Recommending Alexander Wilson to Thomas Jefferson
Recommending Alexander Wilson to Thomas Jefferson
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Recommending Alexander Wilson to Thomas Jefferson

WILLIAM BARTRAM, 1806

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Recommending Alexander Wilson to Thomas Jefferson
William Bartram, 1806
BARTRAM, William. Autograph letter signed ("William Bartram") to Thomas Jefferson, Kingress, 5 February 1806.

One page (326 x120mm). Integral transmittal leaf on verso addressed in Bartram's hand to Jefferson in Washington (irregular left margin).

William Bartram recommends Alexander Wilson for an expedition "exploring the Regions of Louisiana lying on the Mississippi and its extensive branches and investigating its Natural History." Although late for Lewis and Clark's expedition (by the time of writing the expedition was preparing to break camp on the Columbia River to return to St. Louis), Bartram recommends his friend, the ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) for future western expeditions. Bartram provides Jefferson a glowing endorsement for Wilson who had expressed "his wishes, and ardent desire, of being employed on that Service … Mr. Wilson is in my opinion as well qualified for the department of Drawing and painting in Natural History as any person we have. He likewise possesses the art of making preparations in subjects of the productions of Nature In Zoology, Ornithology &c. Mr. Wilson is a Man possessing very liberal scientific acquirements — Writes well — of irreproachable moral Character, Active, & indefatigable, A decided & firm Republican, agreeable to the genuine principles of the Legislative System of United States." Wilson a Scottish-born weaver, had come to America in 1794 where he took up teaching. Soon after he met William Bartram who encouraged Wilson's interest in paining and ornithology resulting in his nine-volume magnum opus, American Ornithology (1808-1814). If Jefferson responded to Bartram’s appeal, it has not been found. But the President did not find a place for Wilson, and it is a matter of conjecture whether the Scotsman, who was ill late in his short life (he was said to have died of dysentery, overwork and chronic poverty in 1813), would have survived the journey west. Jefferson instead offered his support to Wilson by subscribing to American Ornithology in 1806 (see the next lot in this catalogue).

Bartram also thanks Jefferson again for his offer of a place on "the voyage up the Red River," and regrets that his advanced age and declining eyesight prevented him from accepting. This letter is one of two copies known extant, the other is part of the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress. That version bears Jefferson's docket on the verso. The lack of postal markings and any recipient docket suggests this is Bartram's retained copy. Provenance: Christie's, New York, 24 November 1998, lot 218.

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