How Did a Poetic Paisley Weaver Become the Father of American Ornithology?

Battling Bishop, Ohio Wesleyan UniversityI’ve visited the home of the Battling Bishops to hear the Vienna Boys Choir perform, listen to Dard Hunter III speak about his grandfather’s American Arts and Crafts legacy, and even check out its library as a potential workplace. But I didn’t spend the whole day there until recently, when I treated myself to a scenic drive up Old State Route 315 to Delaware so I could attend a special program at Ohio Wesleyan University.

When I arrived, I turned down the persistent refrain of “trust and wait” and tuned in to a fascinating discussion of how a weaver from Paisley, Scotland combined his talent for poetry, art and observation to create a nine-volume book that transformed American ornithology.


Dr. Edward H. Burtt, Jr. signing a copy of Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Dr. Edward H. Burtt, Jr. signing a copy of Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

Alexander Wilson and the Making of American Ornithology was a symposium celebrating the 200th anniversary of the completion of Wilson’s nine-volume American Ornithology, the first major scientific publication of the United States that was admired for its excellent information, its beautiful illustrations and the quality of its American-made paper, type and binding. The symposium was organized by Dr. Edward H. (Jed) Burtt, Jr., a zoology professor at Ohio Wesleyan since 1977 who just retired at the end of the spring semester. During his career, Dr. Burtt published extensively on the behavior of birds, the evolution of their coloration, and the effects of bacteria that degrade their plumage. Most recently, he collaborated with William E. Davis, Jr. to write Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology.

After Rock Jones, Ohio Wesleyan’s president, welcomed over 100 of us to campus, we settled into our seats at the Chappelear Drama Center and began discovering what made Wilson unique.

We got an idea of what Wilson must have sounded like as we listened to the irresistible Scottish accent of Dr. Gerard Carruthers, chair of Scottish literature since 1700 at the University of Glasgow, as he presented “Alexander Wilson: Poet of the Trans-Atlantic World, 1789-1803.”


Alexander Wilson's Watty and Meg, from the collection of Tom Blanton

Alexander Wilson’s Watty and Meg, from the collection of Tom Blanton

Describing how Wilson peddled chapbooks of ghost stories, songs and poems door to door, Carruthers shared the earliest known fragment of Wilson’s poetry. Written circa 1776-1779, the poem mimics a traditional Scottish folk song and is about Castle Semple in Renfrewshire, Scotland. Then, inspired by how Robert Burns revived the Scottish language through poems like “Tam O’Shanter,” Wilson wrote “Watty and Meg, Or The Wife Reformed” and “The Disconsolate Wren.” But best of all was when Carruthers read a few lovely stanzas from “The Forester,” Wilson’s 1809 epic poem about his equally epic walk to Niagara Falls with his nephew and another young man in 1804.

In 1794, 28-year-old Wilson emigrated from Scotland to America. In 1802, he decided to teach school at Kingsessing, on the west bank of the Schuylkill River, northwest of Philadelphia, whose name derives from the Native American word Chingsessing, which means “a place where there is a meadow.” Soon, Wilson struck up a friendship with his neighbor, William Bartram, a botanist, writer and artist who is best known for Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida. Published in 1791, the book is Bartram’s account of his 2,400-mile solitary journey through the wilderness of the American Southeast between 1773 and 1777.

Bartram and his father, botanist John Bartram, are credited with identifying, collecting, preserving and saving more than 200 American plants from extinction, which they sold through their nursery to plant collectors both in the United States and abroad. For example, during their travels along the Alatamaha River in Georgia in 1765, the Bartrams discovered a remarkable tree that had large, snow-white flowers and simultaneously bore ripe fruit. They named it Franklinia alatamaha in honor of their friend, Benjamin Franklin, and planted its seeds on their farm. Today, no Franklinia trees remain on the banks of the river, but they grow in gardens around the world, thanks to the handful of seeds that the Bartrams collected.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were friends of the Bartrams and visited them at their home. In fact, it’s still open to visitors today. The Bartrams’ house, built between 1728 and 1731, still stands, as does a reconstruction of the original 45-acre garden, which is considered the oldest surviving botanic garden in North America. Joel T. Fry, curator of Historic Bartram’s Garden, told us about how William Bartram encouraged Wilson’s interest in natural history in “‘Not in Catesby’: William Bartram and the Mentoring of American Ornithology.”

White-headed Eagle plate in American Ornithology, from the collection of Tom Blanton

White-headed Eagle plate in American Ornithology, from the collection of Tom Blanton

Fry shared examples of how Wilson described the area in great detail — including “Bartram’s hospitable dome” — in poems like “A Rural Walk, Gray’s Ferry, August 10, 1804” and “The Solitary Tutor, September 5, 1804.” He also pointed out how Wilson was pictured in Charles Willson Peale’s painting, Excavation of the Mastodon, in 1801, as well as how Wilson studied specimens of a bald eagle and other birds in Peale’s American Museum in Philadelphia.

Wilson’s writing turned from poetry about daily life in Scotland to the wonder of the American wilderness and its birds. His desire for recognition led him on a quest to produce a superbly illustrated, subscription-based work that would provide a detailed physical description of every species of North America’s native birds. He believed that creating scientifically accurate, lifelike illustrations of those birds would help his readers accurately identify them and appreciate their beauty.

In “The Science of American Ornithology,” Burtt explained how Wilson traveled to 15 of the 18 states, as well as territories, observing live birds in their native habitats, rather than as specimens in a natural history collection. He wrote not only about birds, but also about their eggs, nests, plumage, habitat, songs, behavior and more, all while employing the novel Linnaean species classification system.  The first volume of American Ornithology was published in 1808, with subsequent volumes published until 1814, a year after Wilson’s untimely death at age 47.


Plate from American Ornithology, from the collection of Tom Blanton

Plate from American Ornithology, from the collection of Tom Blanton

Wilson’s practices were unlike those of the European naturalists of his day. That’s even more extraordinary when you consider that Wilson taught himself not only to draw, but also to engrave his illustrations, for this project. In “Feathers, Paint and Brush: The Paintings of Alexander Wilson,” Dr. Robert McCracken Peck from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University discussed Wilson’s contributions as an artist and placed his work in the context of 18th- and 19th-century scientific illustration. Peck is the author of A Celebration of Birds: The Life and Art of Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Land of the Eagle: A Natural History of North America, which had a companion NATURE television program on PBS in 1991. A South American frog species is even named in Peck’s honor.

During the past 15 years, Tom Blanton has been on a quest to create a collection of all editions of American Ornithology. That quest has also expanded to include collecting printed copies of Wilson’s poetry, such as an 1816 edition of a chapbook of poems that Wilson wrote in Scottish dialect. Blanton described some of his adventures in “In Search of American Ornithology and Other Distractions Along the Way: A Collector’s Perspective.”

As a special treat, Blanton shared his collection of Wilson works in an exhibit in the Bayley Room of Beeghly Library. This was the first time all of the American Ornithology plates have been exhibited in one place.

Stained-glass window in Beeghly Library, Ohio Wesleyan UniversityWilson left an impressive legacy to the field of ornithology by encouraging Americans’ interest in birds, discovering new species of North American birds, and undertaking such a revolutionary project. However, my time on campus wasn’t just limited to learning about the father of American ornithology. I also experienced some of Ohio Wesleyan’s distinctive features. In the Hamilton-Williams Campus Center, I sat down to a plentiful Mexican buffet lunch and a sumptuous dinner of filet mignon with herb bordelaise, horseradish parmesan potatoes, asparagus, a mixed greens salad and chocolate cake. I soaked up the springtime sun while admiring the fountains on the JAYwalk. I walked over to the Richard M. Ross Art Museum in Humphreys Art Hall, which was once the post office for the city of Delaware. And I marveled at the collection of stained glass windows in Beeghly Library, all the result of design contests sponsored by each graduating class from 1900 to 1931.

To read the book that inspired the symposium, check out Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology, by Edward H. Burtt, Jr. and William E. Davis, Jr. On March 24, 2014, Dr. Burtt appeared on All Sides with Ann Fisher to talk about Alexander Wilson and the book. Listen to it here.

In 1991, the Gutman Library of Harvard University asked Burtt and Davis to look at some arithmetic books belonging to one of Wilson’s students. Inside, they noticed a watercolor of a bird that they thought might have been painted by William Bartram, as well as calligraphy decorated with Paisley-style forms and birds that possibly could have been done by Wilson. For an interesting account of their discovery, read “Historic and Taxonomic Implications of Recently Found Artwork in Arithmetic Books of Students of Alexander Wilson,” by Edward H. Burtt, Jr. and William E. Davis, Jr., Wilson Bulletin 107(2) (April-June 1995): 193-213.Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology, by Edward H. Burtt, Jr. and William E. Davis, Jr.

If, like me, you’d like to learn more about John Bartram, his son William Bartram, and their garden, see America’s Curious Botanist: A Tercentennial Reappraisal of John Bartram, 1699-1777, edited by Nancy E. Hoffmann and John C. Van Horne; The Art and Science of William Bartram, by Judith Magee; William Bartram, The Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters & Unpublished Writings, edited by Thomas Hallock & Nancy E. Hoffmann, with Joel T. Fry, associate editor and a prologue by Robert McCracken Peck; The Flower Hunter: William Bartram, America’s First Naturalist, a children’s picture book by Deborah Kogan Ray; and “A Short History of Bartram’s Garden,” a contribution by Joel T. Fry on pages 18-33 of Mark Dion: Travels of William Bartram Reconsidered, An Installation Curated by Julie Courtney at Bartram’s Garden.

If you can’t visit Bartram’s Garden, you can stop by its website and order seeds hand-gathered from its plants, such as Deer Tongue lettuce, Love-in-a-Puff balloon vine, Jewels of Opar, Summer Poinsettia, Sesame, the Scottish Musselburgh Giant leek; and Willing’s Barbados pepper.

The American Society of Botanical Artists, in collaboration with Bartram’s Garden, has curated an exhibition of original contemporary botanical artworks depicting plants discovered and introduced by the Bartrams. The touring exhibition has traveled to Florida, is currently in Atlanta, and moves next to the North Carolina Botanical Garden and then University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. Click here for more information. 

This entry was posted in Art, Birds, Books, Gardens, Nature/Outdoors, Special Collections. Bookmark the permalink.

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