Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


From the moment of arrival in Van Buren County in 1855, William Savage (1832-1908) spent his spare time on rainy days and Sundays painting birds. Without any formal training, this pioneer artist presented a colorful record of nature along with a descriptive diary of busy daily activity around his farm.

From Greens Norton, Northamptonshire, England this artist emigrated to America at the age of 14 with his uncle, and settled in Cayuga County, New York. Left an orphan at 18 months, he was raised by his grandmother. Uncle William, who became his legal guardian, taught the lad to be a tailor.

William’s uncle Samuel had an adopted daughter named Anna, nine years senior. In 1853 the two were married, and the following year their son Walter was born. In 1856, the three left New York to settle in Salem, in Henry County, near where his uncle William had already moved. Young William found work as a tailor, and bought an 80-acre farm north of Hillsboro on Cedar Creek in Van Buren County from pioneer surgeon and Quaker, Thomas Siveter.

In a diary penned in short phrases, William noted various daily activities such as farming, painting houses, visiting neighbors, raising livestock, clearing brush, making skunk oil and painting birds. For example:

7/30/1856. Rain. Painted a bird.

2/13/1872. Painted hawk with chickadee in its talons.

8/7/1869. Saturday. To Salem to Monthly Meeting, then PM saw total eclipse of sun, grandest sight I ever saw as the shadow drew over the face of the sun. The shadow of the trees appeared curdling and a strange darkness of a yellow hue lasted about 10 minutes. Birds and chickens ran about in confusion, then actually went to roost. Air became cool and over nature a murky looking cloud hung in the northwest. Soon the shade began to pass and the roosters began to crow in time for the lamps to be lighted in some of the stores of Salem.

Illustrating mostly game birds, his paintings varied considerably in quality. Some were thick and muddy, while others showed exquisite feather detail and subtle color. His images of birds are quite accurate, occasionally equal to Audubon in detail, but he never mastered 3rd dimension.

Although his drawing of a grain harvester for a farmer in 1854 netted him the equivalent of one and one-half days pay, his artwork never became an important source of income. Nevertheless, he received a great deal of recognition. He gave speeches and presentations, and hundreds of people came to his home to view his bird collection.

Edgar Harlan, Keosauqua’s lawyer from 1896-1907 and Charles Aldrich, founder of the Historical Department in Iowa, toured Van Buren County during the summer of 1903 and visited Savage in Cedar Township. They viewed 300-400 pieces of work, and both men realized the importance of his drawings. Negotiations began, and the Savage Collection was added to the Iowa Historical Department in 1917.

He remained a humble man. Savage followed his trade of tailoring until it vanished from the scene as a custom. He farmed, painted houses, and trapped furs. Edgar Harlan noted that Savage kept a diary of natural history phenomena and made a water color drawing or sketch of nearly every bird that he observed in Iowa without ever expressing any desire for attention.

(condensed from an article in Iowa Heritage Illustrated, Spring 2000)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick