John James Audubon Collection

Houghton Library's John James Audubon Collection includes some of the ornithologist's earliest surviving drawings, as well as letters, manuscripts and specimens.
Belted kingfisher [Megaceryle alcyon]. Pastel, graphite, and ink on paper, 1808.
Houghton Library

While the great American naturalist John James Audubon (1786–1851) spent only a few months of his life the Boston area, strong ties to Boston, and in particular to Harvard, persist today.

A group of Harvard alumni and officers took an early subscription to the monumental Birds of America on behalf of the library, and later benefactors enriched the collection with gifts of drawings, letters, manuscripts, and specimens.

Painting of Carolina parakeet
Carolina parakeet. Watercolor, pastel, graphite, and ink on paper, 1811.
Houghton Library

The greatest of these benefactors was Joseph Y. Jeanes (1859–1928), a Philadelphia collector who bequeathed his Audubon collection to the library in 1928. Jeanes purchased many Audubon treasures from the naturalist’s friend and fellow ornithologist Edward Harris. These include:

Gifts from others include correspondence with:

  • Robert Havell, Jr., the English engraver for The Birds of America
  • John Bachman, the naturalist with whom Audubon collaborated on Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America
  • Thomas Mayo Brewer, the ornithologist and zoologist

The Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology holds additional Audubon drawings; ledgers and journals, including the journal and accounts relating to the Birds of America; and correspondence.

Reproductions of all of Audubon's early drawings held by Harvard are available through the links above, and in Audubon: Early Drawings with an introduction by Richard Rhodes, scientific commentary by Scott V. Edwards, and a history of the Harris Collection by Leslie A. Morris.

Accessing These Materials

All of Harvard's Audubon holdings are cataloged in HOLLIS.