"There is a gray and black historical marker in Tom Lee Park in Memphis. According to the Tennessee Historical Commission it reads, “John James Audubon. On Friday, Dec. 1, 1820, this naturalist and artist landed nearby, on his way by flatboat from Cincinnati to New Orleans. He kept a diary and sketched animals and birds seen en route. Near here, he saw gulls, cormorants, “white-headed eagles,” grackles, purple finches, teal, parakeets, sandhill cranes, and numerous types of geese. These sketches helped form the basis for parts of his monumental book of engravings, Birds of America, published 1826-38.”
If only the rest of Audubon’s time in the Volunteer State could be so measured, so clear and concise, so documented. Truth is, America’s foremost painter of birds was prolific, a creative maelstrom, whose energies seemed as boundless as the aboriginal America he loved. The buckskin-clad, longhaired backwoodsman made thousands of sketches, drawings and paintings (he preferred watercolor) of the flora and fauna he found in his adopted homeland. He also wrote page after page in his journals about his travels, describing what he saw and where he saw it. But, his actual peregrinations in Tennessee are something of a mystery.
“Very little is known about Audubon’s time in Tennessee,” reports Alan Gehret, Museum Curator of the John James Audubon State Park and Museum in Henderson, Kentucky. He notes that there are gaps in the record because the original journals were burned by Audubon’s granddaughter, Maria Audubon. Gehret believes she may have simply edited down the sprawling journals for clarity when she prepared them for publishing in 1897, excising the less important, sprawling details, making sure that she included only the “energy and highlights so it would not be a boring ever day travelogue.” He notes that today, of course, we would be interested in those details. Or, he speculates, the editing may have been a matter of family privacy. Says Gehret, “There may have been some things she might not want the world to know about grandpa.” The burned journals, along with the fact that Audubon was never shy about reporting his exploits have led to some speculation, but scholars will probably never know the entire story.
The missing detail of the artist’s travels may have included a lot of what he did in the Volunteer State. “She conveniently threw them (the journals) into the fire and burned them.” To the Audubon scholar who has dedicated more than 20 years to the study of the museum’s namesake, it is most frustrating because he was such an accomplished raconteur."
What do we really know about John James Audubon's time in Tennessee? Turns out, the answer may surprise you. Check out the rest of article I wrote in the January/February issue of "The Tennessee Conservationist."
- Special thanks to editor Louise Zepp and for Karen Sue.