Alexander Wilson

(Paisley, Scotland)

Biography of Alexander Wilson

Alexander Wilson (July 6, 1766 – August 23, 1813) was a Scottish-American poet, ornithologist, naturalist, and illustrator. Identified by George Ord as the "Father of American Ornithology," Wilson is now regarded as the greatest American ornithologist before Audubon.

Several species of bird are named after Wilson, including the Wilson's storm-petrel, Wilson's plover, Wilson's phalarope, Wilson's snipe, and Wilson's warbler. The now obsolete warbler genus Wilsonia was named for him by Charles Lucien Bonaparte. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology and the Wilson Ornithological Society also bear his name.

Wilson was born in Paisley, Scotland. In 1779 he was apprenticed as a weaver. Inspired by the dialect verse of Robert Burns, who was only seven years older, Wilson soon became seriously interested in poetry, writing ballads, pastoral pieces, and satirical commentary on the conditions of weavers in the mills. The writing of a poem of severe personal satire against a mill owner, resulted in his arrest. He was sentenced to burn the work in public and imprisoned. After his release, he emigrated to America.

Wilson and his nephew left Scotland for America in May 1794. Opportunities were scarce for weavers, and Wilson turned to teaching in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, eventually settling into a position at Gray's Ferry, Pennsylvania and taking up residence in nearby Kingsessing. Here Wilson met the famous naturalist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson's interest in ornithology and painting. Resolving to publish a collection of illustrations of all the birds of North America, Wilson traveled widely, collecting, painting, and securing subscriptions for his work, the nine-volume American Ornithology (1808–1814). Of the 268 species of birds illustrated there, 26 had not previously been described. Wilson died during the preparation of the ninth volume, which was completed and published by George Ord.

Wilson is buried in Gloria Dei Church cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. George Ord, Wilson's friend, patron, and continuator of his work, is buried in the adjacent plot.

In Paisley, a memorial (on the banks of River Cart at the Hammills rapids/waterfall) and a statue (on the grounds of Paisley Abbey) commemorate Wilson's connection to that city. The memorial is inscribed "Remember Alexander Wilson 1766-1813. Here was his boyhood playground."

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The Fisherman's Hymn

THE osprey sails above the sound,
The geese are gone, the gulls are flying;
The herring shoals swarm thick around,
The nets are launched, the boats are plying;
Yo ho, my hearts! let's seek the deep,
Raise high the song, and cheerily wish her,
Still as the bending net we sweep,
'God bless the fish-hawk and the fisher!'

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