Audubon’s Dr. Paul Gray writes this article about John James Audubon’s trip to the St. Augustine area in 1831-1832. Enjoy:
In May I visited St. Augustine with the Friends of the Okeechobee Battlefield Historic Site to collect background information on the final internment for many of the US soldiers from the battle, and to visit Fort Marion where one of the chiefs, Coacoochee (Wildcat), escaped imprisonment in November to participate in the Okeechobee battle in December. Although this trip was for personal interests, there is much entwined with my work with Audubon.
John James Audubon visited St. Augustine in 1831-32, shortly before the Second Seminole War started (in 1835). This painting of a Greenshank has been of much interest because it was the only record of this European bird from Florida for more than a century. Audubon says he shot this specimen from a group of three in the Florida Keys, but that account has been widely questioned by modern ornithologists. Bill Pranty informed me that a Greenshank recently was found in an Ohio collection that was labeled from Florida and now is accepted as the first verified Florida record (Kratter 2010, Florida Field Naturalist page 156).
What ever the case, Audubon painted the bird, and the background of Fort Marion (also named the Castillo de San Marcos) was probably painted by George Lehman, a Swiss landscape artist who accompanied Audubon in Florida and did many of the backgrounds for his birds here. Audubon commonly had others paint backgrounds for him and perhaps having different people work on the pieces contributed to the mixed depth perspectives of some pieces that have drawn a humorous critique of “giant bird attacks Fort.”
Audubon was collecting birds for his Birds of America, and wrote, “At St. Augustine, in Florida, I shot a young bird of this species [Ruddy Duck] immediately under the walls of the fort. Although wounded severely and with one of its legs broken close to the body, it dived at once. My Newfoundland Dog leaped into the water, and on reaching the spot were the bird had disappeared, dived also, and in a few moments came up with the poor thing in his mouth.”
Audubon also collected a Caracara near St. Augustine, a part of their range they no longer inhabit. He snuck up on a group of vultures and the Caracara feeding on a carcass and, “I got up suddenly, when the whole of the birds took flight. The eagle…passed over me. I shot, but to my great mortification missed it….The following day the bird returned…when once more I shot, but without effect.” A few days later Audubon, “dispatched my assistant, who returned with it in little more than half an hour. I immediately began my drawing of it.”
During Christmas week of 1831, Audubon reported, “Mr. J.J. Bulow, a rich planter, at whose home myself and party have been for a whole week under the most hospitable and welcome treatment is now erecting some extensive buildings for a sugar house.” Bulow reportedly had the largest sugar plantation in the region, cultivating 800 acres and having as many as 300 slaves.
Soon after Audubon continued his travels, Seminole tensions erupted. In late 1835 the plantations in the region were sacked by Native Americans lead primarily by “King Phillip” (Coacoochee father). Bulow’s plantation was taken over as a military command post but abandoned on January 13, 1836 due to lack of military success. Bulow was taken from the plantation by the army and it was promptly sacked and burned by the Natives. Bulow returned to Europe and died soon after, still in his 20s. The remnant buildings now are a State Historic Park.
Our group visited Fort Marion where King Phillip, Coacoochee, and Osceola were notoriously interred after being taken prisoner “under a flag of truce” in 1837. Coacoochee and a band of about 20 Native Americans escaped on November 29. King Phillip was too old to join them and Osceola too sick, neither survived their imprisonment. Coacoochee was able to travel south to the Battle of Okeechobee on Christmas day, 1837 (26 days after escaping St. Augustine; see my previous blog on that). It was perhaps his report of Native American treatment that resulted in such a vigorous battle.
For more information see: “Audubon in Florida” by Kathryn Hall Proby and “The Seminole waters: America’s longest Indian conflict” by John Missall and Mary Lou Missall.