History's Headlines: A trip up the Lehigh River with John James Audubon in 1829
America’s wildlife fascinated Native American artists long before the first white man set foot here. But when they arrived, European artists also quickly came under the spell of land teeming with flora and fauna, much of which they were unfamiliar with.
The Allentown Art Museum has recently opened an exhibit called “American Wildlife Art,” which offers an overview of some of those artists.
But surely most visitors will be drawn to the works of John James Audubon (1785-1850), an artist whose passion and outsized works have cast all other nature artists into the forest shade.
Audubon has deep ties to Pennsylvania that include a 53 mile, several-week tour up the Upper Lehigh River through Carbon County’s Great Pine Swamp in 1829. Today tourists to the region can even take an auto tour following roughly in Audubon’s footsteps from White Haven to Jim Thorpe. More information can be obtained by calling 570-443-8759, or by going on-line.
Audubon was born Haiti in 1785 to a French planter and naval captain and one of his father’s many mistresses. A revolution in Haiti in 1798 forced Captain Audubon to move to France.
Fearing his son would be drafted into Napoleon’s army, he purchased a property called Mill Spring in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Today it is the John James Audubon Center in the town of Audubon.
It took some adjustment for the pleasure-loving young Frenchman to fit into the quiet confines of rural Pennsylvania. Among those who helped was Lucy Bakewell, the daughter of a local planter who later became his wife.
It was here that Audubon became deeply entranced with birds, a passion he had since childhood. Now that he could draw them, he spent hours following their habits along the Perkiomen Creek.
It was also here that Audubon discovered how to shape the birds he had shot in such a way that he could observe them in a variety of poses. Although some were to claim later that Audubon’s birds seemed to be assuming positions that they never would have had in nature, other praised his accuracy. And no one doubted the beauty of them as artworks.
Audubon was passionate about his art but he had a tough time making a living at it or at anything else. His life was a trail of bankruptcy and failure that even led Lucy to sell her family silverware.
After futile attempts to find a printer willing to take the risk on reproducing his huge elephant folio prints in America, he took the concept to Europe. Here he did manage to get the books printed. But their cost of $1000 for a complete set put them beyond the range of all but the wealthiest buyers.
It was on September 1, 1829, during a break from a sales trip to Europe that Audubon set off for a trip to the upper reaches of the Lehigh River. “I left Philadelphia at four in the morning by coach,” his journal begins, “with no other accoutrements than I knew to be necessary for the jaunt which I intended to make. These consisted of a wooden box, containing a small stock of linen drawing paper, my journal colours and pencils together with twenty-five pounds of shot, some flints, a due quantum of cash, my gun ‘Tear Jacket’ and a heart true to nature as ever.”
At 8 o’clock that evening his coach pulled into what is now Jim Thorpe, then Mauch Chunk. Although Audubon does not talk of it, this ride may have been in what were called “flying coaches.” Many other writers of the time have commented on the horrible state of roads in the coal regions in that era. Audubon apparently felt it was too common a circumstance in America in general to talk about.
The artist noted the village where he spent the night was “a thriving coal town.” Up early the next morning, he was disappointed at finding so few birds in the vicinity of Mauch Chunk.
Later that morning Audubon engaged a cart to take him to the home of woodsman Jedediah Irish and his family. Local historian Ralph Kreamer notes that the location was Rockport, a small village four miles east of Weatherly.
The artist described his arrival as being “rattled down a steep declivity edged on one side by almost perpendicular rocks, and on the other by a noisy stream, which seemed grumbling at the approach of strangers.” He described the ground as overgrown with laurels and pines and the whole place shrouded in darkness.
Irish’s wife greeted Audubon and told him her husband was away. The next morning the naturalist and Irish’s young nephew traveled to the swamp. Here, the artists became fascinated by the beauty of the day and the sounds of the birds, particularly the wood thrush. He took one specimen that day.
Irish arrived several days later. He and Audubon made many trips into the swamps. Often while they traveled and waited for some game the woodsman would recite to the artist the poems of Robert Burns. The two shared many an outdoor meal that included venison, trout and bear meat. Audubon wrote “methinks I can still enjoy” the taste of it.
Audubon noted in his journal the many loggers cutting trees from high mountains, letting them fall into the Lehigh and float down to nearby saw mills. He also witnessed an amusing encounter between the loggers and some bears they tried to dive away. “The assailed soon proved assailant and with claw and tooth drove the men off in a twinkling.”
After 6 weeks Audubon boarded a coach for the long ride back to Philadelphia. In 1846, then living in what was then a rural area of New York, the artist awoke to discover he could no longer see clearly enough to draw. Although he would live virtually blind until 1850 Audubon died never knowing that his works had made him immortal
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