WILSON, ALEXANDER (1766–1813), American ornithologist, was born in Paisley, Scotland, on the 6th of July 1766. His father, a handloom weaver, soon removed to the country, and there combined weaving with agriculture, distilling and smuggling — conditions which no doubt helped to develop in the boy that love of rural pursuits and adventure which was to determine his career. At first he was placed with a tutor and destined for the church, but afterwards he was apprenticed as a weaver. Then he became a peddler and spent a year or two in travelling through Scotland, recording in his journal every matter of natural history or antiquarian interest. Having incurred a short imprisonment for lampooning the master-weavers in a trade dispute, he emigrated to America in 1794. After a few years of weaving, peddling and desultory observation, he became a village schoolmaster, and in 1802 obtained an appointment near Philadelphia, where he formed the acquaintance of William Bartram the naturalist. Under his influence Wilson began to draw birds, having conceived the idea of illustrating the ornithology of the United States; and thenceforward he steadily accumulated materials and made many expeditions. In 1806 he obtained the assistant-editorship of the American edition of Rees’s Encyclopaedia, and thus acquired more means and leisure for his great work, American Ornithology, the first volume of which appeared in the autumn of 1808, after which he spent the winter in a journey “in search of birds and subscribers.” By the spring of 1813 seven volumes had appeared; but the arduous expedition of that summer, in search of the marine waterfowl to which the remaining volume was to be devoted, gave a shock to his already impaired health, and he succumbed to dysentery at Philadelphia on the 23rd of August 1813.
Of his poems, not excepting the Foresters (Philadelphia, 1805), nothing need now be said, save that they no doubt served to develop his descriptive powers. The eighth and ninth volumes of the American Ornithology were edited after his decease by his friend George Ord, and the work was continued by Lucien Bonaparte (4 vols., Philadelphia, 1825–1833). The complete work was republished several times, and his Miscellaneous Prose Works and Poems was edited with a memoir by the Rev. A. B. Grosart (Paisley, 1876). A statue was erected to him at Paisley in 1876.