A brilliant naturalist and illustrator, John James Audubon was also an unrepentant slaveholder. Can we separate the artist from the man?

By Gregory Nobles

At first light on a Florida morning in late December 1831 John James Audubon set out from Live Oak Landing on the Halifax River, canoeing upriver in search of brown pelicans—and not just one or two, but two dozen or more. The famous artist wanted to shoot fresh specimens of a male pelican so he could select a good one as a model. He planned to draw it soon after it was shot; then, sometime later, he could paint a final version in watercolor and send the picture to his engraver in London to be part of his massive collection of avian images, The Birds of America (4 vols., 1827-1838). To get the birds he needed for what Audubon called his “Great Work,” that was the way he worked.

On this day, he didn’t work alone. Audubon had four enslaved Black men—“negro servants,” he called them, or “hands”—to paddle the canoe and load his guns. As they moved along a narrow bay, gliding over fish so numerous that they “nearly obstructed our head-way,” Audubon suddenly saw what he wanted: “several hundred pelicans, perched on the branches of mangrove trees, seated in comfortable harmony.”

That peaceful scene would soon be blasted apart. Audubon ordered the Black men to “back water gently,” then he carefully got out of the canoe and waded closer to the trees to get a good look at the sleeping birds, all easy targets for a sure shot like Audubon. Then he quickly fired, in one shotgun blast dropping “two of the finest specimens I ever saw.”

Brown Pelican. Illustration from "The Birds of America".

He never got off a second shot because someone had made a hurried mistake in loading the other barrel, and the pelicans woke up and flew away. But for the botched loading, Audubon figured he could have had more than “a few” pelicans that morning. Two days later, to underscore his disappointment, he wrote a British friend that “you must be aware that I call birds few, when I shoot less than one hundred per day.”

In 1917, one of his earliest biographers, Francis Hobart Herrick, admitted that many readers might be shocked to learn that Audubon, the namesake for the National Audubon Society, the organization for which “the cause of bird protection is now associated in this country, was a reckless destroyer of all bird life.” As an Audubon biographer whose book came out a century later, in 2017, I find that people still puzzle over the question: Why did he shoot so many birds?

There’s an easy answer: Audubon didn’t have access to the various technologies even amateur birders have today—high-quality binoculars, spotting scopes, telescopic-lens cameras, illustrated bird guides, smartphone bird images and descriptions, song recordings and even an app that identifies bird songs in the field. Audubon had only a gun, and to make a definite identification, much less a detailed painting, he had to shoot the bird and work with the fresh carcass. Other 19th-century naturalists did the same in pursuit of specimens for science. In that regard, Audubon could be called a man of his time.

But another question arises from the same Florida story: What about the enslaved men, the Black “hands”? In Audubon’s account, they seem peripheral, ancillary assistants who float silently through the scene, undescribed and unnamed. In giving my own accounts of Audubon’s life to public audiences, I bring up that question.

Audubon had many identities, I explain. He was an extraordinary artist, whose stunning, ultra-realistic images of birds represent a monumental creative and scientific achievement and required years of sacrifice and effort to produce. His engraved images of 490 species still allow people all over the world to see and study birds in a way they never could in the field. In addition to artist and naturalist, he was an entrepreneur, raconteur, woodsman, showman, ladies’ man and more. But I always end with “slaveholder.”

From 1810 to 1819, when Audubon and his wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, lived in Henderson, Kentucky, they had nine enslaved men and women working for them. When the Audubons suffered financial reverses, they sold them all. They bought and sold more slaves during the 1820s, and Audubon’s views did not become more enlightened with time.

In 1834, he wrote to Lucy deploring that “in giving Freedom to the Slaves of these islands [the West Indies], the British government had acted imprudently and too precipitously.” Throughout his life, he believed in the superiority of the white race. His condescension towards Blacks comes through in a tale—perhaps true, perhaps not—he wrote for his Ornithological Biography, in which he describes encountering a Black man who had fled a cruel master and was hiding in a Louisiana swamp with his family. According to his story, Audubon took them back to their first, kinder master and persuaded him to buy the family back. A happy ending, as far as Audubon was concerned, but modern readers may not celebrate returning a man and his family to be again bought and sold in bondage.

For many years Audubon’s racial views tended to get no attention in the Q&A period of my talks. People just wanted to focus on the massive numbers of birds he shot. But that can’t be the case anymore.

The roots of racism run deep in American culture, and its taint extends to hundreds of historical figures who embraced and embodied it. One of those was John James Audubon. However impressive his artistic and scientific achievements, it’s important to confront the racism that pervades his identity as an iconic American.

Some have suggested that Audubon was “a man of his time,” born and raised in an era when slavery was both legal and common. But to come to terms with Audubon the man—not to mention the organization that bears his name—we also need to think about where he stands as a man of our own time.

Sandwich tern. Illustration from "The Birds of America".

“A Prize! A Prize!”

To begin, we go back to the birds—and back to Florida. If Audubon didn’t get to shoot all the pelicans he wanted, he did bring down an abundance of terns. “On the 26th of May 1832, while sailing along the Florida Keys,” he wrote, “I observed a large flock of Terns, which, from their size and other circumstances, I would have pronounced to be Marsh Terns, had not the difference in their manner of flight convinced me that they were of a species hitherto unknown to me.” The prospect of seeing a new species was so exciting, he continued, that “the pleasure which one feels on such an occasion cannot easily be described.” And then came the delight of discovery: “On examining the first individual picked up from the water, I perceived from the yellow point of its bill that it was different from any that I had previously seen, and accordingly shouted ‘A prize! a prize! a new bird to the American Fauna!’”

Audubon’s exultation was as much for himself as for science, “for no person before had found the Sandwich Tern on any part of our coast.” He asserted that he had been the first, and that added to the status of Audubon himself, the “American Woodsman.” As a rustic upstart seeking to make a name in the transatlantic scientific community, Audubon had immersed himself in a world that was both collaborative and competitive. Naturalists vied to increase the knowledge of the natural world, but also to enhance their own reputations. Discovering a new species could be a significant step toward scientific prestige and credibility.

But birds were also his business, and his The Birds of America was still a work in progress. Audubon had been at it for years, almost all his life. He began drawing birds as a young boy in France, and even though he apparently had no formal training, he was quite good at it. (Some of Audubon’s early bird images are in the collections of the Houghton Library at Harvard University.)

Audubon’s father had more pragmatic plans for his son’s career, and in 1803, he sent the 18-year-old to the United States to manage a family-owned property in Pennsylvania. Young Audubon wasn’t very interested in that, however, nor was he interested in his subsequent storekeeping work in Kentucky, first in Louisville and then in Henderson.

His passion was for birds, and by the mid-1820s, that passion became his profession. He gave up everything else and dedicated himself—and his wife and sons, the other members of what became the family business—to producing The Birds of America.

In 1827, when Audubon put out his initial “Prospectus” for the project, he brashly promised three volumes containing 300 engraved images. (The total would eventually come to 435.) At the time, though, he only had something over 200. If The Birds of America were to live up to its name, he would have to collect as many types of birds and cover as much of the country as he could. He came to Florida, first from November 1831 through May 1832, and then again in the winter of 1837, hoping to find a rich variety of known and new species.

There was no National Endowment for the Arts or National Science Foundation at the time, of course, no source of government funding to support artistic endeavors or ornithological research. The United States government did have ships, however, and Audubon had the good fortune of getting free passage on two vessels in the region.

In early 1832, the gunboat Spark took him from St. Augustine to the St. Johns River, a trip that turned out to be a “complete failure,” Audubon complained, “no birds, no fishes, no turtles.” Later in the spring, he had much better luck aboard the revenue cutter Marion, which conveyed him to the Florida Keys, as far out as the Tortugas. Thanks to the indulgence of the captain and the assistance of the crew, Audubon collected several valuable species—herons, terns, cormorants, even a few warblers—and spent much of the rest of his time on the ship drawing and writing. In six weeks on the water, he made a good haul.

He also enjoyed the hospitality of Floridians on land, none more accommodating than John Joachim Bulow, a young man who had inherited the family sugar plantation of almost 5,000 acres and, with it, almost 200 enslaved people. Like Audubon, Bulow had spent most of his youth in France. Audubon lived as a guest at Bulow’s house from late December 1831 into early 1832. And it was with some of Bulow’s Black men, whom he called “hands,” that Audubon paddled up the Halifax River in the pelican hunt that began this essay.

The Bulow plantation is now all but gone, destroyed in the Second Seminole War in 1836, the ruins now preserved as a state park. The “hands” are gone too, unknown enslaved persons only faintly preserved in Audubon’s account of the pelican hunt. But like the ghostly remnants of the plantation, Audubon’s Black companions remain a spectral presence, almost invisible but still inescapable parts of the Florida story.

Great Blue Heron. Illustrations from "The Birds of America".

Wrestling with his Legacy

I have lived with John James Audubon for quite some time, long enough to have read thousands of pages written by and about him, long enough to have written a book and several articles about him, long enough to have thought and thought again about him. And the more I think, the more I keep coming back to the dark issue that shadows his bright legacy: slavery.

In July 2020, I published an essay in Audubon magazine, “The Myth of John James Audubon,” pointing out what I had already said in my 2017 biography and public talks: that while Audubon was surely a brilliant bird artist, he was also a slaveholder, a critic of abolition, a man who said and did disparaging things about Black and Indigenous people.

A couple of months later, the Spring 2021 issue of Audubon magazine ran another article, “What Do We Do About John James Audubon?” In that article, J. Drew Lanham, a Black ornithologist, poet, and essayist at Clemson University, wrestled with reconciling his longtime admiration for Audubon’s ornithological and artistic work with his deep disgust for Audubon’s racism.

“Race is an issue in every aspect of American life,” Lanham wrote. “For birders, it is an issue fledged from the nest of its ‘founding father,’ John James Audubon, and flies fully feathered now in present day.”

The National Audubon Society’s executive director at the time, David Yarnold, acknowledged the problem. “In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the role John James Audubon played in enslaving Black people and perpetuating white supremacist culture,” Yarnold wrote. “We’re partnering with leading historians and journalists to grapple with John James Audubon’s legacy on Audubon.org, in Audubon magazine, and in the physical places we steward.”

In late 2021, the organization established a new program—and new staff positions—in Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (EDIB), and one of the first tasks was to consider putting some distance between Audubon the man and Audubon the organization by changing the National Audubon Society’s name. (I served as one of two academic consultants on the name-change issue, providing biographical information about John James Audubon and his wife and their position on slavery and other issues of race. I was not tasked with recommending, much less making, a decision about the possible name change, nor was I privy to the deliberations of the organization’s board in making that decision.)

It’s important to note that John James Audubon did not establish the organization that bears his name. He died in 1851, and the first version of the Audubon Society, established by George Bird Grinnell, was formed in 1886. Several local Audubon Society chapters followed in the next decade; and the overarching organization, the National Audubon Society, dates from 1905. The founders of those societies adopted the Audubon name because John James Audubon carried mythic significance among members of the ornithological community, and his avian artistry remained unsurpassed in detail and vitality.

The founders apparently didn’t know (or perhaps care) about Audubon’s slaveholding, but today there’s no getting around it. He did not own a large number of enslaved people, to be sure, maybe a dozen in total, but the number is not the issue.

People often argue that Audubon’s attitudes were shaped by the time and society he lived in, when slavery was common throughout the United States, not just in the South but still in parts of the North. It doesn’t seem fair, they tell me, to judge a 19th-century man by 21st-century standards.

My answer has always been simple: Many people of the time—men and women, Black and white—vehemently opposed slavery, and they provide the 19th-century standards by which anyone, including Audubon, must be judged.

While deliberation continued at the National Audubon Society, several local organizations decided to drop “Audubon” from their names. In Washington D.C., for instance, the Audubon Naturalist Society renamed itself “Nature Forward,” and the Seattle Audubon Society became “Birds Connect Seattle.” Audubon chapters in other places, including Chicago, New York, Portland and Pasadena, have also decided to rename themselves, and there may be more to come—including, perhaps, in Florida, where Audubon Florida has created its own diversity and inclusion program.

In the end, the National Audubon Society decided to keep its name. In a sense, the organization put the brand over the man. As the chair of the board of directors explained, “The name has come to represent so much more than the work of one person, but a broader love of birds and nature, and a nonpartisan approach to conservation.”

Nonetheless, he emphasized, “We must reckon with the racist legacy of John James Audubon and embody our EDIB values in all that we do.” And so the National Audubon Society took on a new commitment but maintained the old name—for now.

But change the name, keep the name, we still have to come to terms with all aspects of John James Audubon. His racial actions and attitudes challenge us all to struggle to understand this “man of his time” in our own time. It’s not easy.

In my own case, I still marvel at Audubon’s artistry, still have his image of belted kingfishers hanging in my dining room. I still respect the environmental work the National Audubon Society does, and I remain a dues-paying member of the national organization and two state-level Audubon affiliates, in Georgia and Michigan, both of which so far continue to carry the Audubon name. And I still write and speak about John James Audubon to public audiences, including this one at FORUM. But even more than before, I can’t do so without keeping the racial context of Audubon’s life and work in my mind.

And so I go back to the beginning, thinking again about the pelican story from Florida, about those enslaved assistants, or “hands,” who appear in Audubon’s account, even if only at the margins. I try to see them as part of the bigger picture, not just in the physical environment they shared with Audubon on the Halifax River, but in the larger racial and social environment they inhabited with him in antebellum America—albeit in very different circumstances. No less than Audubon himself, they, too, were men of their time, and we need to remember them, as we remember him, in ours.

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Gregory Nobles is Professor Emeritus of History at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He is the author of John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman (2017) and, more recently, The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (2022).

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.