John James Audubon

by Edmund Starling, 1886


The renowned man of whom this sketch treats, was born in the State of Louisiana, on the fourth day of May, 1780, and was of French parentage. He early exhibited natural tastes for art pursuits, and was from earliest childhood devoted to the feathered race. In 1797, after an extended visit to Europe, he returned to America and settled in Pennsylvania. About 1807, he floated in a canoe down the Ohio to Louisville where he remained for some time, and where he was married to Miss Louisa Bakewell. During the year 1810, he removed to Henderson and commenced merchandising, his store house being a small log one-story affair, that stood on the southeast corner of Main and First Streets. His residence was equally as insignificant, and was situated on the same square and in the rear of the present Odd Fellows building. Immediately opposite his house, on the west side of Second Street, was his pond, where he raise turtles for family use, being passionately fond of turtle soup. Mr. Audubon was a warm hearted, liberal man, and for this reason, yet devotedly attached to his friends, and his unsuccessful life in Henderson, is attributable to his over-confidence and big heartedness. He was by no means a close or exacting business man, but, on the contrary, let his business take care of itself, while he indulged his controlling passion for bird hunting. Men took advantage of him, and, from this, he was continually pressed for means and met with frequent reverses. On the sixteenth day of March, 1816, he and Thomas W. Bakewell, under the firm name of Audubon & Bakewell, made application to the Town Trustees for a ninety-five year lease upon a portion of the river front, between First and Second Streets, for the purpose of erecting a grist and saw mill. Prior to this time, December 22d, 1813, he purchased of General Samuel Hopkins, lots Nos. 95 and 96, and Third Street, between Green and Elm, and on the third day of September, 1814, lots Nos. 91 and 92, on Second Street, between Green and Elm. The Town Trustees granted the petition of Audubon & Bakewell, and soon thereafter they commenced the building of a mill suitable for the times. The mill was completed during the year 1817, and is yet standing, being the far end section of Clark's factory. It is a curiosity for these times, and the weather boarding, whip-sawed, out of yellow poplar is still intact on three sides. The joists are of unhewn logs, many of them considerably over a foot in diameter, and raggedly rough. The foundation walls are built of pieces of flat and broken rock and are four and a half feet thick. Mr. Audubon operated his mill on a large scale for those early times. His grist mill was a great convenience, and furnished a ready market for all of the over-plus of wheat raised in the surrounding country. His saw mill also was a wonderful convenience, doing the sawing for the entire country. The timber and lumber used in building the old Kerr, Clark & Co. building, on Main Street, was sawed by his mill.

During all of this time Mr. Audubon continued his study of birds, and, it is said, that the walls of his mill presented the appearance of a picture gallery, every smooth space presenting to the view the painting of some one or more birds. In 1817 Mr. Audubon built at Henderson, a small steamboat, for what purpose it is not known--more, perhaps, to gratify his erratic inclination than for any other reason. The Captain of the vessel ran her out of the Ohio into the Mississippi River, and was followed by her owner in a rowboat to New Orleans, where the little craft was recaptured and sold. In 1818 Constantine S. Rafinisque, a native of Galato, near Constantinople, Turkey, and a naturalist of great reputation, descended the Ohio in an ark, as it was called, and remained with Mr. Audubon for a number of weeks. The two--to use an ordinary expression--had a picnic bird hunting. birds were far more plentiful and of a greater variety in those days than they have ever been since the woodsman commenced clearing the country. During Mr. Audubon's entire life in Henderson, he was an untiring student of ornithology, frequently going into the woods and remaining for two months. Upon one occasion he was known to follow a hawk, peculiar to this country for three days, in fact, until he succeeded in killing it. He was never known to change his course on account of creeks or water courses--those he would swim if necessary to keep up a trail. At one time he had watched a "il. At one time he had watched a "flicker" or "yellow hammer," and finally saw it go into a hole in a dead tree. So anxious was he to catch the bird, he immediately commenced to climb, and in a short time found himself opposite the hole. No sooner said than done, he ran his hand in, and, to his horror, pulled out a snake, seeking which, he let ho and fell with the snake to the ground, fortunately, without injury to himself. Mr. Audubon used to tell this story with a good deal of humor to his friends, who wondered at the risks he would take in pursuit of his favorite study. Mr. Audubon was a great swimmer, and was very fond of the sport. Upon the landing of the first steamboat at Henderson, a great crowd congregated at the bank to take a look at the wonderful thing. It was a sort of holiday, and one of the amusements indulged in by many men, was that of diving rom[sic] the sides of the boat into the river. Mr. Audubon put in an appearance and paralyzed the audience by diving from the bow end of the boat and coming up at the stern end after having passed entirely under the bottom. It has been told by those who knew Mr. Audubon well, that his wife was also an expert swimmer, that she used a swimming suit, and frequently swam the river for amusement. This story, however, has been contradicted by a granddaughter of Mrs. Audubon; nevertheless, old time residents, now dead, have declared to having seen her swim the river time and again. Mr. Audubon continued to reside in Henderson, happily, as all supposed, until the year 1823, when it was discovered that the green eyed monster had domiciled itself within his home. He became jealous of his wife, a beautiful woman, and from that time life was a burden to him. the two got along badly, and finally Mrs. Audubon determine to return to her home in Louisville. Mr. Ben. Talbott, father of the late Ben Talbott, deceased, tendered her the use of his carriage and driver, which she accepted, and thus she was driven overland to her father's home. There were born unto Mr. and Mrs. Audubon two children, both boys. Subsequent to his wife's departure, Mr. Audubon became embarassed[sic] and determined to dispose of his effects and remove from the wilds of Henderson. In 1824 he went to Philadelphia, and from thence to Europe, where he succeeded in having "Ornithological Biographies," and "Birds of America" published. He returned some years afterwards and settled in New York, where he died on the twenty-seventh day of January, 1851, aged seventy-one years.

The History of Henderson County, Kentucky by Starling 1887 page 793-96;

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