Historical Markers
Mill Grove (John James Audubon) Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Mill Grove (John James Audubon)

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Entrance to Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary, Audubon and Pawlings Rds. (SR 4041 and 4004), Audubon

Dedication Date:
October 9, 1970

Behind the Marker

A man sitting outdoors holds a rifle.
John James Audubon, by Unidentified Artist, copy after John Woodhouse Audubon,...
Built in 1762 by James Morgan, Mill Grove was home for three years (1803-1806) to John James Audubon (1785-1851), whose paintings of American birds are unequaled for their beauty and accuracy. It was also the site where Audubon came to love nature and began his studies of birds.

Born in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Audubon was the illegitimate son of a chambermaid and a French sea captain, who was a plantation owner and slave trader. After his father's death, Audubon was raised in Nantes, France by his stepmother and stepfather as their own son. The couple formally adopted him in 1800 to enable him to inherit their property, although after their deaths, relatives successfully sued to obtain the estate. Young Audubon disliked the naval academy at Rochefort-sur-Mer where he spent the years 1796 to 1800, and his parents encouraged his artistic abilities although he never received any formal training

John Audubon's painting of the passenger Pigeon.
John James Audubon, pastel and ink sketch of Passenger Pigeon A.W. Columbia...
To prevent his conscription into Napoleon's army, Audubon's stepfather in 1803 sent him to take charge of the 175-acre estate at Mill Grove that he had purchased in the hopes of finding a profitable lead mine on its grounds. There, Audubon spent the happiest years of his life where "hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every day." Here, too, he became the first person in America to "band" birds, tying strings to their legs to determine that migrating birds returned each year to the same location.

He also mastered the art of inserting wires into the dead birds he used for his sketches - he usually shot them - to pose them realistically. After returning to France in 1806 to obtain his father's permission to marry a neighbor, Lucy Bakewell - who stood by him through all his tribulations - he burned with the "desire to acquire a thorough knowledge of the birds of this happy country."

Painting of six birds. In the top left hand corner a cardinal is in flight. In The lower left through the center of the painting four birds are perched upon tree branches. In the lower right hand corner a bird grouses at the ground.
Hand-colored illustration, Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology, 1814....
Audubon was not the first Pennsylvanian to interest himself in birds. William Bartram (1739-1823), whose father markerJohn Bartram, had begun British North America's first botanical garden, which still stands on the banks of the Schuylkill in West Philadelphia, catalogued some 215 species of American birds on his journeys between 1773 and 1777. Early in the nineteenth century, Alexander Wilson (1766-1813), published a nine-volume American Ornithology based on his own sketches.

When Audubon's lead mine failed in 1808, he intended to follow in Wilson's and Bartram's footsteps. He headed west to Kentucky, where he ran a general store in Henderson as an agent for a firm headquartered in New Orleans. Over the next decade, sketch pad in hand, Audubon traveled east to New York and Philadelphia and down river to Louisiana. In 1819, his business failed during the Panic of 1819, and he suffered a brief imprisonment for debt. Even worse, rats ate and destroyed most of his early drawings.

In the early 1820s, Audubon worked at a series of jobs in Kentucky and Louisiana while he pursued at his dream of sketching every bird that could be found in the United States. When he brought his work to Philadelphia in 1824, however, pupils and friends of the late Wilson spurned Audubon's work and prevented its acceptance by the Academy of Natural Sciences despite the favorable opinions of Prince Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's nephew who was living in exile in Philadelphia and was a noted ornithologist himself. (One of the birds Audubon painted was "Bonaparte's Flycatching-Warbler")
Painting of a warbler bird on a magnolia branch.
Bonaparte's Flycatching Warbler, by John James Audubon.
Audubon's own caustic opinions of Wilson's work had not helped him succeed in "the ice city" among those he called "the Philadelphia sharks."

A three-story brick home covered in ivy and surrounded by trees.
Mill Grove, Audubon, PA, circa 1990.
Armed with a recommendation from Philadelphia's leading painter Thomas Sully, who enthused that "for strength, expression and exquisite representation" Audubon's birds exceeded "the first masters of Europe," Audubon went to Britain in 1826, where he found both the skilled engravers and wealthy patrons needed to print the "elephant" (very large) folios (folded pieces of paper) he required to present the birds in full-size, life-like sketches. His multi-volume Ornithological Biography and Birds of America, published between 1827 and the 1840s, were beautiful sets selling for $1,000 each. (At a 1993 auction at Christie's, a set of the latter sold for three million dollars.)
Colored illustration of the American beaver by John James Audubon, first published in 1854.
John James Audubon, "American Beaver,"1854.

Audubon returned to the United States several times, leaving England permanently in 1837. He continued to travel in search of birds throughout the continent, employing Pennsylvania artist George Lehman to execute many of his background scenes. The sale of his works finally enabled him to settle with his wife and two surviving sons (two daughters died young) on an estate he called "Minnie's Land" in Manhattan on the Hudson River.

In 1840, Audubon embarked on an even more ambitious project, to paint all the "quadrupeds" of North America as he had depicted its birds. His sons finished the volume after Audubon's mind and eyesight both failed in the mid-1840s, keeping their role secret so as not to compromise sales. His widow sold the original sketches on which Birds of America is based to the New-York Historical Society, which still owns them.

Although the Audubon Society, dedicated to the preservation of animal life and the environment, now disapproves of its namesake's practice of killing birds in order to sketch them, it is correct in acknowledging his role as the man whose drawings first stimulated many of his countrymen to appreciate the unique beauty of America's wildlife.

Today, Mill Grove is Audubon's only surviving home. It preserves Audubon's studio and taxidermy room in addition to the grounds, and also sponsors educational and recreational programs to increase appreciation of nature on the site Audubon first came to love it.
Back to Top