Path of the American woodsman

Saturday May 19, 2012


Jean-Jacques was born in 1785 in Les Cayes in the French colony called "Saint-Dom ingue," in what would become Haiti. The circumstances of his birth were kept a painful secret; he was born out-of-wedlock in an era where such children were described ignominiously as "bastards" and was cause for disinheritance. Later in life he made up a yarn that he was born in Louisiana to "a lady of Spanish extraction . . . as beautiful as she was wealthy."

His father was also named "Jean," and was French by birth. He was a French privateer -- he was given formal permission by governments to pirate the merchant ships of hostile nations. He was also one of 21 children, a merchant marine captain from a long line of merchant marine captains, taken prisoner by the British for five years during the Seven Years War, taken prisoner by the British for 13 months during the American Rev olution, a commander of an American armed vessel, and a witness to the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

He became a wealthy colonist plantation owner and merchant. One author described Jean as a "lusty, swashbuckling sailor, who sailed the triangle from Europe, North America, and the West Indies in pursuit of profit and prize."

In France in 1772, when Jean was 28, he had married Anne Moynet (nine years his senior) long before his arrival in Saint-Domingue. Anne, the childless widow of a prosperous merchant, remained in France. During Jean's stay in Saint-Domingue, all apparently while legally married to Anne, Jean had two mixed-race children with a white African housekeeper Catherine Bouf farde, who went by the name of "Sanitte."

On passage from a trip from France to Les Cayes, Jean met the "extraordinarily beautiful" Mademoiselle Jeanne Rabin, a French chambermaid, 25 years of age. Jean persuaded the lovely young woman to live with him on his plantation instead of working for a wealthy lawyer as originally intended. Eventually, Rabin supplanted the affections of Sanitte. The result of that union was Jean-Jacques. The young French chambermaid was to die of infection within six months of giving birth. Jean was to resume his liaison with Sanitte, and a child, "Rose" was born.

Correctly sensing impending doom (there were 40,000 whites on the island and 452,000 slaves), his father sold a good portion of his plantation just as the Haitian slave revolt was developing in 1789. The proceeds from the sale of the Les Cayes plantation were used to buy another plantation just outside of Philadelphia called Mill Grove.


At the age of six, Jean-Jacques was whisked away with his father to join Anne in a town just outside of Nantes, France, just six months before the bloody slave revolt. Rose also went, but the ship manifest listed her mother as "Jeanne Rabin" instead of "Sanitte" in order to hide her mixed race heritage. Anne adopted both the young boy and Rose in 1794. He must have loved Rose -- later in life he had two daughters that died as infants, a "Lucy" named after his wife, and a "Rosa" or "Rose."

In Nantes another bloody revolution arrived: the French Revolution. When Jean-Jacques was eight and nine, a French Revolutionary by the name of Jean-Baptiste Carrier engaged in a series of mass executions in 1793-1794 by drowning hundreds of suspected Royalist sympathizers, including women, children, nuns and priests. According to Jean-Jacque's future father-in-law, Jean-Jacques gave "us some horrid accounts of the cruelties practiced during the time of that monster Robespierre and his agents Carrier and others in Nantes where his father lives. His parents, [with himself and sister], were imprisoned for a considerable time and made escape in a very dangerous manner."

To escape conscription in Napoleon's army, in 1803 the 18-year-old Jean-Jacques used a falsified passport to come to America. His father sent him to Mill Grove and he was given a share. When he arrived in the U.S., he anglicized his name so it was not so foreign sounding: "Jean-Jacques" became "John James." It is believed that the man who would eventually become known as "The American woodsman" knew little to no English when he first came to America.

He was to develop a lead mine at Mills Grove and manage the plantation, but his mind and body were constantly drifting to the woods. After he left Mill Grove, he ran a general store, then a trapping business, and then a lumber and wheat mill -- all of which eventually went belly-up and lead him to a stint in debtor's prison.

In tribute to this unlikely American hero, the Berkshire Museum has on display, "Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds," an exhibition dedicated to that young Frenchmen that you might know as John James Audubon.

Rinaldo Del Gallo is an occasional Eagle contributor. "Taking Flight: Audubon and the World of Birds" will be on display at the Berkshire Museum until June 17


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