Alexander Wilson

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Alexander Wilson
Alexander Wilson
Born July 6, 1766
Paisley, Scotland
Died August 23, 1813(1813-08-23) (aged 47)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Nationality Scottish-American
Fields naturalist

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.[1]

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.


File:Alexander Wilson Statue.jpg
Wilson statue in Paisley

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.[2] 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."[3]


Wilson, Alexander. n.d. The tears of Britain. A poem. OCLC: 166684875.

Wilson, Alexander. 1808-1814. American Ornithology; or, the Natural History of the Birds of the United States: Illustrated with Plates Engraved and Colored from Original drawings taken from Nature.

Wilson, Alexander, and Alexander Wilson. 1800. List of pieces written by Mr. Alexander Wilson, now in Philadelphia. [Paisley, Scotland]: Printed by Andrew Young. At head of title: Paisley repository. No. VIII. Probable decade of imprint from NSTC. "The American blue bird [by A. Wilson, in verse]": p. 2-3; "The Baltimore bird [by A. Wilson, part in verse]": p. 4.

Wilson, Alexander. 1800. Watty and Meg: or the wife reclaimed, together with : Habbie Sampson and his wife or, a new way of raising the wind : Donald and his dog : the West Kintra weaver turned teetotaler : the Loss o' the pack : John Tamson's cart : Takin' it out o' his mouth. Paisley, Scotland: W. Wilson.

Wilson, Alexander. 1800. Rab and Ringan: a tale as delivered in the Pantheon, Edinburgh by the author of Watty and Meg; to which is added The twa cats and the cheese, a tale. Glasgow: Brash & Reid.

Wilson, Alexander. 1801. Oration, on the power and value of national liberty delivered to a large assembly of citizens, at Milestown, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday, March 4, 1801. Philadelphia: Printed by H. Maxwell. Reprinted in Early American imprints. Second series;, no. 1668.

Wilson, Alexander. Papers, 1806-1813. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. This material relates to Alexander B. Grosart's biography of Wilson. There are notes and copies of letters and documents, including a copy of Wilson's will. There is one poem by Wilson, "The Last Wish," and an 1806 letter to William Bartram.

Wilson, Alexander. 1814. The Foresters: A Poem, Descriptive of a Pedestrian Journey to the Falls of Niagara in the Autumn of 1804. Newtown (PA): S. Siegfried & J. Wilson. Also published in the magazine The Port Folio in 1809/1810.

Selected biographies of Alexander Wilson

  • Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology by Edward H. Burtt, Jr., and William E. Davis, Jr. Harvard UP, Cambridge and London. 2013.
  • The Life and Letters of Alexander Wilson by Clark Hunter. The American Philosophical Society for its Memoirs series, Volume 154, Philadelphia. 1983. ISBN 0-87169-154-X.
  • Alexander Wilson: Wanderer in the Wilderness by Robert Plate. David McKay Company, Inc. New York. 1966. Library of Congress Number 66-11348 (no ISBN).
  • Alexander Wilson: Naturalist and Pioneer by Robert Cantwell. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and New York. 1961. Library of Congress Number 61-12246 (no ISBN)
  • Alexander Wilson, Poet-Naturalist: A Study of His Life with Selected Poems by James Southall Wilson. Neale Publishing Company, New York and Washington. 1906.
  • Wilson the Ornithologist: A New Chapter in His Life by Allan Park Paton. Longmans, Green & Company. 1863.
  • Sketch of the Life of Alexander Wilson by George Ord. Harrison Hall, 1828. Biographer Clark Hunter adds: "This is substantially enlarged from that which Ord wrote for vol. 9 of the American Ornithology. Contains many more letters."[4]
  • Biographical Sketch of the Late Alexander Wilson to a Young Friend by Thomas Crichton. J. Neilson, Paisley. 1819.
  • Stone, Witmer. 1906. "Some Unpublished Letters of Alexander Wilson and John Abbot." The Auk, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1906), pp. 361–368.



  1. Hunter, Clark (1983), The Life and Letters of Alexander Wilson, American Philosophical Society, p. 111, ISBN 087169154X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Find a Grave. "Alexander Wilson". Retrieved 22 February 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Renfrewshire: Heritage and Local History Exhibits". Retrieved 30 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Hunter, edited by Clark (1983). The life and letters of Alexander Wilson. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 0-87169-154-X.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


Rothman, Irving N. "Alexander Wilson's Forest Adventure: the Sublime and the Satirical in Wilson's Poem 'The Foresters.'" Journal of the Society in the Bibliography of Natural History [British Museum] 6 (1973):142-54. [The Port Folio]

  • Biographies for Birdwatchers, Barbara & Richard Mearns ISBN 0-12-487422-3
  •  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "Wilson, Alexander" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links