John James Audubon is widely known for his historic work, Birds of America. However, subsequent to this work, Audubon set out to conduct the same definitive work on all of the mammals of North America.
This work, ostentatiously entitled "The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America", was conducted in the last years of Audubonís life, from 1842 through 1846. His compatriot in this collaboration was the Reverend John Bachman, a figure also known well to todayís birders. (The word "viviparous", meaning giving birth to live young, not eggs, was eventually dropped from the title by his son, J. W. Audubon.)
In 1831, Audubon met Reverend Bachman, a pastor of the Lutheran Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. A thorough scholar, Bachman was intellectually and emotionally involved with the study of natural history. Bachman was an amateur in natural history, but was accepted as a reputable colleague by naturalists in both America and England.
Audubon set out on a steamboat trip up the Missouri River in 1843. The purpose of the trip was to gather material for the Quadrupeds (four-legged) work. Audubon, now 58 years old, was quite physically challenged by this trip, which would be his last field trip. Although the expedition fell disappointingly short of scientific data, Audubon finally was able to visit the American West.
Audubon and Bachman described, what to them were, 56 new species to science. Truly, Bachman had been working with mammals before Audubon started his efforts, and it is Bachman who is properly credited with a majority of the new species. Over time, many of those species have lost favor to only subspecies status. However, they are still credited with the first type descriptions of five species (armadillo, red wolf, eastern small-footed myotis, hairy-tailed mole, and the harvest mouse).
By 1846 Audubonís eyesight was deteriorating to the point that about half of the illustrations for the Quadrupeds was actually done by his son, John Woodhouse Audubon. Instead of the watercolors used in Birds of America, he used techniques of watercolor combined with pastels, pencil and oils in order to obtain the subtle colors and textures of the animals.
Originally published in three 28" x 22" Imperial Size volumes, the complete set cost $300 when released in 1846. Three years after Audubonís death in 1851, a quarto edition came out in 1854 (measuring 7" x 10 ľ") under John Woodhouse Audubon and the Rev. John Bachman, and published by Audubonís other son, Victor Gifford Audubon.
A reading of this publication is today noteworthy, not so much for itsí scientific content, but rather for a revealing look at the frontier lifestyle Audubon lived in during his adventures in pursuit of these mammals (certainly not unlike his birding expeditions). His are stories that reflect the state of the wilderness west of St. Louis during his time, and the rigorous onslaught of nature that so dominated both the lifestyles and ideologies of the mid-nineteenth century American. To read the antidotal stories of his contemporaries as they related their experiences to Audubon is to gage a frontier society that lived by their hunting abilities and whose next meal was determined by what he could next kill.
Audubon was not unaware of this onslaught of Americaís wilderness. In support of the short-tailed weaselís propensity to kill, he states the following;
Let us not too hastily condemn the little ermine of its bloodthirsty propensities. It possesses well-developed canine teeth, and obeys an instinct of nature. Man, with organs not so decidedly carnivorous, and possessed of the restraining powers of reason and conscience, often commits a wanton havoc on the inferior animals, not so much from want of food, as from a mere love of sport. The buffalo and the elk he has driven across the Mississippi, and their haunts are now restricted to the prairies of the Far West. Even now thousands are slaughtered for amusement, and their tongues only are used, whilst their carcasses are left to the wolves. He fills his game bag with more woodcock, partridges and snipe, than he requires; his fishing-rod does not remain idle even after he has provided a full meal for his whole family; and our youngsters are taught to shoot the little warbler and the sparrow as a preparatory training for the destruction of larger game."
Imagery of life during Audubonís time includes the following visit to New Orleans:
During the winter season the city of New-Orleans is thronged by natives of almost every land, and the Levee presents a scene so unlike anything American, that as we walk along its smooth surface we may imagine ourselves in some twenty different countries, as our eyes fall upon many a strange costume, whose wearer has come from afar, and is, like ourselves, perchance, intent on seeing the curiosities of this Salmagundi city. Here a Spanish gentleman from Cuba, or a Mexican, next a pirate or thief, perhaps, from the same countries; all Europe is here represented, and the languages of many parts of the world can be heard whilst walking even half a mile; the descendants of Africa are here metamorphosed into French folks, and the gay bandanna that turbans the heads of the coloured women, is always adjusted with good taste, and it their favourite head-dress.
But the most interesting figures are the few straggling Chactaw and Chickasaw Indians, who bring a variety of game to the markets, and in their blankets, red flannel leggings, moccasins and bead finery, form a sort of dirty picturesque feature in the motley scene, and generally attract the artist's eye: many of these Indians have well formed legs and bodies, and their half-covered shoulders display a strength and symmetry indicating almost a perfect development of the manly form-their sinews and muscles being as large as is compatible with activity and grace.
Audubon also demonstrates the extent of lawlessness that still pervaded the frontier culture, as illustrated here;
To give a better idea of the effects of hunger on man, at time, in these wild and desert countries, we will relate a case that happened to Dr. Richardson while upon an expedition. One of his men, a half-breed and a bad fellow, it was discovered, had killed a companion with whom he had been sent upon a short journey in the woods for intelligence, and had eaten a considerable portion of his miserable victim.
Dr. Richardson, watching this monster from hour to hour, perceived that he was evidently preparing and awaiting an opportunity to kill him, possibly dreading the punishment he deserved for his horrible crime, and perhaps thinking the doctor's body would supply him with food till he could reach the settlements and escape; - anticipating his purpose, the doctor very properly shot him.
Throughout Audubonís work, much is made of how the Indians or frontiersmen hunt a particular species, and how it is utilized for food and clothing. Additionally, it is great fun to read about the success or failure of the frontiersmen in domesticating the wild mammals, whether for food or pets. But more than anything else, the reader has the opportunity to see how closely Audubonís generation still lived among nature, with his literal survival contingent on his hunting skills.
These, and many other ingredients flavor Audubonís work. Allow me to provide some excerpts from his entries that exhibit the range of content in this surprisingly engaging book.
Wood-Chuck. Maryland Marmot. Ground-Hog
Regarding a house-captive groundhog, as related by Daniel Wadsworth;
"During several nights it attempted to escape by gnawing the door and window-sills; gradually it became more quiet, and suffered itself to be approached by the inmates of the kitchen, these being the cook, a fine dog, and a cat; so that ere many months had elapsed, it would lie on the floor near the fire, in company with the dog, and would take food from the hand of the cook. I now began to take a particular interest in its welfare, and had a large box made for its use, and filled with hay, to which it became habituated, and always retired when inclined to repose. Winter coming on, the box was placed in a warm corner, and the Wood-Chuck went into it, arranged its bed with care, and became torpid. Some six weeks having passed without its appearing, or having received any food; I had it taken out of the box, and brought it into the parlour; - it was inanimate. I laid it close to the fire, and having ordered my dog to lie down by it, placed the Wood-Chuck in the dog's lap. In about half an hour, my pet slowly unrolled itself, raised it's nose from the carpet, looked around for a few minutes, and then slowly crawled away from the dog, moving about the room as if in search of its own bed. I took it up, and had it carried down stairs and placed again in its box, where it went to sleep, as soundly as ever, until spring made its appearance. The succeeding winter this animal evinced the same dispositions, and never appeared to suffer by its long sleep. An accident deprived me of my pet, for having been trodden on, it gradually became poor, refused food, and finally died extremely emaciated."
Regarding a particularly adept fox at losing the hounds at the top of a specific hill, the eminent lawyer, Benjamin Yancey concealed himself near the declivity in order to discover his mode of baffling the dogs;
"The animal was accordingly put up and chased, and at first led the hounds through many bayous and ponds in the woods, but at length came running over the brow of the hill along the path, stopped suddenly and spread himself out flat and motionless on the ground; the hounds came down the hill in pursuit at a dashing pace, and the whole pack passed and did not stop until they were at the bottom of the hill. As soon as the immediate danger was over, the Fox casting a furtive glance around him, stared up, and ran off at his greatest speed on his back track".
(In Audubon's account on red fox, a similar anecdotal story is presented with the red fox hiding over a bluff under some concealing branches until the hounds had passed, thus affording the red fox the opportunity to escape along it's former path.)
Known to us today as the Eastern cottontail, the following tells of how Audubon caught his samples:
"Whilst residing in the State of New-York many years ago, we were desirous of preserving a number of rabbits during the winter from the excessive cold and from the hands of the hunters, who killed so many that we feared the race would be nearly extirpated in our neighbourhood; our desiring being to set them at liberty in the spring. At this period we had in confinement several weasels of two species existing in that part of the country (long-tailed and short-tailed), in order to ascertain in what manner their change of colour from brown in summer to white in winter and vice versa, was effected.
We bethought ourselves of using one of each species of these weasels instead of a ferret, to aid in taking the rabbits we wanted, and having provided ourselves with a man and a dog to hunt the rabbits to their holes, we took the weasels in a small tin box with us, having first tied a small cord around their necks in such a manner as to prevent them from escaping, or remaining in the holes to eat the rabbits, whilst it could not slip and choke them.
We soon raced a rabbit to its hole, and our first experiment was made with the little brown weasel (short-tailed); it appeared to be frightened, and refused to enter the hole; the common species (long-tailed) although we had captured the individual but a few days before, entered readily; but having its jaws at liberty, it killed the rabbit. Relinquishing the weasel to our man, he afterwards filed its teeth down to prevent it from destroying the rabbits; and when thus rendered harmless, the ermine pursued the rabbits to the bottom of their holes, and terrified them so that they instantly fled to the entrance and were taken by hand. In this manner the man procured twelve rabbits alive in the course of one morning, and more than fifty in about three weeks, when we requested him to desist."
Relaying an experience "not many miles from Philadelphia, where we occasionally strayed into a meadow containing here and there immense oak and beech trees;"
"During the half hour before sunset nature seemed to be in a state of silence and repose. The birds had retired to the shelter of the forest. The night-hawk had already commenced his low evening flight, and here and there the common red bat was on the wing; still for some time not a Flying-Squirrel made its appearance. Suddenly, however, one emerged from its hole and ran up to the top of a tree; another soon followed, and ere long dozens came forth, and commenced their graceful flights from some upper branch to a lower bough. At times one would be seen darting from the topmost branches of a tall oak, and with wide-extended membranes and outspread tail gliding diagonally through the air, till it reached the foot a tree about fifty yards off, when at the moment we expected to see it strike the earth, it suddenly turned upwards and alighted on the body of the tree. It would then run to the top and once more precipitate itself from the upper branches, and sail back again to the tree it had just left. Crowds of these little creatures joined in these sportive gambols; there could not have been less than two hundred. Scores of them would leave each tree at the same moment, and cross each other, gliding like spirits through the air, seeming to have no other object in view than to indulge a playful propensity."
Audubon tells of a porcupine he kept for six months in Charleston, SC;
"It was occasionally let out of its cage to enjoy the benefit of a promenade in the garden. It had become very gentle, and evinced no spiteful propensities; when we called to it, holding in our hand a tempting sweet-potatoe or an apple, it would turn its head slowly toward us, and give us a mild and wistful look, and then with stately steps advance and take the fruit from our hand. It then assumed an upright position, and conveyed the potatoe or apple to its mouth with its paws. If it found the door of our study open it would march in, and gently approach us, rubbing its sides against our legs, and looking up at us as if supplicating for additional delicacies. We frequently plagued it in order to try its temper, but it never evinced any spirit of resentment by raising its bristles at us; but no sooner did a dog make his appearance than in a moment it was armed at all points in defence."
Numerous stories of buffalo hunts are offered. Recollections of their former range and abundance are melancholically produced. Audubon relates his experiences of seeing buffalo trying to cross frozen rivers, only to see them break through the ice and, in panic, desperately flail in the water before perishing. One account of Indians on board a steamship traveling up the Missouri River tells of the natives desire to eat the floating putrid carcasses of buffalo; a ritual to preserve their lives. Hunting techniques and uses of the buffalo by the native Indians are also detailed.
Perhaps the most interesting is an account of Robert Wickliffe of Kentucky, who provides Audubon his experience breeding buffalo with domestic cattle.
"The herd of buffalo I now possess have descended from one or two cows (female buffalo) that I purchased from a man who brought them from the country called the Upper Missouri; I have had them for about thirty years, but from giving them away and the occasional killing of them by mischievous person, as well as other causes, my whole stock at this time does not exceed ten or twelve. I have sometimes confined them in separate parks from other cattle, but generally they herd and feed with my stock of farm cattle. They graze in company with them as gently as the others. The buffalo cows, I think, go with young about the same time the common cow does, and produce once a year; none of mine have ever had more than one at a birth. The approach of the sexes is similar to that of the common bull and cow under similar circumstances at all times when the cow is in heat, a period which seems, as with the common cow, confined neither to day, nor night, nor any particular season, and the cows bring forth their young of course at different times and seasons of the year, the same as our domesticated cattle. I do not find my buffaloes more furious or wild than the common cattle of the same age that graze with them.
Although the buffalo, like the domestic cow, brings forth its young at different seasons of the year, this I attribute to the effect of domestication, as it is different with all animals in a state of nature. I have always heard their time for calving in our latitude was from March until July, and it is very obviously the season which nature assigns for the increase of both races, as most of my calves were from the buffaloes and common cows at this time. On getting possession of the tame buffalo, I endeavoured to cross them as much as I could with my common cows, to which experiment I found the tame or common bull (cow) unwilling to accede, and he was always shy of a buffalo cow, but the buffalo bull was willing to breed with the common cow.
The full blood is not as large as the improved stock, but as large as the ordinary cattle of the country. The crossed or half blood are larger than either the buffalo or common cow. The udder of bag of the buffalo is smaller that that of the common cow, but I have allowed the calves of both to run with their dams (mothers) upon the same pasture, and those of the buffalo were always the fattest; and old hunters have told me, that when a young buffalo calf is taken, it requires the milk of two common cows to raise it. The bag of udder of the half breed is larger than that of full blooded animals, and they would, I have no doubt, make good milkers.
The domesticated buffalo still retains the grunt of the wild animal, and is incapable of making any other noise.
The buffalo has a much deeper shoulder than the tame ox, but is lighter behind. He walks more actively than the latter, and I think has more strength than a common ox of the same weight. I have broke them to the yoke, and found them capable of making excellent oxen; and for drawing wagons, carts or other heavily laden vehicles on long journeys, they would, I think, be greatly preferable to the common ox.
The mixed breeds are of various colours; I have had them striped with black, on a gray ground like the zebra, some of them brindled red, some pure red with white faces, and others red without any marking of white.
I was informed that at the first settlement of the country, cows that were considered the best for milking were from the half blood, down to the quarter, and even eighth of the buffalo blood. But my experiments have not satisfied me that the half buffalo bull will produce again. That the half breed heifer will be productive from either race, as I have before stated, I have tested beyond the possibility of a doubt."
Common American Deer
While much information is presented on the habits and hunting (and eating) of deer, the one comment that caught my attention was the custom of many of the Indian tribes of eating the contents of the stomach without benefit of cooking or any other preparations. Noting that "Hunger and hardships seldom fail to give a zest to the appetite," Audubon reveals that "As we have never been subjected to the necessity of testing the virtues of this primitive chowder, we are unable to pronounce it a delicacy, and must leave the decision of those who may be disposed to make the experiment."
Red Texan Wolf
Audubon describes black, white and gray wolves, along with the red wolf, as residents of Texas; all separate species. Here are a few choice comments:
"The habits of this variety are nearly similar to those of the black and the white wolf which we have already described, differing somewhat, owing to local causes, but showing the same sneaking, cowardly, yet ferocious disposition.
It is said that when visiting battle-fields in Mexico, the wolves preferred the slain Texans or Americans, to the Mexicans, and only ate the bodies of the latter from necessity, as owing to the quantity of pepper used by the Mexicans in their food. Not vouching for this story, however, the fact is well known that these animals follow the movements of armies, or at least are always at hand to prey upon the slain before their comrades can give them a soldier's burial, or even after that mournful rite.
No corpse of wounded straggler from his troop, or of unfortunate traveler, butchered by Camanches, is ever neglected by the prowling wolf.And a story by a Texas Ranger named Powell;
I was out on a survey about 15 miles west of Austin, in a range that we didn't care about shooting in any more than we could help, for the Camanches were all over the country; and having killed deer in the morning, I took the ribs off one side and wrapping them in a piece of the skin, tied it to my saddle and carried it all day, so as to have a supper at night without hunting for it; it was a dark, dismal day, and I was cold and hungry when I got to where I was to camp to wait for the rest of the party to come up next day; I made my fire, untied my precious parcel, for it was now dark, with two sticks put up my ribs to roast, and walked off to rub down and secure my horse, while they were cooking; but in the midst of my arrangements I heard a stick crack and as that in an Indian country means something, I turned and saw, to my amazement, for I thought no animal would go near the fire, a large red wolf actually stealing my ribs as they roasted; instinct made me draw a pistol and let drive at him; the smoke came in my face and I saw nothing but that my whole supper was gone. So not in the most philosophical manner I lay down, supperless, on my blanket; at daylight AI was up to look out for breakfast, and to my surprise, my half-cooked ribs lay within twenty feet of the fire, and the wolf about twenty yards off, dead; my ball having been as well aimed as if in broad daylight."
The Cougar - Panther
Another story from Mississippi;
"A cotton planter, one evening, while at tea, was startled by a tremendous outcry among his dogs, and ran out to quiet them, thinking some person, perhaps a neighbour, had called to see him. The dogs could not be driven back, but rushed into the house; he seized his horsewhip, which hung inside the hall door, and whipped them all out, as he thought, except one, which ran under the table. He then took a candle and looking down, to his surprise and alarm discovered the supposed refractory dog to be a cougar. He retreated instanter, the females and children of his family fled frightened half out their senses. The cougar sprang at him, he parried the blow with the candlestick, but the animal flew at him again, leaping forward perpendicularly, striking at his face with the fore-feet, and at his body with the hind-feet. These attacks he repelled by dealing the cougar straight-forward blows on its belly with his fist, lightly turning aside and evading its claws, as he best could. The cougar had nearly overpowered him, when luckily he backed toward the fire-place, and as the animal sprang again at him, dodged him, and the panther almost fell into the fire; at which he was so terrified that he endeavoured to escape, and darting out of the door was immediately attacked again by the dogs, and with their help and a club was killed."
American Black BearCaptain J P McCown furnishes the following remarks;
"In the mountains of Tennessee the bear lives principally upon mast and fruits. It is also found of a bee-tree, and is often found seeking even a waspís or yellow-jacketís nest. In the autumn the bear is hunted when lopping for chestnuts. Lopping consists in breaking off the branches by the bear to procure the mast before it falls. When pursued by the dogs the bear sometimes backs up against a tree, when it exhibits decided skill as a boxer, all the time looking exceedingly good-natured; but woe to the poor dog that ventures within its reach!
The dogs generally employed for pursuing the bear are curs and fice, as dogs of courage are usually killed or badly injured, while the cur will attack the bear from behind, and run when he turns upon him. No number of dogs can kill a bear unless assisted by man.
In 1841, the soldier of my regiment had a pet he-bear (castrated) that was exceedingly gentle and playful with the men. It becoming necessary to sell or kill it, one of the soldiers led it down the street of Buffalo and exposed it for sale. Of course it attracted a large crowd, and was bid for on sides on account of its gentleness. But unfortunately, the bruin was carried near a hogshead of sugar, and not disposed to lose so tempting a repast, quietly upset it, knocking out the head, and commenced helping himself in spite of the soldierís efforts to prevent the depredation. The owner of the sugar rushed out and kicked the bear, which, not liking such treatment, gave in return for the assault made upon him, a blow that sent his assailant far into the street, to the terror of the crowd, which scattered, leaving him to satisfy his appetite for sugar unmolested."
And, one final entry, by Audubon regarding a bear hunt in Louisiana;
The night was none of the most favourable, a drizzingly rain rendering the atmosphere thick and rather sultry; but as we were well acquainted with the course, we soon reached the house, where the owner was waiting our arrival. There were now three of us armed with guns, half a dozen servants, and a good pack of dogs of all kinds. We jogged on toward the detached field in which the bears were at work. The owner told us that for some days several of these animals had visited his corn, and that a negro who was sent every afternoon to see at what part of the enclosure they entered, had assured him there were at least five in the field that night. A plan of attack was formed; the bars at the usual entrance of the field were to be put down without noise; the men and dogs were to divide, and afterwards proceed so as to surround the bears, when, at the sounding of our horns, every one was to charge towards the center of the field, and shout as loudly as possible, which it was judged would so intimidate the animals as to induce them to seek refuge upon the dead trees with which the field was still partially covered.
The plan succeeded; the horns sounded, the horses galloped forward, the men shouted, the dogs barked and howled. The shrieks of the negroes were enough to frighten a legion of bears, and by the time we reached the middle of the field we found that several had mounted the trees, and having lighted fires, we now saw them crouched at the junction of the larger branches with the trunks. Two were immediately shot down. They were cubs of no great size, and being already half dead, were quickly dispatched by the dogs.
We were anxious to procure as much sport as possible, and having observed one of the bears, which from its size we conjectured to be the mother of the two cubs just killed, we ordered the negroes to cut down the tree on which it was perched, when it was intended the dogs should have a tug with it, while we should support them, and assist in preventing the bear from escaping, by wounding it in one of the hind-legs. The surrounding woods now echoed to the blows of the axemen. The tree was large and tough, having been girdled more than two years, and the operation of felling it seemed extremely tedious. However, at length it began to vibrate at each stroke; a few inches along now supported it, and in a short time it came crashing to the ground.
The dogs rushed to the charge, and harassed the bear on all sides, whilst we surrounded the poor animal. As its life depended upon its courage and strength, it exercised both in the most energetic manner. Now and then it seized a dog and killed him by a single stroke. At another time, a well administered blow of one of its fore-legs sent an assailant off, yelping so piteously that he might be looked upon as Ďhors du combatí. A cur had daringly ventured to seize the ear and the snout, and was seen hanging to it, covered with blood, whilst several others scrambled over its back. Now and then the infuriated animal was seen to cast a revengeful glance at some of the p arty, and we had already determined to dispatch it, when, to our astonishment, it suddenly shook off all the dogs, and before we could fire, charged upon one of the negroes, who was mounted on a pied horse. The bear seized the steed with teeth and claws, and clung to its breast. The terrified horse snorted and plunged. The rider, an athletic young man and a capital horseman, kept his seat, although only saddled on a sheep-skin tightly girthed, and requested his master not to fire at the bear. Notwithstanding his coolness and courage, our anxiety for his safety was raised to the highest pitch, especially when in a moment we saw rider and horse come to the ground together; but we were instantly relieved on witnessing the masterly manner in which Mr. Scipio dispatched his adversary, by laying open his skull with a single well directed blow of his axe, when a deep growl announced the death of the bear.