Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Alexander (1766-1813)
WILSON, ALEXANDER (1766–1813), ornithologist, the son of Alexander Wilson, a distiller, and afterwards weaver, of Paisley, was born in that town on 6 July 1766. He was educated for a short time at a school in Paisley, but, owing to his mother's death and his father's remarriage, had to be removed, and on 31 July 1779 was apprenticed for a term of three years to his eldest sister's husband, William Duncan, a weaver in Paisley. On the expiration of his apprenticeship in 1782 he continued weaving at Lochwinnoch and Paisley, but subsequently for nearly three years he travelled as a packman.
From a very early period he had evinced a strong desire for learning, and had developed a literary taste, especially for poetry. He had composed many poems himself, and unsuccessfully sought when travelling to obtain subscribers towards their publication. These verses were nevertheless issued, and went through two editions in 1790, reappearing in 1791, under the title of ‘Poems, humorous, satirical, and serious.’ His literary efforts being financially unsuccessful, he resumed weaving in Lochwinnoch, and afterwards in Paisley, but went to Edinburgh to take part in the debate held in the Pantheon by a society of literati called ‘The Forum’ on the question whether Allan Ramsay or Robert Fergusson had done more to honour Scottish poetry. In his poem, which was published with that on the same theme by Ebenezer Picken [q. v.] in 1791, under the title of ‘The Laurel disputed,’ Wilson gave preference to Ramsay, a verdict from which his audience dissented. Two other poems were composed and recited by him on this occasion. He also, after corresponding with Burns, paid a visit to that poet in Ayrshire. In 1792 his poem ‘Watty and Meg’ appeared anonymously, and was at first ascribed to Burns.
A little later, having written a piece of severe personal satire against an individual in Paisley, he was sentenced to burn it in public and imprisoned. After his release he left for the American colonies, sailing from Belfast on 23 May 1794, accompanied by his nephew, William Duncan. The ship being full, they obtained passage only by agreeing to sleep on deck. On his arrival, literally penniless, at Newcastle, Delaware, on 14 July, he shouldered his fowling-piece and walked to Philadelphia, shooting by the way his first American bird, a red-headed woodpecker. In Philadelphia he obtained employment with John Aitken, a copperplate printer, but afterwards took to weaving at Pennypack, and for a time in Virginia. In the autumn of 1795 he became a pedlar once more and travelled through New Jersey. On his return he opened a school near Frankford, Pennsylvania, whence he removed to Millerstown and taught in the schoolhouse of that village. Here he studied hard, principally at mathematics, and practised surveying. He next opened a school at Bloomfield, New Jersey, where he remained till early in 1802, when he received an appointment from the trustees of the Union school, close to Gray's Ferry, near Philadelphia. Here he made the acquaintance of William Bartram, the botanist and naturalist, who owned an extensive garden on the west bank of the Schuylkill, where Wilson was able to gratify to the full his love of nature. His friends, becoming anxious for his health, persuaded him to relinquish poetry for drawing, and he took lessons from the engraver, Alexander Lawson. Failing in his attempts at the human figure and at landscape-drawing, he was induced by Bartram to attempt the illustration of birds. In this he succeeded beyond his anticipation, and presently proposed the scheme of illustrating the ornithology of the United States, for which he at once began to collect materials.
In 1804, with two friends, he took a walking tour to Niagara, which inspired the poem of ‘The Foresters,’ published in the ‘Portfolio.’ In February 1806 he made an unsuccessful application to President Jefferson (with whom he had previously had correspondence on ornithological matters) for the post of naturalist to the expedition then fitting out to explore the valley of the Mississippi.
In April of the same year he was engaged at a liberal salary by the publisher, Samuel F. Bradford, to assist in editing the American edition of Rees's ‘Cyclopædia.’ This gave him the opportunity of proceeding with his cherished scheme—the risk of which was taken by Bradford—and in September 1808 the first volume of ‘The American Ornithology’ appeared, the original edition of two hundred copies being augmented to five hundred before a year had elapsed, while the second volume was issued in 1810. In order to carry on this work he made extensive journeys through the States, on one of which he descended the Ohio alone in an open skiff from Pittsburg to near Louisville. The hardships and exposure he had endured on these travels and his anxiety to complete the eighth volume brought on an attack of dysentery, from which he died at Philadelphia, after ten days' illness, on 23 Aug. 1813. He was buried in the cemetery of the old Swedish church in that city. Wilson was unmarried.
Wilson's portrait was painted by J. Craw; another portrait, which is anonymous, is in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Engravings by W. H. Lizars are prefixed to Jameson's and to Jardine's editions of Wilson's ‘American Ornithology.’
In March 1812 Wilson was elected a member of the Society of Artists of the United States, and the following year of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. With respect to his great work it has been pointed out that in his specific definitions he was loose and unsystematic, but that passages in his prefaces and descriptions are fine, and at the same time simple and natural. With perspective he was imperfectly acquainted, but his figures were superior to most of his day. Vol. viii. of the ‘American Ornithology’ was completed, and vol. ix. brought out under the editorship of George Ord in 1814. A second edition of vols. vii–ix., the last with a life of the author, was brought out by Ord in 1824–5, while a second American edition in three vols. appeared in 1828–9. Between 1825 and 1833 Prince Charles Lucien Jules Bonaparte published four volumes containing figures and descriptions completing Wilson's work. An edition of their united works in four volumes, edited by Robert Jameson [q. v.], was issued in 1831 (8vo, Edinburgh and London), and another edition, with notes by Sir William Jardine [q. v.], in three volumes, in 1832 (8vo, London). An octavo edition in one volume, edited by T. M. Brewer, was issued at Boston in 1840 and New York in 1852, other issues appearing in 1856 and 1865. The last edition of his ‘Poems’ seems to have been issued in 1816. ‘Watty and Meg’ went through several editions, but the last by the author appeared in the ‘Portfolio’ in 1810. Of his other poems ‘The Foresters’ (Paisley, 1825, 12mo), and ‘Rab and Ringan’ (Paisley, 1827, 16mo), were issued separately; the rest appeared in various journals (see Allibone), and of these the best known is ‘The Solitary Tutor,’ which was published in ‘Brown's Literary Magazine.’
[Memoir by William Maxwell Hetherington [q. v.], prefixed to Jameson's ed. of American Ornith.; Memoir by G. Ord in vol. ix. 2nd ed. of Amer. Ornith.; Memoir in Jardine's ed. of Amer. Ornith.; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Nat. Hist. Museum Cat.; Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography.]