National Audubon Society squirms against truth that J.J. Audubon bought & sold slaves, robbed graves, shot birds with no thought of conservation, & was a scientific fraud
NEW YORK CITY––The National Audubon Society board of directors on March 15, 2023 voted to retain the Audubon name, but the vote scarcely ends nearly two years of growing discomfort within the organization about the association it brings with 19th century naturalist and bird illustrator John James Audubon––who also happened to be a slaveholder, slave trader, robber of Native American graves, prolific bird shooter, and scientific fraud.
“Stephen Tan, a vice chair of Audubon’s board, and two other board members — Sara Fuentes and Erin Giese — resigned over the decision,” reported Robin Bravender of Politico, citing “a person who was informed about the resignations and was granted anonymity to discuss personnel moves that haven’t been publicly announced.”
“Organization transcends one person’s name”
National Audubon Society chief executive Elizabeth Gray told media that the board “decided that the organization transcends one person’s name,” adding that the name Audubon had “come to symbolize our mission and significant achievements that this organization has made in its long history.”
Elaborated the National Audubon Society in a media release, “The board’s naming decision follows a robust and inclusive evaluation process, which spanned more than 12 months and included input from more than 2,300 people from across the National Audubon Society network and beyond, with a focus on reaching people of color and younger people.
“$25 million commitment”
“The National Audubon Society also commissioned historical research that examined John James Audubon’s life, views, and how they did—and did not—reflect his time.”
The National Audubon Society also “announced a new $25 million commitment to fund the expansion of equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging specific work in both internal and conservation initiatives over the next five years.”
Significantly, the National Audubon Society did not pretend to have been named after anyone other than John James Audubon.
George Bird Grinnell
According to Portland Audubon, of Portland, Oregon, whose board on March 11, 2023 elected to drop the Audubon name as soon as an alternative name can be agreed upon, “One of the founders of the first Audubon Society, George Bird Grinnell, decided to use the name Audubon based on his time being tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James Audubon’s widow.
“Grinnell valued Audubon’s stature and noted contributions to the understanding of avian natural history,” Portland Audubon said, “most famously through his book The Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size bird prints. That name stuck as the Audubon chapters around the country began to emerge.”
Portland Audubon recently named Stuart Wells, an African-American, to succeed Bob Sallinger as executive director.
Other Audubon societies also changing names
Seattle Audubon announced in July 2022 that it will change names to lose identification with John James Audubon. Though Seattle Audubon also has yet to select a new name, executive director Claire Catania affirmed on March 15, 2023 that it still intends to.
The New York Audubon Society on March 22, 2023 announced that it will also change names soon.
Several other regional Audubon affiliates have announced plans to change names, perhaps most notably the Madison Audubon Society in Wisconsin.
Several others have made plain their discomfort with continuing to use the Audubon name, including the [John] Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City and the Massachusetts Audubon Society, founded by Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway in 1896.
Harriet Hemenway’s father was Amos Lawrence, remembered on the Massachusetts Audubon Society web page as “an ardent ‘Free-Soiler’ who used his fortune to relocate abolitionists to Kansas to swing the vote to have the then-territory enter the Union as a free state.”
Broke tradition of denial
The National Audubon Society has long openly wrestled with the conflict between the name recognition it has enjoyed for more than a century and a quarter and the actual John James Audubon legacy.
For most of that time, the National Audubon Society dealt with that legacy through mythologizing and denial, as did John James Audubon’s widow Lucy and their direct descendants.
Audubon Magazine writer Gregory Nobles on July 31, 2020 broke with the Audubon tradition.
“Man of his time?”
Opened Nobles, “’He was a man of his time,’ so the argument goes. That’s never been a good argument, even about Audubon’s time.
“Many men and women,” Nobles reminded, “took a strong and outspoken stand for the abolition of slavery.”
In fact, the majority did. Eighteen of the 33 U.S. states at Audubon’s death in 1851 had abolished slavery, and had among them sixteen million of the total U.S. human population of 23 million, slaves included, according to the 1850 U.S. Census.
Of the seven million Americans living in states that allowed slavery, about 2.3 million were themselves slaves. Only about 20% of the 4.7 million white Americans living in states that allowed slavery actually owned slaves or lived in slave-holding households.
The 2.2 million Americans who voted for the abolitionist Abraham Lincoln in 1864 actually outnumbered slaveholders by more than two-to-one.
Audubon, however, “dismissed the abolitionist movement on both sides of the Atlantic,” Nobles observed. “In 1834, he wrote to his wife, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, that the British government had ‘acted imprudently and too precipitously’ in emancipating enslaved people in its West Indian possessions.
Indeed, John James Audubon acquired––and sold––slaves at several different times in his life. His father, Jean Audubon, was a French naval officer turned “privateer,” a polite term for “pirate,” who left his wife in France to buy a sugarcane plantation in Haiti, resident slaves included.
Began as a bastard, then got worse
Jean Rabin, as John James Audubon was initially called, was born in Haiti to his father’s French mistress Jeanne Rabine. Already ill, she died of disease soon afterward, leaving her son to be raised among several children of his father’s African-Haitian mistress, Catherine “Sanitte’ Bouffard.
From this beginning came the rumor that John James Audubon himself was of part African descent, a rumor he and his descendants struggled all their lives to deny.
John James Audubon’s father sold part of his Haitian property and fled in 1789, from fear of slave revolts, then sold the rest several years later to help John James Audubon himself to start a lead-mining venture in Pennsylvania.
Sold slaves literally “down the river”
The lead mine failed, but John James Audubon married Lucy Bakewell while in Pennsylvania and moved with her to Henderson, Kentucky. There the Audubons kept nine slaves, selling most of them in 1819.
John James Audubon took the last two men with him to New Orleans, selling them literally “down the river,” meaning into harsher treatment, to finance his next adventure.
“The Audubons then acquired several more enslaved people during the 1820s,” wrote Nobles, “but sold them in 1830, when they moved to England, where Audubon was overseeing the production of what he called his ‘Great Work,’ The Birds of America, the massive, four-volume compendium of avian art that made him famous.”
“Never accepted” people of color as equal
Continued Nobles, “Although never fully acknowledged, people of color—African Americans and Native Americans—had a part in making that massive project possible. Audubon occasionally relied on these local observers for assistance in collecting specimens, and he sometimes accepted their information about birds and incorporated it into his writings.
“But even though Audubon found Black and Indigenous people scientifically useful, he never accepted them as socially or racially equal. He took pains to distinguish himself from them. In writing about an expedition in Florida in December 1831, Audubon noted that he set out in a boat with six enslaved Black men—’hands,’ as he called them—and ‘three white men,’ his emphasis clearly underscoring the racial divide in the boat and his place on the white side of it.”
Returned fugitives to slavery
Perhaps the most offensive instance of John James Audubon’s racism appears in “The Runaway,” a story Audubon included in his five-volume Ornithological Biography, published in 1834.
In “The Runaway,” Audubon while shooting wood storks in a Louisiana swamp encounters a runaway slave.
“Published three years after Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831,” wrote Nobles, “’The Runaway’ presented the most menacing image imaginable for many white people—the sudden specter of an armed Black man. Audubon knew how to get people’s attention.
“The man and his family had escaped slavery and were living in the swamp, and as the tale unfolds, Audubon spent the night at the family’s encampment—companionably but also ‘quite at their mercy.’
“It was the fugitives, however, who were really most vulnerable. The next morning, Audubon took them back to ‘the plantation of their first master’ and convinced the planter to buy the enslaved people back from the masters to which the family had been divided and sold. Reunited but still enslaved, the Black family was ‘rendered as happy as slaves generally are in that country.’”
Story of murdered “Spanish” mother
Later, Nobles summarized, John James Audubon “In an essay written for his sons, described his birth mother as a lovely and wealthy ‘lady of Spanish extraction’ from Louisiana, who went back to Saint-Domingue [Haiti] with Audubon’s father and became ‘one of the victims during the ever-to-be-lamented period of Negro insurrection on that island.’
“Neither part is true,” Nobles clarified, but “Having a European mother killed by Black rebels reinforced a white identity.”
Racism, though, was only part of the John James Audubon legacy.
Peter Matthiessen in 1959 rebutted the then popularly accepted version of Audubon’s much sanitized biography in Wildlife In America, a landmark critique of U.S. wildlife conservation which eventually helped to win passage of the Endangered Species Act.
“In 1785, the second year of a new America,” wrote Matthiessen, “there was born in Haiti a bastard child called Jean Rabin.
“Rabin became, successively, Jean Jacques Fougere, Jean Jacques Laforest Audubon, and John James Audubon.
Dodged creditors across continent
“Dodging creditors from the Caribbean to the western frontier, Audubon noted the increasing rarity of many of the birds he shot and painted, but also boasted of killing seven whooping cranes with one shotgun blast.
“Scarcely a scientist, Audubon jeered at the theory of evolution, as presciently outlined by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz some 26 years before Charles Darwin published the essay which a year later became the book The Origin Of Species.
“Far from promoting conservation,” Matthiessen noted, “A consequence of a flourishing public interest in private bird collections and oology (the study of eggs), inspired in great measure by Audubon, was the quest of birds’ nests by schoolboys. Often as not, the oology of the latter was devoted to the simple destruction of eggs, and where circumstances permitted, the adult birds into the bargain.”
Yale University history professor Ann Fabian has further debunked the John James Audubon mythology by pointing out that Audubon was a grave robber.
“Like many naturalists of his generation,” wrote Fabian in 2020, “he raided burials or picked up human skulls he found,” a total of at least ten in incidents described by Fabian.
“He then sent them to Dr. Samuel George Morton,” Fabian recounted, “the Philadelphia craniologist we remember as the father of ‘scientific racism,’ the idea that cranial capacity mirrored racial hierarchy.”
“Bird of Washington”
John James Audubon sought scientific credentials by applying for membership in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1824, but his application was rejected, “around the same time,” Wikipedia mentions, that “accusations of scientific misconduct were levied by Alexander Lawson and others.”
Lawson was Audubon’s original engraver.
“Among the earliest plates printed,” Wikipedia explains, “was the ‘Bird of Washington,’” a variety of eagle, “which generated favorable publicity for Audubon as his first discovery of a new species. However, no specimen of the species has ever been found, and research published in 2020 suggests that this plate was a mixture of plagiarism and ornithological fraud.
“The success of Birds of America may be considered to be marred by numerous accusations of plagiarism, scientific fraud, and deliberate manipulation of the primary record,” Wikipedia continues. “Research has uncovered that Audubon falsified (and fabricated) scientific data, published fraudulent data and images in scientific journals and commercial books, invented new species to impress potential subscribers, and to “prank” rivals, and most likely stole the holotype specimen of Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus harrisi) before pretending not to know its collector, who was one of his subscribers. He failed to credit work by Joseph Mason, prompting a series of articles in 1835 by critic John Neal questioning Audubon’s honesty and trustworthiness.”
Founding of National Audubon Society
Fifty-four years after John James Audubon died, and 18 years after cofounding the Boone & Crocket Club with Theodore Roosevelt to regulate trophy hunting, George Bird Grinnell in 1905 started the National Audubon Society to do the same for birding.
Birding, then and until Roger Tory Peterson popularized nonlethal sighting verification with a camera in the 1930s, was done mainly with shotguns.
Support from non-hunters
Unlike the Boone & Crocket Club, the National Audubon Society has managed to attract substantial support over the years from nonhunters.
Yet it continues to front for hunting, in the name of conservation, much like the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, and African Wildlife Fund.
Others than John James Audubon invented the philosophic rationale behind killing wild animals in order to save their species, as opposed to merely killing wild animals to eat, in defense of livestock, and for bloody recreation.
Nonetheless, the name Audubon is associated perhaps more than any other with the early 20th century success of hunters in establishing “hunter/conservationism” as the prevailing philosophy of wildlife management.