Henderson County, Ketucky Biography


The renowned man, of who this sketch treats, was born in the State of Louisiana, on the fourth day of May 1780, and was of French parentage.  He early exhibited natural tastes for art pursuits, and was from earliest childhood devoted to the feathered race. 

Or…….. On April 26, 1785, at Les Cayes, Santo Domingo, a son was born to a Creole woman known only by the name of Mlle. RABIN. At birth child was called Jean RABIN and later was given the baptismal name of Jean Jacques FOUGERE. He did not acquire the name “AUDUBON” until he was legally adopted by Jean and Anne Moynet AUDUBON on March 7, 1793.

The father, Jean AUDUBON, started his career as a cabin-boy at the age of thirteen and remained at sea for many years. He did take time off on August 24, 1772, to marry a widow of some property, Anne Moynet RICARDEL, who was nine years his senior, but Jean was seldom at home until after 1789. Twice his ship was captured by the British and he spent over six years as a prisoner of war, developing a dislike for the English that was transferred to his son.

After his release from the second internment in 1780, Jean AUDUBON became and enthusiast for the American cause, joined the French fleet and helped in the blockage of Yorktown. When peace was concluded, he was commanding and American armed vessel. For the next six years, 1783 – 1789, he lived almost continuously in the West Indies and amassed a great fortune as merchant, planter and slave-trader.

In 1789, Captain AUDUBON made two trips across the United States. On the first he purchased, for 2300 English pounds, an estate called “Mill Grove” located 24 miles northwest of Philadelphia. On the second trip he secured trustworthy slaves to care for his two children: Jean Rabin, aged four and a half years, and his half-sister, Rosa, an infant of less than two years. He took them to Nantes, France, where Madame AUDUBON, who had not children of her own, became an indulgent foster mother and was excessively proud of her handsome son.

When Captain AUDUBON retired from the Navy on January 1, 1801, the family settled at Coueron, on the north bank of the Loire. Jean AUDUBON made arrangements for the education of his son, but during his frequent absences the over-indulgent step-mother allowed the boy to shirk his studies and wander in the fields, collecting specimens. In 1802-03 he spent some time in Paris studying drawing under Jacques Louis DAVID.

With this oddly mixed background, John James AUDUBON first came to America at 18 to learn English and enter trade. He spent a year at Mill Grove studying birds and when he learned an English family had bought an adjoining estate, Fatland Ford, he avoided them like the plague. He hated all English people! Then he met the daughter, Lucy BAKEWELL, and reversed his position. They became engaged in 1804, but Lucy's father considered his daughter too young for marriage and insisted that AUDUBON should become established in the business world.

In the meantime, AUDUBON'S guardian had attempted to shanghai his young ward. In desperation, AUDUBON walked from Philadelphia to New York in three days. Here he appealed to Benjamin BAKEWELL, Lucy's uncle, for enough money to take him home to Coueron where he remained for a year, witnessing the wedding of his sister, Rosa, and agreeing to a partnership which his father arranged between him and Ferdinand ROZIER.

After a short stay at Mill Grove and a year's service as a clerk in Benjamin BAKEWELL'S commission house in New York, AUDUBON decided to join ROZIER in opening a pioneer store in Louisville, Kentucky, in August 1807.

In less than a year, AUDUBON returned to Pennsylvania and, on April 5, 1808, married Lucy BAKEWELL at “Fatland Ford”. One biographer calls his marriage the most important event in his life because his wife was “the spur to his ambition and the balance wheel to his character.”

Dissatisfied with Louisville because of stiff competition and losses due to the Embargo Act, the partners loaded their good on a flatboat and floated down to Henderson in 1810 and commenced merchandising, his storehouse being a small log one-story affair, that stood on the southeast corner of Main and First Streets. His residence was equally as insignificant, and was situated on the same square and in the rear of the present Odd Fellows building. Immediately opposite his house, on the west side of Second Street, was his pond, where he raised turtles for family use, being passionately fond of turtle soup.

The AUDUBON family had grown with the birth of a son, Victor. According to AUDUBON, their principal sales were of guns and fishing lines, but they made a good profit and, when Lucy's inheritance of $8,000 arrived, they replenished their stock.

ROZIER, who spoke English poorly, wanted to move to a French-speaking community, so they decided to try Ste. Genevieve, a thriving French mining community on the Mississippi. Before leaving, AUDUBON moved his family into the home of Dr. Adam RANKIN with the understanding that AUDUBON would pay $5.00 a week board and that Lucy would help in the education of Dr. RANKIN'S thirteen children.

Mr. AUDUBON was a warm hearted, liberal man, and for this reason, if for none other, was greatly esteemed. He was rather reserved, yet devotedly attached to his friends, and his unsuccessful life in Henderson, is attributable to his over-confidence and big heartedness. He was by no means a close or exacting businessman, but, on the contrary, let his business take care of itself, while he indulged his controlling passion for bird hunting. Men took advantage of him, and, from this, he was continually pressed for means and met with frequent reverses.

In mid-February he returned to Fatland Ford and visited his in-laws for several months with one specific purpose in mind. This was achieved in Philadelphia on July 23, 1812, when he became a citizen of the United States.

In late July the AUDUBONS left for Kentucky, traveling by water, perhaps because of Lucy's pregnancy. A barge owned by George Rogers CLARK brought them to Shippingport (now a part of Louisville) where AUDUBON purchased a large, commodius and light boat, placed a mattress in the bottom for Lucy, and hired two stout Negroes to row the craft. Late on the last day of their journey, as they approached Pigeon Creek on the Indiana side, they heard such a loud wailing that Lucy and the rowers were convinced that Indians were on the warpath. Later they learned that Methodists were holding a revival on Pigeon Creek. On November 12, 1812, John Woodhouse AUDUBON was born at Dr. RANKIN'S home.

On the sixteenth day of March 1816, he and Thomas W. BAKEWELL, under the firm name of AUDUBON & BAKEWELL, made application to the Town Trustees for a ninety-five year lease upon a portion of the river front, between First and Second Streets, for the purpose of erecting a grist and saw mill. Prior to this time, December 22d, 1813, he purchased of General Samuel HOPKINS, lots Nos. 95 and 96, on Third Street, between Green and Elm, and on the third day of September 1814, lots Nos. 91 and 92, on Second Street, between Green and Elm. The Town Trustees granted the petition of AUDUBON & BAKEWELL, and soon thereafter they commenced the building of a mill suitable for the times. A baby daughter, Lucy, was born while the mill was being constructed and lived less than two years. The mill was completed during the year 1817, and is yet standing, being the far end section of CLARK'S factory. It is a curiosity for these times, and the weather boarding, whip sawed, out of yellow poplar is still intact on three sides. The joists are of unhewn logs, many of them considerably over a foot in diameter, and raggedly rough. The foundation walls are built of pieces of flat and broken rock and are four and a half feet thick.

Mr. AUDUBON operated his mill on a large scale for those early times. His grist mill was a great convenience, and furnished a ready market for all of the over-plus of wheat raised in the surrounding country. His saw mill also was a wonderful convenience, doing the sawing for the entire country. The timber and lumber used in building the old KERR, CLARK & Co. building, on Main Street, was sawed by his mill.

During all of this time Mr. AUDUBON continued his study of birds, and, it is said, that the walls of his mill presented the appearance of a picture gallery, every smooth space presenting to the view the painting of some one or more birds.

In 1817 Mr. AUDUBON built at Henderson, a small steamboat, for what purpose it is not known – more, perhaps, to gratify his erratic inclination that for any other reason. The Captain of the vessel ran her out of the Ohio into the Mississippi River, and was followed by her owner in a rowboat to New Orleans, where the little craft was recaptured and sold.

In 1818 Constatine S. RAFINISQUE, a native of Galato, near Constantinople, Turkey, and a naturalist of great reputation, descended the Ohio in an ark, as it was called, and remained with Mr. AUDUBON for a number of weeks. The two – to use an ordinary expression – had a picnic bird hunting. Birds were far more plentiful and of a great variety in those days than they have ever been since the woodsman commenced clearing the country.

Financial problems became acute in 1819. In the spring, AUDUBON, acting as agent, sold the steamboat to seven men, including Samuel BOWEN. A few months later he filed complaint that the paper money with which he was paid was worthless. Before an attachment could be run, Samuel BOWEN took the boat downriver to New Orleans. With two slaves in a skiff, AUDUBON pursued the boat but arrived one day after it had been handed over to other creditors.

Returning home, AUDUBON had to walk from the mouth of the Ohio to Shawneetown before catching a ride. BOWEN had reached Henderson ahead of him and sued AUDUBON for $10,000 on the plea that he had maliciously taken out an attachement on the boat in New Orleans. He represented to Circuit Judge Henry P. BROADNAX that AUDUBON was about to leave Kentucky and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was taken into custody but, with Fayette POSEY as surety, was released immediately. He asked for change of venue and the case was moved to Daviess Circuit Court where action was finally dismissed when plaintiffs failed to appear.

In the meantime, Samuel BOWEN had sworn to kill AUDUBON. The handsome peace-loving artist was walking slowly toward the Henderson riverfront to confront, once more, the steam-mill, which he hated. He hated it because it had broken him financially and, only a few days previously, had broken his right hand. If the injury proved to be permanent, he would have lost the one skill that he truly enjoyed – sketching from nature. For the present, having his arm in a sling would prove a nuisance in operating his mill.

A shout caused him to turn to face a man advancing toward him with a heavy club. He turned white with anger, but stood perfectly still until a dozen blows had struck his shoulders. Then, with his left hand, he drew a dirk and stabbed his assailant, who fell instantly. Friends placed the loser on a plank and carried him home where he recovered; the winner's business career never recovered.

Nicholas BERTHOUD, Lucy's sister's husband, had been made a partner in the mill in February. Now other property was transferred to him in an effort to save something from the debacle. Deed books show that AUDUBON'S property was valued at $40.760, but no evidence exists to show how much was actually paid by BERTHOUD.

During Mr. AUDUBON'S entire life in Henderson, he was an untiring student of ornithology, frequently going into the woods and remaining for two months. Upon one occasion he was known to follow a hawk, peculiar to this country for three days, in fact, until he succeeded in killing it. He was never known to change his course on account of creeks or water courses – those he would swim if necessary to keep up a trail. At one time he had watched a “flicker” or “yellow hammer,” and finally saw it go into a hole in a dead tree. So anxious was he to catch the bird, he immediately commenced to climb, and in a short time found himself opposite the hole. No sooner said than done, he ran his hand in, and, to his horror, pulled out a snake, seeing which, he let go and fell with the snake to the ground, fortunately, without injury to himself. Mr. AUDUBON used to tell this story with a good deal of humor to his friends, who wondered at the risks he would take in pursuit of his favorite study.

Mr. AUDUBON was a great swimmer, and was very fond of the sport. Upon the landing of the first steamboat at Henderson, a great crowd congregated at the bank to take a look at the wonderful thing. It was a sort of holiday, and one of the amusements indulged in by many men, was that of diving from the sides of the boat into the river. Mr. AUDUBON put in an appearance and paralyzed the audience by diving from the bow end of the boat and coming up at the stern end after having passed entirely under the bottom. It has been told by those who knew Mr. AUDUBON well, that his wife was also and expert swimmer, that she used a swimming suit, and frequently swam the river amusement. This story, however, has been contradicted by a granddaughter of Mrs. AUDUBON; nevertheless, old time residents, now dead, have declared to having seen her swim the river time and again.

AUDUBON went to Louisville seeking employment. Here he was jailed for debt and took the bankruptcy law. Soon he began making chalk portraits for $5.00 each and was in such demand that one father had his daughter disinterred so AUDUBON could take a likeness. AUDUBON'S family joined him and another daughter, Rosa, was born in Louisville and lived only seven months.

Mr. AUDUBON resided in Henderson, happily, as all supposed, until the year 1823, when it was discovered that the green eyed monster had domiciled itself within his home. He became jealous of his wife, a beautiful woman, and from that time life was a burden to him. The two got along badly, and finally Mrs. AUDUBON determined to return to her home in Louisiana. Mr. Ben TALBOTT, father of the late Ben TALBOTT, deceased, tendered her the use of his carriage and driver, which she accepted, and thus she was driven overland to her father's home.

Subsequent to his wife's departure, Mr. AUDUBON became embarrassed and determined to dispose of his effects and remove from the wilds of Henderson.

In 1824 he went to Philadelphia, and from thence to Europe, where he succeeded in having “Ornithological Biographies,” and “Birds of America” published. He returned some years afterwards and settled in New York, where he died on the twenty-seventh day of January 1851, aged seventy-one years.

History of Henderson County, Kentucky, Pages 793 – 796
Annals and Scandals, Pages 24 - 32

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS