Lucy Audubon to Gifford Duffield Bank, 1814

“Letters from the Past
From Lucy Audubon in Henderson, Kentucky
to her cousin, Miss Gifford, Duffield Bank near Derby, 1814 ”

This is quite a chatty letter from someone who is feeling the lack of letters from home in her new country. The family had emigrated to America and were living in Henderson, Kentucky, where she and her husband were raising a family, and they had opened a store there. The letter is a marvellous piece of social history with information that would be a great surprise to their cousins in England.

There are no postmarks, only the charge mark of the cost of sending the letter on from the port of arrival to Duffield, and in this case it was one shilling and one penny. It is also very fragile, and where the letter has been folded for so many years, the paper is separating. Despite this, I was able to open it sufficiently to be able to read it.

When I transcribed the letter, and read the signature Lucy Audubon, I wondered if it might have any connection to the only Audubon I recognised, who is the artist who illustrated the Birds of America reference book. Further research proved this to be the case, and this letter was written by his wife. It turned out that she was an educated, capable, strong woman who went from a life of comparative wealth and ease to a new life of struggle, and financial difficulties. This is the basic information about Lucy and her family.

Lucy Green Bakewell was born in Burton on Trent in England on June 18th 1787, her parents were Thomas Woodhouse Bakewell, and Lucy Green. Her father championed her education, believing education to be "necessary to make a woman a better companion and helpmate to the man she married." He sent Lucy to a nearby boarding school, but her education was most enhanced by her own study, in addition to having a personal tutor as well as a mother who cared deeply about her daughter's education.

Her siblings were Thomas, Eliza, Sarah, Ann, and William Gifford. These are mentioned in our letter.
The family emigrated to Connecticut in 1798 when Lucy was 11, but then moved on in 1803 to Pennsylvania, onto the family’s plantation at Fatland Ford, where she met the ornithologist and artist John James Audubon. She taught him English and he taught her French.

These images from Wikipedia show Lucy as a young woman, and John James as a young man.


John James Audubon went on to become one of the world’s best illustrator of birds. Audubon’s great masterpiece was The Birds of America, published in London by R. Havell & Son, 1827-1838. This four-volume elephant folio set achieved Audubon’s goal that the birds should be shown life size, in action and in appropriate settings. The Birds of America was a popular and lucrative success, earning Audubon a place among the great American artists of the nineteenth century. By 1902 it was reported that There is hardly a library in any stately home in England which does not have a copy of Audubon’s work.

She married him, in the parlour at Fatland Ford on 5th April, 1808 and they had four children, Victor Gifford, John Woodhouse, Sarah and Rosa, but both the daughters died in infancy. The two sons are mentioned in this letter.

This letter, is so interesting as it gives specific information, which can be confirmed. Her father and brother lived at Shelbyville Kentucky. The writing has hardly faded at all and is absolutely legible.

Henderson, Feby 27th, 1814

My dear Cousin, in a letter I received from my Aunt Bakewell a day or two ago, she says that she has just had the pleasure of hearing from you and I participate in the pleasure for it is so long since my last three letters have lain unreplyed to that it was unexpected and welcome.

I wrote last to you from my Father’s two years ago, and tho’ I felt hurt at your silence, I would have repeated my epistles had I not understood from my father that you were in London, but how to direct to you he did not know. It is 18 months since I again took up my abode in this place, since which I have another son named John Woodhouse who is 15 months old, has been running alone about 4 months and is really a sprightly little boy. Gifford is spelling and amusing himself with a slate and pencil occasionally. My Brother Thomas set out a week ago for Philadelphia to purchase some more goods for our store here. He will bring my Brother Wm with him, and I have some expectation of my Sister Eliza coming with him also.

Note: 1) John Woodhouse Audubon, their second son became a noted painter,like his father, but he concentrated on fauna, rather than birds. Information about him can be found on the internet.

Looking at the map Philadelphia seems a long way to go to obtain supplies for the store. The references on the internet imply that the store belonged to John James Audubon, but Lucy definitely writes about ‘OUR’ store.

Shortly after the birth of their son, the couple had financial problems. As John James scrambled to make ends meet for his family, Lucy Audubon met Elizabeth Speed Rankin, who asked her to tutor her children. She continued to do so as John James travelled. His absences were frequent and long, leaving Lucy Audubon in charge of the family. At one point, she returned to Fatland Ford with her children.

The letter then continues explaining why she feels anxious.

I was much gratified to hear of my Aunt White for all my correspondents have become silent since I was married and if they were aware how much pleasure a few lines of chit-chat about my old friends gave me they would again resume their pens in my service and I sincerely hope that I do not in vain solicit a renewal of your correspondence with myself. For be assured Dear Cousin your kindness and the happy hours I have passed in Duffield are as fresh to my memory as ever, and will be ever thought of with affection and gratitude, and it is a real pleasure to me to hear a few words of the people or any part of the country you live in with which I am acquainted. I feel a loss of the papers and magazines which I used to see at my fathers.

This next paragraph is the part which surprised me, and which I would think would have been a complete surprise for the English relatives, as earthquakes are almost unknown there.

This part of the country has been agitated by frequent and some severe shocks of Earthquake for two years past, the most violent shocks were in Feby 1812 and they have continued decreasing in some measure ever since. The last we felt was in Decb 4 1813, the 12th and 10th about 11 oclock in the morning. We have had a remarkably mild winter, but our mild winters are generally succeeded by wet backward springs.

Note: 2) I checked on the report of earthquakes and found this on the Kentucky University website. This is an extract of the relevant information, which supports Lucy’s comments in her letter.

Earthquakes have occurred in and around Kentucky in the past and continue to occur. The most significant earthquakes to have affected Kentucky occurred from December 1811 to February 1812 in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. At least three large earthquakes, each estimated to have been greater than magnitude 7, occurred during that period. Though the state was sparsely settled then, these earthquakes affected the whole commonwealth. The New Madrid Seismic Zone is the most active seismic zone in the central and eastern United States, and a repeat of earthquakes with the same magnitude as the 1811-12 earthquakes could cause significant damage in Kentucky.

The letter finishes with details of where they are living, and how she will send it.

We own a lot in this Town consisting of 4 acres on which is our dwelling house, and store, both wooden buildings, a tollerable (sic) orchard and fine ground for a garden, but that we have to make.

I will send this on to my Brother to send it and I shall hope for a reply. If we were not so far removed from the Sea ports we could frequently send you little curiosities which our removed situation renders impracticable.

Mr Audubon joins me in kind regards to you and wishes you heath and enjoyment.

I reman your ever affectionate Cousin

Lucy Audubon Henderson, Kentucky

It is said that Lucy Audubon, despite being “brought up in comfort”, eventually “became a woman of towering strength in adversity”. To support her family, she sought an advance on her inheritance, acquiring $8,000 from her father. John James’s lengthy absences, of course, were felt by the family, but Lucy served as the ultimate ‘breadwinner’. She worked tirelessly to support her husband’s success while caring for her sons, tutoring, and serving as a governess. Lucy was later hired to work for Jane Percy of Beech Woods, a plantation in what is now West Feliciana Parish in Louisiana. In this position, she was recognized as ‘a woman of refinement and intelligence, a well-qualified and experienced teacher.’

She taught a number of students, all of which were from affluent areas in Feliciana. She was considered to be a surrogate mother for many of her students.

When John James died, in 1851 aged 71, Lucy Audubon at 70 returned to work to support her family. In a letter to a friend, Lucy said:

It does seem to me as if we were a doomed family, for all of us are in pecuniary difficulties more or less.

Twenty-three years after John James, Lucy Audubon died at 86. She had been staying with her brother, Will, in Shelbyville, Kentucky.

We have a later letter written to miss Gifford in Duffield, nr Derby, also from America, Click here to see this letter.

From these letters it seems that the Gifford cousins in England, were not frequent correspondents.

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