Alexander Wilson was not the “Father of American Ornithology”


In a new paper in the Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phila. (download here), I expose a big misunderstanding about the history of Alexander Wilson (1766–1813) and the Philadelphia (Peale) Museum where he deposited his specimens. I do not wish to clutter this blog post with citations, so please see my paper (and references therein) if you want to know more about the primary sources that support my research. This post is just a synopsis.

Portrait of “Alexander Wilson, author of the American Ornithology, Native of Paisley Scotland, died 1813 aged 45,” drawn and engraved by John James Barralet (1747–1815) within 2 years of the ornithologist’s death. Reproduced courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University Archives, collection 457. (Reprinted from Halley, 2020)

For the uninitiated, Wilson was a Scottish-born poet/ornithologist who immigrated to the USA in 1796, and became famous for authoring and co-publishing the first books dedicated to describing American birds: American Ornithology, 9 vols (1808–14). Only four of Wilson’s specimens are known today, with data confirming their provenance:

  • ANSP 2032, holotype of Mississippi Kite Ictinia mississippiensis (Wilson, 1811, Pl. 25);
  • ANSP 1551, holotype of Broad-winged Hawk Falco pennsylvanicus Wilson, 1812b, Pl. 54 (=Buteo platypterus Vieillot, 1823);
  • ANSP 1157, syntype of Rough-legged Hawk Falco niger Wilson, 1812b, Pl. 53 (=Buteo lagopus Pontopiddan, 1763);
  • ANSP 1208, holotype of the American Goshawk Falco atricapillus Wilson, 1812b, Pl. 52 (=Accipiter gentilis atricapillus Wilson, 1812)

Notice a pattern? All of these study skins were type specimens of new hawk species, described by Wilson in American Ornithology. (Some of the species later turned out to be already described, so no longer bear Wilson’s names.) Today, the specimens are preserved in the bird collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA).

When I started studying the history of American ornithology (c.2010), only the first two of these specimens were known (ANSP 2032 and 1151). I rediscovered the other two specimens during my research. First, in 2018, I found Wilson’s syntype of Falco niger (ANSP 1157), which was overlooked in the ANSP collection, and a note penciled by John Cassin (1813–69), former ANSP curator, confirming its provenance. In 2020, I published a short paper about the rediscovery of the F. niger type in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology (download here). Then, in November 2020, I rediscovered Wilson’s holotype of Falco atricapillus Wilson 1812, the fourth provenanced specimen from Wilson’s collection to my knowledge. This name is currently in use for one of the American subspecies of Northern Goshawk, Accipiter gentilis atricapillus (Wilson).

Digital photograph of ANSP 1208, holotype of Accipiter gentilis atricapillus (Wilson, 1812). Photo by Matthew R. Halley, courtesy of the ANSP Ornithology Department.

Wilson famously deposited his hawk specimens in the Philadelphia (Peale) Museum, which was founded by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), the Philadelphian polymath. In my recent paper (and here in this blog), I demonstrate that the history of the Peale Museum collection, and the extent of Wilson’s contributions, have been radically misinterpreted by historians. Even the phrase “Father of American Ornithology”, which has been attached to Wilson for well over a century, has been misconstrued. It was coined by George Ord (1781–1866), who trained with Wilson, but not to honor his lamented friend. Ord actually used the phrase as a poetic reference to a divine creator (God):

“The poor despised weaver of Paisley [Wilson] takes his rank among the writers of our country; and after ages shall look up to the Father of American Ornithology [God], and bless that Providence, which, by inscrutable ways, led him [Wilson] to the only spot, perhaps, of the civilized earth, where his extraordinary talents would be encouraged to develop themselves, and his estimable qualities of heart would be duly appreciated.” (Ord 1828: viii, Preface to the Life of Wilson)

Ord was doubtlessly aware, when he wrote the above words, that the suitability of Philadelphia was not merely, as modern authors have assumed, because it was the home of pioneer ornithologist, William Bartram (1739–1823), who mentored Wilson for a time. No, there was a more critical reason! Philadelphia was home to the largest collection of American bird specimens ever assembled, and Wilson’s timing was impeccable.

Burtt & Davis (2013, Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology, Harvard University Press) declared that Wilson contributed “study skins of 255 of 283 species he described” to the Philadelphia (Peale) Museum, convinced that Wilson was “unquestionably, the first American ornithologist”. They arrived at the number 255 by assuming (incorrectly) that the “Peale numbers” cited at the beginning of Wilson’s species accounts were numbers assigned to his own specimens.

Wilson’s (1811: 76) original description of “Yellow-winged Sparrow / Fringilla passerina” (link), now called Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum, where he cites “Peale number” 6585.

However, except in a few cases, Wilson was merely giving credit to Peale for recognizing and collecting the species first. In the above example, Wilson (1808: 29) cited the “Peale number” (6585) for the “Yellow-winged Sparrow” (now Grasshopper Sparrow), which he thought was a new species, not realizing it had already been described by Gmelin (1789). At least one specimen was already in the Peale Museum, three years before Wilson’s first volume was published, as confirmed in Peale’s unpublished essay “A walk with a friend to the Philadelphia Museum” (1805): “The Yellow winged Sparrow is a nondescript”. Wilson knew that Peale knew it was undescribed (although both were wrong!), which is why he cited the “Peale number”—to give Peale credit.

Unfortunately, Burtt & Davis (2013), and most biographers before them, overlooked the most important primary sources relating to Wilson’s ornithology and the history of the Peale Museum: (1) the original accessions (donations) ledger, where Wilson’s specimen contributions were recorded contemporaneoulsy, now preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), and (2) the personal papers of Charles W. Peale and his family, including many unpublished manuscripts and a selection of papers transcribed and published in the 1980s by Yale University Press (L. Miller, ed.)

In my new paper, I review primary sources that explain the origin story of the “Peale numbers”. The big surprise is that they were applied to species (in a morphological sense), not specimens as Burtt & Davis (2013) and other authors assumed. Furthermore, Wilson only contributed about 30 specimens (!!!) to the Peale Museum, not 255 as claimed by Burtt & Davis (2013).

By the time Wilson first set foot in the Peale museum (in 1804, see paper for evidence), the collection already contained “760 [species] without the admission of any duplicates, contained in 140 cases”, and Peale was generally uninterested in donations of duplicates, because he had limited space to display them. By this time, his collection was housed on the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, now known as Independence Hall, and space was tight.

Left: The Long Room, Second Floor at Independence Hall, January 8, 1924. Warren A. McCullough, Photographer; right: Charles Willson Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale, The Long Room, Interior of the Front Room in Peale’s Museum, 1822, watercolor over graphite on pencil, 35.6 x 52.7 (Detroit Institute of Arts). Image and citation source: www.khanacademy.org
“The Artist in his Museum” (1822), Charles Willson Peale. Oil on canvas. In the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (pafa.org)

Peale’s collection included many undescribed (or apparently undescribed) species that Wilson would describe for the first time, and give Linnaean names to, in the pages of American Ornithology. For two illustrative examples, take the Grasshopper Sparrow (see above) and Black-billed Cuckoo (see below). In each case, Wilson cited the “Peale numbers” that were painted on the wooden frames, which were attached to the glass display cases in the museum. Wilson cited Peale’s Museum in the same way he cited the published books of Linnaeus, Latham, and Bartram—this presumably made Peale agreeable to letting Wilson publish his discoveries, which he had been planning for several years to publish himself.

Wilson was at the right place at the right time, and he knew it. Peale’s bird collection already included >80% of the species that would appear in American Ornithologybefore Wilson declared his intention to “make a collection of all our finest birds” in 1803. Unaware of this history, Burtt (2016) promoted the letter bearing Wilson’s declaration as the “founding document of American ornithology” (with the lowercase “o”) in a posthumous essay published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Original description of Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus (Wilson, 1811: 16, Pl. 28), in which Wilson cited Peale number 1854.

Peale discovered the Black-billed Cuckoo as early as June 1797, when he wrote in a private letter: “I have been very successful with the feathered tribe [and have] procured several which appear quite new to me. I have found a variety of the Carolina Cuckoo, one kind is only described in Catesby.”

Peale was evidently happy with his arrangement with Wilson, no doubt because in each case Wilson gave him credit, by citing every “Peale number”. How could Peale know that historians of the future would misunderstand the meaning of the numbers, and misattribute his accomplishments to Wilson?

Peale’s friend, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), wisely remarked in 1743: “If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.” Peale took the second route and was forgotten, while the writer (Wilson) got the credit.

Correspondance between Charles W. Peale and Palisot de Beauvois (1752–1820), in the 1790s, shows that they had prepared a catalog of the Peale Museum bird collection but never secured the funding to publish it. Beauvois made multiple visits to Philadelphia between 1794–1800, to work on the catalog. This was the origin of the “Peale numbers”. The only hard copy of this catalog, which Peale refered to as the “Book Catalogue”, has not been located by historians.

By putting Wilson’s “Peale number” citations in numerical order, I revealed the underlying Linnaean structure of the lost Peale catalog. Peale numbers were clustered in blocks corresponding to the nine Linnaean Orders (Class Aves), and roughly clustered according to genus within each Order. This is because Peale’s cabinets were arranged according to the Linnaean system when Beauvois walked the length of the “Long Room”, assigning the “Peale numbers” to each species. This occurred at least four years before Wilson’s first visit to the Peale Museum, contradicting Burtt & Davis (2013), who claimed Wilson was the first American ornithologist to use the Linnaean system.

In my paper, I also discuss, apparently for the first time, some of the contributions of Sophonisba Peale (1786-1859), the first American woman to collect and preserve (i.e., skin, stuff, and treat with arsenic) bird specimens. In 1803, she copied the Linnaean binomials and “Peale numbers” onto the wooden frames for the display cases, just before Wilson arrived. It is high time for Sophonisba to be brought out of the shadows, to be rightly celebrated as a pioneer American ornithologist!

Stencil silohuette of Sophonisba Peale, taken with the Hawkins physiognotrace at the Peale Museum, after 1802. This item is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (link).

To summarize, by misunderstanding the “Peale numbers”, historians (and everyone who relies on historians to get it right) have overlooked the foundational work of the Peale family, misattributing their accomplishments to Wilson alone. There is no doubt that Wilson’s contributions were important, but they have been greatly overestimated, and thus misunderstood. For the last three years, I have been preparing a digital inventory of the Peale Museum bird collection, soon to be published online, which will expose in detail the size and scope of Peale’s collection:

Halley, M.R. (In press). “Ornithology in Peale’s Museum”. In America’s Earliest Museums: A Virtual Reconstruction of the Collections of Pierre Eugène Du Simitière and Charles Willson Peale (J. Van Horne, C.E. Soltis, C. King, M.R. Halley, Eds.). Website hosted by the American Philosophical Society

I hope my recent paper and this forthcoming work will establish a new baseline for scholarship related to the historical development of American ornithology in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the meantime, I suggest that you take what you read in popular books with a grain of salt. The misunderstanding of Wilson and the Peale Museum (like that of Audubon) runs deep, and the true history of American ornithology is only now emerging as overlooked primary sources are exposed. There is still much we do not know about the origins of ornithology in the United States, but one thing is now for certain: Wilson was not the “Father”.

[Post-script, 9 February 2022: I think we should just ditch the whole “Father” terminology altogether. The truth is that Peale’s collection (like scientific knowledge itself) was built by a whole family, with the support of their community. Wilson was just one player on the team (an all-star, undoubtedly). The patriarchal terminology is only popular (despite its historical inaccuracy) because it reflects our individualistic culture, in the United States, which (especially retrospectively) romanticizes and idolizes individual attainment over the success of the group.]

Categories: American History, Exploration, History of Science, Natural History, Ornithology, Philadelphia

2 comments

  1. Fascinating. I don’t get the impression that Wilson intentionally misrepresented his role, rather that historians exaggerated it. Peale’s family deserves more credit; I imagine Peale père doesn’t care.

  2. Just outstanding, Matt!! — Congrats on an extremely important contribution that will have scholars of orni history tearing out their gray/white hair– ’til they tap out or… something more permanent. –So tough for academics et al to give up their fondest ideas/beliefs even in the face of new data that contradicts prior “truth.” Good luck and hang tough weathering this fresh foray into rewriting history!

    Gregg

    Gregg E Gorton President Delaware Valley Ornithological Club HomoAves@gmail.com Narberth, PA, and Patagonia, AZ, USA (mobile) 267-303-2629

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