Editor's note: The following article is printed with permission of the Kentucky Historical Society. The article was included in Vol. 1, May 1903 issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, or if you have interest in purchasing copies, please contact the Kentucky Historical Society directly through either this phone number or web address:
John J. Audubon
The following communication from Mr. Alves, of Henderson, concerning the great painter and ornithologist, John J. Audubon, will interest those so little acquainted with his life in Henderson, Kentucky. He is known to the world as a naturalist and unrivaled painter of birds, and squirrels and other children of the forests. When Rafinesque visited America, he visited Audubon at Henderson, and we read "spent several days with this then greatest ornithologist in the world." Audubon· showed him his splendid collection of colored drawings, afterwards published in England in many volumes. Of 170 subscribers at $1,000 each ($170,000) to his; "Birds of America," nearly one-half was contributed by England and France. These paintings of birds and quadrupeds are very rare new, and bring fabulous prices in Europe. Audubon was born in Louisiana, May 4, 1780, and died in New York City January 27, 1851, aged seventy-one. He was: educated in art by the celebrated David, in France, and enjoyed the distinction of having outrivaled his teacher in painting the children of the woods. -- (Ed. The Register.)
Mrs. Jennie C. Morton,
Editor The Register:
Complying with your request, I am herewith pleased to contribute
of what information I am possessed of history associated with the life of
the world-renowned John J. Audubon during his residence in Henderson, as
learned from old-time citizens long numbered among the saints.
I take it that Mr. Audubon was a man of scrupulous honesty. He placed the highest value possible upon his word, holding it in all things the equal of his bond. He was, while a plain man in his heart, somewhat of a connoisseur in his tastes. He was lacking in business tact, and, as all men like him, was easily imposed upon. His confidence in his fellow-man was co-equal with his own self-respect. He was a man who would go his whole length for a friend, while neglecting his own affairs. In short, he preferred doing for others while his own was left undone from day to day, or neglected altogether. His confidence led him to extend credit to any man he knew, and, from this goodness of his heart he became a heavy loser. Men took advantage of him, and an easier prey for the sharper was not to be found. His disposition was of a roving nature -- his whole life being wrapped up in studying Nature and Nature's ways. He was devoted to the woods and wilds, and would stay for weeks and months in the forests gaining the choicest information of things most interesting to him. In brief, he was a child of Nature, and was satisfied with no other life than that enjoyed in the wiIds of Kentucky watching the habits of birds and breathing the pure air from the heavens.
It is agreed that Mr. Audubon arrived at the "Yellow Banks," now Henderson, in the year 1812. Soon after landing here he, in co-partnership with Thomas W. Bakewell, applied to the town trustees for a lease on a portion of the city front. The trustees:gave them 200 feet square, beginning at the corner opposite lot No, 4, corner of Water and Second streets, for a term of ninety-four years, they, A. and B., agreeing to pay for the same at the rate of $20 per annum. During that year, to-wit, 1812, Audubon and Bakewell erected a grist mill on the leased ground, and for several years did all the grinding for the farmers living around and many miles from the mill.
The old mill, or the shell left, is still standing where it was built 85 years or more ago. It was a remarkably constructed building, the foundation being of rock and strong enough to withstand the weight of the Chicago postoffice, The joists are of trees cut down nearby, none of them being less than one foot in diameter; they are unhewn and in their natural growth as they stood in woods. The bark is not removed. These heavy trees are laid from wall to wall, closer together than the ordinary sawed joists of to-day are placed. No weight that could ever have been placed on the floor of this mill could have made an impression. When it is known that there is no rock near Henderson, it becomes a matter of mere conjecture where Mr. Audubon brought the foundation: and first-story rock from. He must have cordeled it from below or floated it in boats from away above Henderson.
In those days the mode of navigation was in canoes and by cordeling, certainly a most tedious and patience-worrying process. The Ohio river bank at that time extended some one hundred yards out beyond the mill and contained .a beautiful grove of trees in which the farmers fed when waiting at the mill for their grinding. As before stated, this old structure is still standing, and is well worth viewing in comparison with modern structures used for the same purpose. It was the first mill in all this section of Kentucky, and was a great convenience.
Two years after the building of this mill, Mr. Audubon, on the lot adjoining, and just below, caused to be built a saw-mill, the first known hereabouts. The mode then employed was known as "whip sawing," and on completing the mill, the mode existing was completely revolutionized, Mr. Audubon employing steam was enabled to apply all of the demand and with a much better lumber for building. Several years after the completion of the sawmill, and just when such an institution was most needed, the mill was burned, drawing a total loss, as no such thing as insurance was then known. Nothing daunted by this heavy loss, Mr. Audubon kept on at his favorite pastime of hunting and roving in the woods. During the year 1816 Mr. Audubon and his friend, Samuel Bowen., built a small boat with steam attachments. For what purpose this boat was intended is not known. It is known, however, that the commander employed to run her proved a great scoundrel. He ran the boat out of the Ohio, down the Mississippi to New Orleans without authority. Mr. Audubon, hearing of this, procured a skiff and started in pursuit. With all the fiery energy for which he was so noted, he continued the long journey which appeared, the further he went, to be the more of love's labor lost. However, on his arrival at New Orleans, he found his little craft and instituted suit to recover her. Being surrounded by a complication of troubles, and rather than be further annoyed, he sold the bloat for a mere song and returned to Henderson overland. A walk of a hundred miles, :or even five hundred miles, was never a drawback when his mind was bent on the accomplishment of a purpose. It will be observed that he was a man of extraordinary energy. During his life here he operated a grist mill, a sawmill, a general merchandise store, contracted for buildings and built boats. During all these eventful years he paid far more attention to the woods and forests than he did to his business enterprises. In fact, it may he said his enterprises, in a very great measure were left to take care of themselves while he was off on a hunt.
As a natural consequence his losses were very heavy and finally reduced him to penury.
Mr. Audubon was a man of undaunted courage, as was proved in a number of encounters had by him with men known as desperadoes in those days. One man lost his life at his hands on the streets of Henderson, and several others were made to regret having come in contact with him. At one time he observed a cowardly officer of the law trying to arrest a river pirate who was preparing to escape, and was greatly disgusted with him. The officer had summoned a boy to go with him to arrest the criminal, and this was more than the fiery Audubon could consent to witness. Stepping up, he said to the officer, "You coward, you, if you are afraid to do your duty, don't force a boy into trouble; summon me." Glad of the opportunity, the summons was immediately issued and off they went in search of the offender, Mr. Audubon in the lead. They traced the man to the river and found him about to shove his canoe out into the stream. He was halted in time, and straightening himself he said to the officer, "What do you want" Upon his reply, the desperado looked at him and said, with an oath, "You are a coward, but that man with you looks like he would fight, so I will take him first;" so saying, the fellow, with a long, dangerous, murderous-looking knife, advanced upon Mr. Audubon, who, in turn, picked up an old oar lying near by and prepared to defend himself. The weapon in the hands of Mr. Audubon interposed no obstacle, for he still advanced. He was warned by Mr. Audubon to surrender and not resist arrest, but, heedless of the summons, he continued to advance. When within striking distance and he was about to plunge his knife into the assistant officer, Mr. Audubon; let drive with the oar in his hands and felled the fellow apparently dead to the ground. Thinking the man dead, Dr. Rankin the leading practitioner then here, was hurriedly sought for, and on his arrival at the place and on examination; found that a piece of the skull about the size of a silver dollar had been driven in and was pressing down on the brain. With the only appliances known to pioneer surgery, the doctor went down into his pocket and drew therefrom a gimlet. With this he bored a hole through the broken particle of skull bone.and pulled it back to its place. The fellow was then marched up the hill and away to the old log lock-up to await the pleasure of the squire.
In addition to the large amount of business Mr. Audubon had accumulated upon his hands, he was somewhat of a speculator in town lots. Henderson had been laid off into lots, and many of the best-situated were purchased and re-sold by Mr. Audubon. He recorded in the county clerk's office there a large number of conveyances to him and by him to others. He seemed to have a preference for lots above Second street. Mr. Audubon was a man of wonderful enterprise and endless and untiring energy. With his progressive spirit, coupled with his splendid mind, had he had associated with him an honest partner of system and business tact, he would unquestionably have accumulated an immense estate. He was always hard run, but no man ever accepted his trouble with more grace and composure.
For two years or more his family, while he was away from home, resided with the family of Dr. Adam Rankin, at what is now known as the Banks farm, a mile and a half out on the Cario gravel road. At the home of Dr. Rankin Mr. Audubon's two sons were born. By way of remuneration for their board, Mrs. Audubon, who was a brilliant woman intellectually, taught Dr. Rankin's children; in short, she presided as governess and was a very great helpmate in the family. Mr. Audubon and Dr. Rankin were firm, fast friends devotedly attached to each other. Mr. William Rankin, eldest son of Dr. Rankin, frequently accompanied Mr. Audubon on his trips to the forests, and would remain for days with him. The old house in which the Audubon boys were born is still standing and in comparatively good condition.
WM. L. ALVES.
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