The collectors (part 1)

The “Key-west Dove” (Key West pigeon or quail-dove).

JOHN James Audubon, always lavish in his prose, bestowed on the fabled sunsets of the Florida Keys a description as rapturous as any ever written.1 After he’d beheld such a spectacle from the deck of the revenue cutter Marion, now resting at anchor in “the beautiful harbour of Key West,” the tireless naturalist briefly savored the moment when lights flickered to life, as night drew its veil over the town. Still, he was anxious for daybreak, and for his real work to begin.2

From the veranda of the Key West custom house, collector William A. Whitehead observed many an arriving vessel, and admired many a sunset. But that evening’s display he did not witness, nor was Audubon’s craft among those he watched sail past, nor was he one of those citizens who, next morning, welcomed the island’s then most famous visitor.

Whitehead on these occasions was a thousand miles and more to the north, on a mission of his own, bound for the New Jersey town where his parents lived, and there he would linger through the summer of 1832. That this journey, as he was to acknowledge in hindsight, “added new ties and strengthened old ones,” leaves little doubt that among other objectives it sealed his engagement to Margaret, the daughter of his patron James Parker. Whitehead was not seen on Key West again until October.3

His summer sojourn wouldn’t erase all chances for Whitehead and Audubon to meet. It’s remarkable, in fact, that they did not. The schooner that the ornithologist and artist took to Key West was the same vessel that carried Whitehead from the island three weeks earlier, on the first leg of his northern voyage. When the Marion dropped anchor in Charleston, Audubon had been tarrying there over a month, in anticipation of just such a moment.4

The Exchange or Old Custom House, Charleston, South Carolina.

Commanded by Lieutenant Robert Day, the cutter Marion served Whitehead’s customs jurisdiction while in South Florida, but now came under the authority of his Charleston counterpart, James R. Pringle. “I have waited with great impatience,” Audubon wrote his wife, “for a U. S. Vessel to convey me and my Lads to the confines of our Southern Coast and now this opportunity offers itself.” Appealing first to Lt. Day, then to Pringle, he secured not only the hoped-for passage but a commitment “that every facility would be given me to serve my views and Science.”5 Whitehead would soon leave Charleston and continue his journey by land, but during a few days’ interval he and Audubon alike walked along the Battery and the streets of the city, and for different motives both called at the custom house.6

Despite their rencontre manquée, or the failure of either man to record such a meeting, the two were in a sense united by the direction and force of their respective attachments: Aububon’s to the anticipated beauty and bounty of southernmost Florida, Whitehead’s to the commercial fortunes of Key West and its port. Through the artist’s eyes and from his lyrical descriptions, details of Whitehead’s years in the Keys acquire added life and color. The ornithologist’s musings enrich our perceptions, not just of the natural world in which Whitehead lived and labored, but even of the vessels and personnel assisting him in his duties. If not for Audubon, there would be no vision of the Marion that, “like a sea-bird, with extended wings, swept through the waters, gently inclining to either side,” and no ride in one of its swift rowboats, “so well timed was the pulling of the brave tars who were taking us to the shore” that one had the sensation of flight.7

John Symes’s 1826 portrait of Audubon.

During his visit to Key West, Audubon slept on the Marion in preference to lodging in town, but slept little. He rose daily at 3 a.m. to go hunting, withstanding long exposure to heat, thirst and biting insects, then returned to make notes and sketches, in the remaining hours of the day, of the specimens he had procured. Some birds were taken alive, but most were shot dead in service to his studies and his paintings.

While there were few entirely new discoveries, the artistic proceeds from this “work of destruction” were immense. Images of the “Florida cormorant,” the mangrove cuckoo, the brown pelican, a variety of pigeons, terns and herons, as well as the local flora in the backgrounds of his paintings, originated in Audubon’s tour of the Keys. Despite numerous excursions to favored watering places of the American flamingo, including the Key West salt ponds, he was disappointed in his quest to secure one of “these lovely birds,” whose study had been a prime motive for the trip.8

If the testimony of his friend Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel can be taken at face value, the inhabitants of Key West were in complete solidarity with Audubon’s mission: “every one appears to enlist at once in his service, and to be disposed to promote his views.” Audubon’s character, even his passion for “bird-killing and bird-stuffing” proved contagious. “For my part,” Strobel confessed, “I have become an incurable victim to the disease.”9 A physician and amateur naturalist originally from Charleston, to whom Audubon arrived bearing a letter of introduction, Strobel was also editor of the island’s newspaper, the Key West Gazette. In its pages he welcomed “the celebrated Ornithologist” to the Keys, publicized his discoveries and predicted correctly the success of his forthcoming masterpiece, The Birds of America. Strobel, once Audubon had sailed away in the Marion for the last time, declared, “The favorable impressions which he has produced upon our minds will not soon be effaced.”10

With appreciation to Strobel and others for the assistance he had received, and for “the facilities afforded me by our Government,” Audubon further thanked Key West by naming a species of dove in its honor11 and later committing fond and vivid memories of the expedition to print. In The Birds of America a view of the Key West waterfront, painted by his assistant George Lehman, formed the backdrop to his plate of the Great White Heron.

Key West harbor, by George Lehman.

But gratifying though Audubon’s visit must have been to many on Key West, the published accounts of it did, in one important respect, cast a shadow upon the luminous memories of the inhabitants. The naturalist admitted, in the third of five volumes of text issued to accompany his plates, his original terror of those who lived by salvaging the seagoing vessels so frequently wrecked in the Florida Straits:

Often had I been informed of the cruel and cowardly methods which it was alleged they employed to allure vessels of all nations to the dread reefs, that they might plunder their cargoes, and rob their crews and passengers of their effects. I therefore could have little desire to meet with such men under any circumstances, much less to become liable to receive their aid; and with the name of Wreckers, there were associated in my mind ideas of piratical depredation, barbarous usage, and even murder.

In the “episode” Audubon went on to relate, he would learn that an unidentified schooner, coming alongside the Marion and leaping “like the dolphin in eager pursuit of his prey,” was a Florida wrecker:

What a beautiful vessel! we all thought; how trim, how clean-rigged, and how well manned! She swims like a duck; and now with a broad sheer, off she makes for the reefs, a few miles under our lee. There, in that narrow passage, well known to her commander, she rolls, tumbles, and dances, like a giddy thing, her copper sheathing now gleaming, and again disappearing under the waves.12

Once better acquainted with the wreckers, Audubon couldn’t contain his surprise or admiration at the design, comfort and grace of these worthy vessels, the superior skill of their captains and the humanity of their crews. It was no longer possible to regard wrecking as little better than piracy. However, in the summer of 1835, an anonymous reviewer of his work made gratuitous reference to the wreckers’ practices, “enterprises which they are in nowise anxious to publish, either to the government or the world.”13 At Key West, the collector of customs felt compelled to respond.

By this time William Whitehead had joined to his custom house responsibilities the journalistic duties once shouldered by Dr. Strobel. Not having seen Audubon’s book, but doubting that any reviewer could have produced such a “libel upon a valuable class of our seamen,” Whitehead expressed shock that, in return for the hospitality the artist enjoyed three years earlier, the wrecking crews could be so ill-paid. “We feel no hesitation in saying that the ‘enterprises’ of these men are as praiseworthy as those of Mr. Audibon [sic],” he editorialized, “and in some respects more philanthropic and important.”14 A hurricane battering the Keys later in the year, which only amplified “the injustice of the observation made by Mr. Ornithologist Audubon,” gave Whitehead occasion to scoff: “We doubt if a single sufferer in the late gale, would not have hailed with much greater satisfaction the sight of a Florida wrecker, than to have beheld a whole tribe of naturalists…”15

Audubon’s “White-headed Pigeon” (White-crowned pigeon), a seasonal visitor to the Florida Keys.

The truth, of course, was that the offending words were not Audubon’s at all. If there was any basis for Whitehead’s censure, it lay in the words Audubon did write–ironic references to the “business” and “service” of wrecking, the insinuation that wreckers looked upon a hurricane’s terrible aftermath “with inward delight”–and in the failure to disavow entirely his own earlier apprehensions.16

In reality, the storm over the supposed defamation of wreckers arose from a measure of opportunism and literary performance, on both Audubon’s and Whitehead’s parts. Audubon, who professed “no desire to meet with such men under any circumstances,” left Charleston bent on visiting, observing and writing about them.17 And if Whitehead took genuine offense, it was less for the sake of those employed in wrecking, who cared little about such opprobrium, than a vindication of his and others’ longstanding friendship with them.

The impulse to keep Key West newspaper readers entertained, by holding “Mr. Ornithologist Audubon” to account, still operated decades later, when Whitehead had long since left Key West, and the naturalist was dead and buried.18 In Audubon’s final remarks on the wreckers, however–the words of a proponent of empirical science–Whitehead would not have failed to concur: “How different, thought I, is often the knowledge of things acquired by personal observation, from that obtained by report!”19

Copyright © 2020-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “If you have never seen the sun setting in those latitudes, I would recommend to you to make a voyage for the purpose, for I much doubt, if, in any other portion of the world, the departure of the orb of day is accompanied with such gorgeous appearances. Look at the great red disk, increased to triple its ordinary dimensions! Now it has partially sunk beneath the distant line of waters, and with its still remaining half irradiates the whole heavens with a flood of golden light, purpling the far off clouds that hover over the western horizon. A blaze of refulgent glory streams through the portals of the west, and the masses of vapour assume the semblance of mountains of molten gold. But the sun has now disappeared, and from the east slowly advances the grey curtain which night draws over the world.” “The turtlers,” in John James Audubon, Ornithological biography, or an account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America; accompanied by descriptions of the objects represented in the work entitled The birds of America, and interspersed with delineations of American scenery and manners 2 (Edinburgh 1834) (370-376) 370-371. A sunset witnessed off the Dry Tortugas inspired this grand description. For the harbor of Key West, see “The brown pelican“ in volume 3 of the same work (Edinburgh 1835) (376-385) 380.

[2] Audubon had been gathering specimens at stops in the Florida Keys and along the Reef en route to Key West, where his arrival can be dated to the evening of 4 May 1832, his landing put off to the next day: Key West (Fla.) gazette 2 May 1832 (publication delayed until 5 May) 2:4-3:1. He related his first sighting of the Key West quail-dove, a bird known only from a specimen at John Bachman’s home in Charleston and christened by Audubon the “Key-West Pigeon,” with an initial impression of the town from on board the Marion:  “It was at Key West that I first saw this beautiful Pigeon. The Marion was brought to anchor close to, and nearly opposite, the little town of the same name, some time after the setting of the sun. The few flickering lights I saw nearly fixed the size of the place in my imagination.” “The Key West pigeon,” in Ornithological biography 2:(382-386) 382.

[3] Whitehead’s departure on 7 April began a five-week trek, with a stopover of sixteen days in Washington, ending at the family home in Perth Amboy on 12 May, his father’s 59th birthday. His journal of the trip begins on page 101 of the unpublished Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water, Volume 2, held by the Key West Art & Historical Society; it continued, presumably, in a third volume now lost. Whitehead later recorded highlights in the memoir “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; pages 32-34 contain the relevant passages, which conclude: “my sojourn in Amboy binding me closer than ever to the place and to those residing within it.” On returning to Key West in October, Whitehead was much more conscious of inhabiting “a bachelor’s establishment.” Ibid. 35. He and Margaret Parker were married in Perth Amboy in August 1834.

[4] Key West gazette 11 April 1832 2:4, The Charleston (S.C.) courier 13 April 1832 2:5, Charleston (S.C.) Mercury 13 April 1832 3:1, Southern patriot (Charleston, S.C.) 13 April 1832 2:6-3:1. On Audubon’s time in Charleston leading up to the expedition to the Keys, see Jay Shuler, Had I the wings. The friendship of Bachman and Audubon (Athens, Ga., and London) 73-88.

[5] J. J. Audubon, Charleston 15 April 1832, to Lucy Audubon, Louisville, Ky., in Howard Corning, ed. Letters of John James Audubon 1826-1840 (2 vols. Boston 1930) 1:193. Audubon was told to be ready to sail on 18 April; the Marion got under weigh, bound for Key West and the Dry Tortugas, either on that or the following day: City gazette & commercial daily advertiser (Charleston, S.C.) 19 April 1832 2:5, The Charleston courier 20 April 1832 2:6. In the tenth installment of his Reminiscences of Key West, Whitehead wrote that Audubon arrived at Key West from Cuba, an island the artist knew only from reports and specimens sent by others. Whitehead’s error may stem from his confused recollection of another naturalist, Daniel Jay or D. J. Browne (remembered by Whitehead as “John Jay Browne”), who frequented the Keys the following winter but also spent considerable time on Cuba. (Browne’s visit will be taken up in the continuation of this post.) The Reminiscences are preserved in a letterbook copy at the New Jersey Historical Society as part of Manuscript Group 734; their serial publication in Key of the Gulf (Key West, Fla.) between March and July 1877 formed the basis for Thelma Peters’s edition, “William Adee Whitehead’s Reminiscences of Key West,” Tequesta: the journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida 1:25 (1965) 3-42.

[6] Whitehead wrote of the Charleston custom house (known then and now as the Exchange, a British-built structure that also served as the post office): “It is very roomy, substantially erected, and bears the stamp of age in all its features.” He remained in the city only from the 12th to the 16th, departing via the 12 miles then existing of the Charleston and Hamburg Railroad. Memorandums 2:[102-104].

[7] “The wreckers of Florida,” in Ornithological biography 3:(158-163) 158. Writing to assure Lucy that he would be safe on the voyage, Audubon gave a less ethereal description: “The Marion is a large Vessel well armed and well manned – She has Three Boats and a Canoe Tents &c.” Letters 1:194. For the rowboat ride in Key West harbor, see “The Key West pigeon,” in Ornithological biography 2:382. Our knowledge of the nickname given the Marion by wreckers and smugglers, “The Lady of the Green Mantle,” is also due to Audubon: “The Florida Keys,” in Ornithological biography 2:(312-316) 314n, “The sooty tern,” in Ornithological biography 3:(263-269) 263.

[8] “The Florida Keys,” Ornithological biography 2:(345-349) 346; 5 (Edinburgh 1839) 255-6.

[9] “John J. Audubon,” Charleston (S.C.) Mercury 28 June 1833, as reprinted in E. A. Hammond, “Dr. Strobel’s account of John J. Audubon,” The auk 80 (October 1963) (462-466) 465.

[10] Key West gazette 2 May 1832 2:4-3:1, 9 May 1832 3:1, 16 May 1832 3:1, 23 May 1832 2:1-2.

[11] “The Key West pigeon,” in Ornithological biography 2:382.

[12] “The wreckers of Florida,” in Ornithological biography 3:158.

[13] “Audubon’s biography of birds,” The North American Review 41:88 (July 1835) (194-231) 203.

[14] “North American Review vs. Florida wreckers,” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 15 August 1835 3:1-2.

[15] “Usefulness of Florida wreckers,” The enquirer 26 September 1835 3:1. Even after four decades, Whitehead could feign resentment at such a calumny upon “the wrecking portion of the population,” among whom “it was unhesitatingly whispered that, were a man placed in a tempest tossed vessel on the Florida reef there would be little doubt of his thinking a Wrecker of more intrinsic value than all the ornithologists in Christendom.” Reminiscences of Key West no. 10 (ed. Peters 30-31).

[16] “The Florida Keys,” in Ornithological biography 2:347; “The wreckers of Florida,” in Ornithological biography 3:159-160.

[17] Audubon wrote to his wife Lucy, shortly before commencing the voyage, “I intend to form the acquaintance of Messiers ‘The Wreckers’ and will have subjects from them for Episodes.” Letters 1:194.

[18] See note 15.

[19] “The wreckers of Florida,” in Ornithological biography 3:160.

Images: 1) Key-west Dove. The birds of America plate 167 via National Audubon Society. 2) The Exchange: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 3) Syme portrait: The White House Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons. 4) Harbor: Great White Heron. The birds of America plate 281 via National Audubon Society. 5) White-headed Pigeon. The birds of America plate 177 (detail) via National Audubon Society.

One thought on “The collectors (part 1)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.