Podcast: Galveston's Role in John James Audubon's Early Exploration of Wildlife in North America

More of a visual learner? Read the transcript of this week's Galveston Unscripted podcast episode below:

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Galveston Island and the Texas Gulf Coast provides birders, wildlife enthusiasts, and history lovers with a unique and rewarding experience. The city boasts abundant and diverse wildlife, with many different species of birds that can be observed in its coastal wetlands, islands, and other areas. Birding enthusiasts will not be disappointed as they take in the beauty of the birds and their habitats on this remarkable island. Many of you may have heard the name "Audubon" as it pertains to birds and wildlife. Here on the coast of Texas, we have the privilege to tell the story of John James Audubon's visit to Galveston and Houston in 1837. He not only observed the wildlife of the nearly barren Galveston Island but visited with some Texas Revolutionary heroes and acquired some fascinating souvenirs.

John James Audubon was an artist, naturalist, and ornithologist best known for his groundbreaking work, The Birds of America. His work was revolutionary, and his art and observations of birds have had a lasting impact on our understanding of the natural world.

Born on April 26, 1785, in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (Haiti). After a brief excursion to France, his parents sent him to Pennsylvania to avoid the Napoleonic wars in Europe. He married Lucy Bakewell, and the couple moved to Kentucky and Ohio, where he attempted several unsuccessful business ventures. He began documenting American birds and animals by publishing engraved copies of his wildlife drawings.

Audubon embarked on a journey along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and the Great Lakes from 1820 to 1824, collecting wildlife specimens and selling oil copies of his watercolor drawings to support himself. In 1826, he traveled to England to pursue his art and find support for his passion. His fame grew as his life-size paintings began to grow in popularity. Audubon returned to the United States in 1831 to exhibit his drawings and pursue support for his wildlife projects.

By 1837, Audubon was a famous figure around North America. While at dinner with his friend, President Andrew Jackson, Audubon was offered an the opportunity to use a government gunboat, the Campbell, for his explorations. Audubon accepted and soon boarded the Campbell in New Orleans. His mission was to scout birds along the Gulf Coast, from the Mississippi River to Galveston. John James Audubon and his son embarked on an expedition to the newly established Republic of Texas, stopping at Galveston and Houston. The Battle of San Jacinto and the victory against Mexico had only occurred a year earlier.

Upon arriving at Galveston, the Secretary of the Texas Navy, Samuel Rhoads Fisher, officially welcomed them. Only a year removed from the war against Mexico, Galveston Island was populated by the Texas Army and their Mexican prisoners being used as forced labor.

As Audubon waded ashore on the rattlesnake-infested island, he was met with the sight of the crude army encampment, mosquitos that could be mistaken as small birds, and even swordfish in the shallow waters of Galveston Bay. Audubon documented a wide array of avian species, such as blue-winged teals, black-necked stilts, least terns, roseate spoonbills, skimmers, ivory-billed woodpeckers, black-throated buntings, and various types of sandpipers, ducks, and herons. He and his son spent the days in Galveston combating the snakes and mosquitos while documenting the Galveston wildlife.

Upon arriving in Houston, the steamer Yellow Stone welcomed Audubon and his son, providing them with refreshments and a change of clothes. Buffalo Bayou had risen six feet above normal levels due to heavy rain, causing the surrounding prairies to be partly submerged. The travelers saw evidence of the poor living conditions of the Native Americans who came to Houston to negotiate a treaty with the newly formed Texas Government. They were seen cooking meager meals, living in shanties, and staggering drunkenly in the mud.

They were graciously received by President Sam Houston and other prominent Texas figures who promptly offered them a drink in one of the many bars along the main drag of the muddy little capitol of Texas, Houston. As a naturalist, Audubon had connections to doctors and scientists around the country. Audubon acquired a few skulls from dead Mexican soldiers at San Jacinto and sent them to his colleague, Dr. Samuel George Morton, an infamous Philadelphia craniologist. Audubon continued about East Texas before he returned to his North American and European travels.

Audubon arrived on this little island in one of the most unique times in its history, the early days of the Republic of Texas, to witness and document the wildlife in its most natural state before the city of Galveston was officially founded. Audubon also worked on The 'Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America,' which contained more drawings from Texas specimens than his famous series of illustrations named "Birds of America."

Audubon died in 1851. His works of art depicting natural wildlife have been proudly displayed in the White House and prominent museums worldwide. His legacy lives on through his works, inspiring generations of naturalists and artists to capture a glimpse or image of these creatures. Galveston Island played a small part in his journey to explore the Wildlife of North America.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."