Henderson County, Ketucky Biography


Bountiful good, bad times filled Audubon's life in Henderson

Like the novelist Charles DICKENS who once strolled Henderson's streets, John James AUDUBON knew a thing or two about the best of times and the worst of times.

The artist and naturalist, who was destined to become America's foremost wildlife painter, experienced the extremes of both happiness and sorrow in the nine years he lived in this community from 1810 to 1819.

In his first years here, he seemed to prosper almost in spite of himself. Though he maintained he wasn't a businessman - and proved it by once mailing an $8,000 bank deposit in an unsealed envelope - most of his initial efforts in Henderson paid off handsomely.

In fact, in 1817 he was considered the third richest man in the city. Surpassing him in wealth were Samuel HOPKINS and Walter ALVES.

In those days when his enterprises soared like the birds he sketched at every opportunity, he wrote, "The pleasure which I have felt at Henderson, under the roof of my log cabin, can never be effaced from my heart till death."

Even later, when fate had proven fickle, he still recalled the better times and said, "My wife and I were as happy as could be. The people of the Henderson neighborhood loved us, and we loved them in return."

It's apparent from surviving pages of his ledgers that his friends tried to support his businesses. The store he and his brother-in-law Thomas BAKEWELL operated here drew the likes of attorney Thomas TOWLES, who - in a single shopping expedition - spent $499.80 for flour, paper, a buffalo robe, linen, buttons, razors, boots, saddlebags, gun power, muslin, cotton, whiskey, homespun, sugar, dress patterns and knives.

The wealthy Samuel HOPKINS, who served as an agent for the Transylvania Company that founded Henderson, was another patron of the AUDUBON-BAKEWELL store.

The ledger tells that HOPKINS bought plow lines, wrought rails, iron bars, shanks, casters, tape and a man's saddle. His wife bought knitting needles, a coffee boiler, nutmeg and cinnamon.

Business was so good that Audubon and his partner opened a second store in Shawneetown, IL.

For a while, the painter who had come here from Louisville with his bride, Lucy, possessed a Midas touch. A $4,306 investment in a piece of property yielded $14,981 when the land sold. Becoming one of Henderson's first "subdivision developers," he purchased seven lots for $350 and divided them into tracts that netted $8,150 in total.

The couple who had lived in two log cabins here - one at Second and Main and another at Fourth and Main - at last were able to buy a find dwelling at the corner of Loeb and Shelby streets in the section that now bears his name.

There, they had a four-acre meadow that became AUDUBON'S nature lab and a small pond where they raised turtles for soup. Their family grew from one child to three. A year after their 1808 marriage they had a son, Victor, who was born in Louisville. In Henderson, Victor was joined by John in 1812 and Lucy in 1815.

But Lady Luck turned her back on the family two years after little Lucy's birth. In 1817, AUDUBON'S only daughter died and was buried in the small HOPKINS family cemetery near Spring Garden Road. That area was fairly remote then, and AUDUBON later said, "Only the birds know just where little Lucy lies."

Then there was the failure of the mill AUDUBON operated on the Ohio River, in what now is appropriately called Audubon Mill Park.

"I was doing extremely well," AUDUBON wrote, "when (in 1816) Thomas BAKEWELL came once more on the tapis and took it into his brain to persuade me to erect a steam mill at Henderson. Up went the mill at enormous expense ($15,000) in a country as unfit for such a thing as the moon. How I labored at the infernal mill."

Though the building was to stand until fire claimed it in 1913, the machinery never worked right and wheat crops in this vicinity were too scanty to justify its services.

As AUDUBON'S fortunes declined - literally and figuratively - his business partners deserted him. He also found himself embroiled in problems when the group to whom he'd sold a steamboat failed to pay him.

One of them even came after him with a bludgeon and was said to have landed 12 blows before AUDUBON pulled a dagger from his book and stabbed the man, but not fatally.

The destitute family left Henderson that year and returned to Louisville, where AUDUBON would up jailed for inability to pay his debts.

All he had left, he said, were his "humble talents" that were to bring him widespread recognition in his lifetime and make him a legend after death.

The consensus of historians is that his life began in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo, on April 26, 1785, when he was born to a French naval officer and a young Creole woman of French blood. AUDUBON'S father was married but not to AUDUBON'S mother.

His father's wife was Anne MOYNET, an older woman who not only adopted the boy and his half-sister but also evidently adored them. She spoiled John James, especially, and if he begged to wander the fields and sketch instead of going to school, she indulged him.

The world owes her a debt of gratitude. The passion that began in his childhood led to the artistic wonders that fill Audubon Memorial Museum here.

Reprinted with permission.
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Saturday, March 30 1996
Written by Judy Jenkins, Life Member

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS