Alexander Wilson was born in Paisley, Scotland on 6 July 1766. He was apprenticed as a weaver with his brother-in-law in 1779, after which he went to work weaving for various relatives, although his main interests soon became writing poetry and walking in the countryside. It was a time of political unrest and social upheaval in America and Europe, and Wilson used his poetry to comment on what he saw as the unfair treatment of the weavers by their employers.
The subjects of several of his poems were judged to be inflamatory and libelous, and he got in trouble with the law more than once. He probably spent much time writing instead of weaving, and as a result lived in poverty and was forced to borrow money at times to pay court costs and other expenses. Thus, in May 1794, at the age of 27, Wilson and his 16 year old nephew left for a better life in America. They settled near Philadelphia, and he taught school at Milestown. He met William Bartram, who got him interested in birds. In 1802 he decided to publish a book illustrating all the North American birds. He traveled widely, observing and painting birds, and gathering subscribers for the book. His nine-volume work, American Ornithology published in 1808-1814, illustrated 268 species, including descriptions of 26 new species. He also conducted the first breeding bird census, in Bartram’s garden, corrected earlier errors of taxonomy, and published many observations of natural history. His 1810 meeting with Audubon probably inspired Audubon to pubish his own book on birds, and he also influenced many later artists and ornithologists. He died in 1813.
For further biographical information on Alexander Wilson see:
Edward H. Burtt, Jr. and Alan P. Peterson, “Alexander Wilson and the Founding of North American Ornithology,” Chapter 14, pp. 359-386 InWilliam E. Davis, Jr. & Jerome A. Jackson, Eds., 1995, Contributions to the History of North American Ornithology, Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, No. 12, Cambridge, MA.
Clark Hunter, Ed. “The Life and Letters of Alexander Wilson,” 1983. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Vol 154. Philadelphia, PA. 456 pp.
Robert Cantwell. “Alexander Wilson, Naturalist and Pioneer,” 1961. J. B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia. 319 pp.
Portrait of Wilson Portrait attributed to Thomas Sully, courtesy of the American Philosophial Society, Philadelphia.
Burial place of Wilson, Old Swedes Church, Philadelphia, PA. From “The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson, Vol. I-Prose,” by Rev. A. Grosart. 1876. Alex. Gardner, Paisley.