Audubon: On Birds and Slaves

audubon on birds and slaves

The great blue heron twisted its neck down to reach the water, even as its beady eye stared straight at me. The look was not friendly. Its thin scissor-like beak was long enough to spear my gut.

I stared back at the bird, captured on the page of an elephant-sized book by John James Audubon. The book and its author are icons of the conservation movement. Walking through the art gallery, I browsed some twenty prints from the magnificent Birds of America.

Audubon is a staple of conservation chats around the campfire. He is the founder of modern ornithology and pioneered the methods still used for studying birds, such as banding and annual bird counts. Birds are an early indicator of wildlife and ecological health. Audubon and slavery. These two words rarely appear together in most conservation talks, websites and books. As a Black woman playing with birding, I am always looking for evidence that we too have a history in the outdoors. The search led to Audubon.

He fancied himself as the rock star of outdoor living. Audubon boasts of his tight pants, silk shirts and his curls flowing in the wind as he charged away on his horse. He, and women, loved his muscles of steel. Men admired his sharp-shooting and hunting skills. Some probably liked his muscled chest too.

Audubon was a gifted painter, writer and fabulist. He created and massaged his image as an American man of the backwoods. On publicity tours he wore buckskin pants, loose, and fur-trimmed leather jackets. The truth was twisted and spun, much like his birds, they to fit the page, his to enhance fame.

Let’s start with his birth in 1785. Audubon spent a lot of time insisting that he was white and American-born. He could never quite keep the story straight, or perhaps, others noticed his slight tan, even in the winter. Audubon was born in Haiti on his white father’s sugar plantation. The race and status of his mother is still debatable. The conflicting claims about her serves only to highlight the fact that it was not a black and white case.

The Haitian Revolution spun Audubon into the USA. He arrived with enough money to start his own business at Mill Grove. There, he owned nine enslaved people, buying and selling them as needed. In his autobiography Audubon called them his servants. They did the housework, farmed the vegetable garden, ran the mill and the shop, dug the fish pond, and rowed the boats ashore. The slave labour gave Audubon the freedom and the money to pursue his love of birds.

On his treks in the USA Audubon passed through many plantations. He noticed the birds and the plants, but not the enslaved people, except on one occasion. On a birding expedition Audubon slid into a fugitive man hunting in the Louisiana swamps. Guns cocked, the stand-off ended with the men sharing dinner in the bayou.

Over the small fire, the enslaved man told his story. He, his wife, and three children were sold to separate owners. The man feigned sickness for a few days, biding his time. He escaped. He tracked down his splintered family, and one by one reunited them in the swamp. Always, they were on guard for slave catchers. When food was low, they visited the plantations at night, knowing that the enslaved people there would feed them and keep their secret. The story then takes an improbably turn. Audubon says he persuaded the runaway family to return with him to their original owner. He persuaded the owner to rebuy the family and to promise never to sell them again.

The story is significant, as it highlights how enslaved people resisted the shackles. For some it was to flee into the woods, living a precarious life. For others, it was aiding the runaway, a symbol that freedom was indeed possible. The story also shows that slavery was such a common and accepted institution that it never occurred to Audubon to free the enslaved family.

The bird man visited Canada in 1833, as he wanted to paint every bird in North America. He succeed in capturing some 450 of them. It is an astonishing achievement. He insisted on paining life-sized images of the birds, hence the massive size of the deluxe folio edition of his books. His paintings are dynamic, showing the birds in movement, whether flying, hunting or swimming. There is an unsettling urgency to his prints. It feels as if he was rushing to capture creatures on the verge of extinction. If he could fix them in oil, colour, shadow and light, they would live.

Audubon knew the world was changing rapidly. The woods he hiked as a youth were replaced by roads and cities in his dotage. He noted that the government policy of destroying the buffalo was intended to decimate the Indigenous people. He saw their disappearance as the sad but inevitable price of civilization. Audubon died in 1851.

In 2011 Sotheby’s sold an original Audubon deluxe folio for $12 million. The man’s legacy increases with each year, there are many parks, school and centres named after him. Mill Grove, his original home is now a national historic site. I plan on visiting it one day. I want to see where the nine enslaved people work. Will there be a monument to mark their role in supporting Audubon’s talent, and the continuing wealth of those who own his original books and paintings?

Audubon white-washed himself throughout his life. The conservation movement does the same by ignoring the racial context in which he lived. Slavery built America. Conservation and environmental groups are still seen as white institutions with white agenda. A first step in changing this perception is putting race back into the conversations around the campfires.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London



  1. Good job on Audubon. I stumbled on your site while researching Audubon’s apparently still uncertain heritage. I’ve suspected that Audubon was really America’s greatest black artist. The tale that Audubon had an all white mother who died early and then he was raised by a mulatto servant always sounded made up. Unmarried white women were pretty rare in Haiti.
    RC Carlson Treasurer Tucson Audubon


    1. Hi Richard, You might want to check out: Ford, Alice. 1964. John James Audubon. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. She has an extensive list of sources in the back, so she’s done the research. The book is not always helpful in letting others follow that trail. Here are my notes relative to your post: Audubon’s father, Jean Audubon, while living in Les Cayes (Haiti), became friendly with fellow Frenchman Gabriel Bouffard, who had a number of quadroon daughters (p.5) with his long-term common-law wife Francoise, a mulatto (p.6); one of the daughters, Sanitte Bouffard, bore several children by Jean Audubon; another daughter, Rose (“the image of himself and a miracle of paleness” (p.20); Jean Audubon took pains to help her pass as white & she married a white Frenchman), was probably the namesake of one of these illegitimate children; other children of Audubon & Sanitte were: Marie-Madeleine (she died at age 16 on the island during the slave revolt in July 1792 (p.28). So, it seems that John James Audubon had half-siblings who were mixed race, and that is probably the origin of the persistent rumor you cite.


  2. Mill Grove was the property near Philadelphia, PA owned by Audubon’s father. I don’t believe there were any enslaved people there. Audubon later lived in Henderson, KY where he did own the slaves you described. When he went bankrupt all were sold to his brother-in-law. That happened in 1819. Audubon’s wife, Lucy, later reaquired Celia and her two sons when she was living as a tutor to children on a Louisiana plantation while Audubon was in England publishing his book. When Lucy went to England with Audubon she sold Celia and the boys to a friend in New Orleans. No trace of them afterwards.
    The story of the runaway is likely made up. Audubon did a lot of that. His “sympathetic” approach to enslaved people was likely a nod to his mostly British audience at the time.


    1. Hi. I’m doing some research on Audubon. Do you happen to know a primary source that provides any details about Celia? I haven’t come across her name before? Thank you and be well. – Steve Ryan


  3. Intriguing essay, insightful. I portray Audubon and I do talk about some of these issues. His father was also involved in the triangle of trade with a fleet of seven ships, including human trafficking. And I would affirm Robert Stagg’s comments, the enslaved people were probably in KY not PA. But I do think it important that we view history warts and all, not just acknowledging the contextual history but celebrating the contributions and sins of all involved. I am glad that you do not entirely disparage him because he did make many important contributions to ornithology. But in every performance I present, especially for older students and adults, I do lay out a fuller story of Audubon, his childhood in Haiti during the uprising and his father’s human trafficking.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Current article in the New London Day addresses this, THREE years after your blog here.

    We are always a day late and a dollar short, but at least this issue has made it to the mainstream and perhaps change will follow. I will be sending some suggestions to CT Audubon as encouraged in the newspaper article, but perhaps it would be more relevant to have suggestions from the Black Outdoors community. T

    hank you for writing this.


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