again on foot to the ungracious labours of the school-room, accomplishing a journey of eight hundred miles in twenty-eight days. To this family he continued ever afterwards to pay the most unremitting and benevolent attention; keeping up a constant correspondence with his nephew, advising and encouraging him amid his difficulties, and even redoubling his own exertions, by keeping a night-school, and other laborious expedients, that he might contribute to the support of the family. "Be assured," he says, in one of his letters to his nephew, "that I will ever as cheerfully contribute to your relief in difficulties, as I will rejoice with you in prosperity. But we have nothing to fear. One hundred bushels of wheat, to be sure, is no great marketing; but has it not been expended in the support of a mother, and infant brothers and sisters, thrown upon your bounty in a foreign country? Robert Burns, when the mice nibbled away his corn, said

I’ll get a blessing wi’ the lave,
And never miss ‘t.’

Where he expected one, you may expect a thousand. Robin, by his own confession, ploughed up his mice out of ‘ha’ and hame.’ You have built for your wanderers a cozie bield, where none dare molest them. There is more true greatness in the affectionate exertions which you have made for their subsistence and support, than the bloody catalogue of heroes can boast of. Your own heart will speak peace and satisfaction to you, to the last moment of your life, for every anxiety you have felt on their account." Nor did Wilson forget the ties of relationship that still united him to the land of his birth. To his father he wrote fully and regularly; and his letters, both to him and his brother David, are no less replete with sound sense, than ardent affection and excellent moral feeling.

Wilson’s removal to Kingsessing was the first lucky step towards the attainment of that fame which hallows his memory. His salary was extremely inadequate to his labour, and almost to his subsistence; but this situation introduced him to the patronage of many kind and influential friends, and afforded him opportunities of improving himself which he had never before enjoyed. Amongst the former was William Bartram, the American Linnaeus of the period, in whose extensive gardens and well-stocked library Wilson found new and delightful sources of instruction and enjoyment; and Mr Lawson, the engraver, who initiated him into the mysteries of drawing, colouring, and etching, which afterwards proved of such incalculable use to him when bringing out his Ornithology. About this time Wilson tasked his powers to their very utmost in the duties of his school and his efforts at self-improvement. This severe exertion and confinement naturally preyed upon his health and depressed his spirits; but Messrs Bartram and Lawson, who seem to have known little, personally, of the exhausting process of "o’er-informing the tenement of clay," mistook the despondency and lassitude of body and mind thereby occasioned in their friend, for the symptom of incipient madness. This melancholy fact they attributed to his "being addicted to writing verses and playing on the flute;" and it would appear, that, in their efforts to wean him from such perilous habits, they were at little pains to conceal their opinion even from himself. While rambling in the woods one day Wilson narrowly escaped destruction from his gun accidentally falling against his breast when cocked and in his diary (which he uniformly kept), he blesses God for his escape, as, had he perished, his two worthy friends would undoubtedly have loaded his memory with the imputation of suicide. He complied, however, with their request so far as to substitute drawing for poetry and music; but he attained not the slightest success until he attempted the delineation of birds. This department of the art, to use our old Scottish expression, "came as readily to his hand as the bowl of a pint stoup," and he soon attained such perfection as wholly to outstrip his instructors. His success in this new employment seems to have first suggested the idea of his ornithological work, as we see from letters to his friends in 1803, that he first mentions his purpose of "making a collection of all our finest birds." Upon submitting his intentions to Messrs Bartram and Lawson, these gentlemen readily admitted the excellence of his plan, but started so many difficulties to its accomplishment, that, had Wilson been a man of less nerve, or confidence in his own powers, he would have abandoned the idea in despair. But he treated their remonstrances with indifference, or something more like scorn: he resolved to proceed at all risks and hazards, and, for some time afterwards, busily employed himself in collecting all the rarer specimens of birds in his own neighbourhood. In October, 1804, he set out, accompanied by his nephew Duncan, and another individual, upon an expedition to the Falls of Niagara, which wondrous scene, according to his own account, he gazed upon with an admiration almost amounting to distraction. On their return, the three friends were overtaken by the storms of winter. Wilson’s companions successively gave in, and left him at different parts of their route; but he himself toiled on through the mud and snow, encumbered with his gun and fowling bag, the latter of which was of course always increasing in bulk, and arrived safely at home, after an absence of fifty-nine days, during which he had walked nearly 1260 miles, 47 of which were performed the last day. Instead of being daunted by the fatigues and hardships of the journey, we find him writing an account of it to his friends with something like exultation, and delightedly contemplating future expeditions of the like nature; and this when his whole stock of money amounted to three-fourths of a dollar! For some time after his return, he amused himself with penning a poetical narrative of his journey, called "The Foresters," (afterwards published;) a piece much superior to any of his former descriptive poems, and containing many even sublime apostrophes. From this time forward, Wilson applied his whole energies to his ornithological work, drawing, etching, and colouring all the plates himself, for he had in vain endeavoured to induce his cautious friend Mr Lawson, to take any share in the undertaking. In the spring of 1806, a favourable opportunity seemed to present itself for prosecuting his researches, by a public intimation being given of the intention of president Jefferson to despatch parties of scientific men to explore the district of Louisiana. At Wilson’s request, Mr Bartram, who was intimate with the president, wrote to him, mentioning Wilson’s desire, character, and acquirements, and strongly recommending his being employed in the proposed survey. Wilson also wrote a respectful and urgent letter to Jefferson, detailing the extensive plans of his work, and explaining all his proceedings and views. To these applications the president vouchsafed not one word in reply; a circumstance which convinced Wilson more and more—nor did he shrink from the conviction—that he must stand self-sustained in the executing of his great national undertaking. But his intrinsic and sterling merits soon procured him a patronage which to his independent mind was, perhaps, infinitely more gratifying than the condescending favours of a great man. He received a liberal offer from Mr Bradford, a bookseller of Philadelphia, to act as assistant editor in bringing out a new edition of Ree’s Cyclopedia, and he gladly relinquished the toilsome and ill-rewarded duties of a schoolmaster to betake himself to his new employment. Soon after this engagement, he laid before Mr Bradford the plan of his Ornithology, with the specimens of composition and delineation which he had already executed; and that gentleman was so satisfied of Wilson’s ability to complete it, that he at once agreed to run all the risk of publication. All obstacles to the fulfilment of his great design being now removed, Wilson applied himself night and day to his double task of author and editor, occasionally making a pedestrian excursion into various districts for the benefit at once of his health (which was beginning to decay) and of his great work. At length, in 1808, the first volume of the American Ornithology made its appearance, and, much as the public had been taught to expect from the advertisements and prospectuses previously issued, the work far exceeded in splendour anything that had ever been seen in the country before. Inmmediately on its publication, the author set out on an expedition through the eastern states, with the design of exhibiting his book and soliciting subscribers. It is not our purpose to trace his course in this journey, wherein he encountered hardships, vexations, and disappointments innumerable, but insufficient to check his ardour. The extent of his journey may be guessed at from the following extract from one of his letters when about to return:—"Having now visited all the towns within one hundred miles of the Atlantic, from Maine to Georgia, and done as much for this bantling book of mine, as ever author did for any progeny of his brain, I now turn my wishful eyes towards home." Upon the whole the result of his expedition was unsuccessful, for although he received most flattering marks of respect wherever he went, the sacrifice of 120 dollars (for the ten volumes) proved a sad check upon the enthusiasm of his admirers. His letters to his friends, in which a full account of every part of this, as well as his subsequent journeys is given, are in the highest degree interesting. In 1810, the second volume was published, and Wilson immediately set out for Pittsburg, on his way to New Orleans for the same purpose as before. On reaching Pittsburg, he was puzzled to think by what means he should descend the Ohio; but at last determined, in spite of the remnonstrances of his friends, to voyage it in a small boat alone. He accordingly bought a batteau, which he named the Ornithologist, put in a small stock of provisions and water, (he never carried spirits with him,) with his never-failing fowling piece and ammunition, and pushed off into the stream for a solitary voyage of between 500 and 600 miles. This was exactly such a situation as was calculated to arouse all the romantic feelings of Wilson’s soul: the true lover of nature experiences a delight approaching to ecstasy when alone in the uninhabited desert. But the whole tract of his journey was rich with the objects most attractive to the lonely voyager; he collected an immense stock of ornithological riches for his future volumes, and amused his mind at his hours of repose with the composition of a descriptive poem entitled "The Pilgrim." He reached New Orleans on the 6th of June, and arrived at Philadelphia on the 2nd of August, having been travelling since the beginning of January; during which time his whole expenses did not amount to 500 dollars. This was the most extensive of all Wilson’s excursions, and although he took several others to various districts, as the volumes of the Ornithology successively appeared, we do not think it necessary here to advert to them particularly. Writing to his brother David, a year or two afterwards, in reference to these exertions to further the sale of his works, he says: "By the first opportunity I will transmit a trifle to our old father, whose existence, so far from being forgotten, is as dear to me as my own. But David, an ambition of being distinguished in the literary world, has required sacrifices and exertions from me with which you are unacquainted; and a wish to reach the glorious rock of independence, that I might from thence assist my relations, who are struggling with and buffeting the billows of adversity, has engaged me in an undertaking more laborious and extensive than you are aware of, and has occupied every moment of my time for several years. Since February 1810, I have slept for several weeks in the wilderness alone, in an Indian country, with my gun and my pistols in my bosom; and have found myself so reduced by sickness as to be scarcely able to stand, when not within 300 miles of a white settlement, and under the burning latitude of 25 degrees. I have, by resolution, surmounted all these and other obstacles, in my way to my object, and now begin to see the blue sky of independence open around me."

Wilson’s reputation, indeed, and the merits of his great undertaking, had now forced themselves into notice, not only in America, but throughout all Europe, and one of his biographers says, that there was not a crowned head in the latter quarter of the globe but had then become a subscriber to the American Ornithology. Honours as well as profit began to pour in upon him. In 1812, he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society, and subsequently of other learned bodies. In 1813, the literary materials for the eighth volume of the Ornithology were ready at the same time that the seventh was published. But its progress was greatly retarded for want of proper assistants to colour the plates, those whom he could procure aiming rather at a caricature than a copy of nature. He was at last obliged to undertake the whole of this department himself in addition to his other duties, and these multifarious labours, by drawing largely upon his hours of rest, began rapidly to exhaust his constitution. When his friends remonstrated with him upon the danger of his severe application, he answered, "Life is short, and without exertion nothing can be performed." A fatal dysentery at last seized him, which, after a few days’ illness, carried him off, upon the 23rd of August, 1813, being then only in his forty-eighth year. According to the authority of an American gentleman who was intimate with him, his death was accelerated by an incident in singular keeping with the scientific enthusiasm of his life. While sitting in the house of one of his friends, he happened to see a bird of a rare species, and which he had been long seeking for in vain, fly past the window. He immediately rushed out of the house, pursued the bird across a river, over which he was compelled to swim, shot and returned with the bird, but caught an accession of cold which carried him off. He was buried next day in the cemetery of the Swedish church in the district of Southwark, Philadelphia, with all the honours which the inhabitants could bestow on his remains. The clergy and all the public bodies walked in procession, and wore crape on their arms for thirty days. A simple marble monument was placed over him, stating shortly the place and year of his birth, the period of his emigration to America, and the day and cause of his death.

The whole plates for the remainder of the Ornithology having been completed under Wilson’s own eye, the letter-press of the ninth volume was supplied by his friend Mr George Ord, who had been his companion in several of his expeditions, as also a memoir of the deceased naturalist. There have been few instances, indeed, where the glowing fire of genius was combined with so much strong and healthy judgment, warmth of social affection, and correct and pure moral feeling, as in the case of Alexander Wilson. The benevolence and kindness of his heart sparkle through all his writings, and it is cheering to the true Christian to observe, that his religious principles became purified and strengthened in proportion to the depth of his researches into the organization of nature. He is said to have been strikingly handsome in person, although rather slim than robust, with a countenance beaming with intelligence, and an eye full of animation and fire. His career furnishes a remarkable example of the success which, sooner or later, is the reward of perseverance. It is true he did not attain riches, but upon the possession of these his happiness was not placed. He wished, to use his own words, "to raise some beacon to show that such a man had lived," and few have so completely achieved the object of their ambition. Wilson’s father survived him three years.

Three supplementary volumes of the Ornithology, containing delineations of American birds not described by Wilson, have been published by Charles Lucien Bonaparte. In 1832, an edition of the American Ornithology, with illustrative notes, and a Life of Wilson, by Sir William Jardine, was published in London, in three volumes.


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