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William Dunbar

William Dunbar: Scientific Pioneer of the Old Southwest

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 280
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    William Dunbar
    Book Description:

    Scottish-born William Dunbar (1750--1810) is recognized by Mississippi and Southwest historians as one of the most successful planters, agricultural innovators, explorers, and scientists to emerge from the Mississippi Territory. Despite his successes, however, history books abridge his contributions to America's early national years to a few passing sentences or footnotes.William Dunbar: Scientific Pioneer of the Old Southwestrectifies past neglect, paying tribute to a man whose life was driven by the need to know and the willingness to suffer in pursuit of knowledge.

    From the beginning, research, contemplation, and scholarship formed the template by which Dunbar would structure his life. His mother's insistence on education motivated him throughout his youth, and in 1771, he sailed to America, prepared to seize any and all opportunities. Settling in the Mississippi territory, Dunbar embarked on the endeavors that would soon gain him renown. He surveyed the boundary between Spanish West Florida and the United States and contributed heavily to the rise of cotton culture through his inventions and innovations in agricultural technology.

    In 1804, at the same time that Lewis and Clark were making their way up the Missouri River, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Dunbar -- now a fellow member of the prestigious American Philosophical Society -- to lead a similar exploration of the southern Louisiana Purchase territory. The 103-day expedition captured the imagination of Americans looking to move westward and yielded the first information about the geographical, geological, and meteorological characteristics of the old Southwest.

    Arthur H. DeRosier Jr. traces Dunbar's life from his ambition as a youth to his development into a man recognized by his contemporaries as a leader in many scientific fields. Drawing upon the private journal of Dunbar's granddaughter Virginia Dunbar McQueen and neglected historical annals, William Dunbar examines Dunbar's public and private life, the scope of his interests, and the lasting contributions he left to a country and people he loved.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5767-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Rediscovery
    (pp. 1-6)

    Ours is a young country peopled by citizens of differing colors, cultures, and beliefs who added much to a rich native civilization already populating the Americas from sea to sea. Some immigrants were attracted to one or another of the thirteen colonies founded along the continent’s east coast after 1607. There evolved a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Europeans who valued land over all else and who equated opportunity with the availability of land, even though that land had to be stolen from native people who already owned every inch of it. The Indian removal story remains one of the saddest chapters...

  5. 1 The Dunbar Family of Elgin, Scotland
    (pp. 7-14)

    As 1779 closed, William Dunbar stood silently looking at the rubble around him. In February 1778, the Continental Congress had sent an expedition, led by Captain James Willing, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Willing was charged with capturing and securing Natchez and routing Loyalists all the way south to New Orleans. Willing was instructed only to secure control of Natchez, Manchac, and environs, and not to damage property. Against those instructions, Willing wreaked vengeance against known Loyalists, including William Dunbar. Burning and trampling with abandon, Willing and his troops destroyed much of Dunbar’s new and growing plantation.¹ The next...

  6. 2 The Youthful Years
    (pp. 15-24)

    Life was hard in mid-eighteenth-century Elgin. Not only was agriculture unproductive and industry scarce, but, worse still, the educational facilities one needed to escape poverty and stretch the mind were practically nonexistent. As late as 1793, there were only two small schools in Elgin, each employing one schoolmaster.¹ That number would hardly be adequate for a sparsely populated rural environment; in a town of 6,306 in 1775, the lack of schools and teachers made opportunities for learning few. The absence of basic educational opportunities was perhaps one reason that the town was stagnant for decades. While much of the rest...

  7. 3 From Pennsylvania to Louisiana
    (pp. 25-38)

    As England disappeared and the wide open ocean surrounded the ship Dunbar took on that long journey to Philadelphia, there is no doubt he realized he was on his own. He was now twenty-one years of age and must seek his place in an exciting and rapidly changing world. Clearly, he knew also that moving half a world away was quite different from moving two towns from home. One allowed the continuation of family ties, including immediate help and advice; the other did not. Dunbar selected opportunity over predictability, danger over sameness. He knew, as did thousands of Scots before...

  8. 4 The American Revolution in Manchac
    (pp. 39-44)

    As 1777 gave way to 1778, William Dunbar seemed quite pleased with his progress to date. His journal entries from this period are quite short and matter-of-fact but positive. He had been in America for nearly seven years, and he had accomplished much. Since landing in Philadelphia in April 1771, Dunbar had befriended the Rosses, found land to his liking in West Florida, acquired that land and a slave workforce, and progressed as a planter far away from the colonial rebellion against the mother country that had gone from angry protest to armed conflict by the mid-1770s. If the American...

  9. 5 From Darkness to Light
    (pp. 45-54)

    There is no doubt that 1780 was the darkest year in Dunbar’s life; it was also the beginning of a much brighter chapter in his life. As his thirtieth birthday approached, this man of Scottish fortune who might once have expected that the world owed him an American version of Duffus House and titles lost in Scotland had lost almost everything in America, too. He had nothing but land, a personal commitment to succeed, and hope in an unforgiving, mostly undeveloped part of a continent where the certainty of British supremacy was crumbling and a new nation of disparate colonies...

  10. 6 A Dream Realized
    (pp. 55-64)

    One claim made by visitors to Natchez is that it is the most charming small city in America. It’s not on the way to anywhere, so tourists must go out of their way to walk its streets, see its old southern homes, and cloak themselves in its distinctive history. Its unique features today are the same ones William Dunbar inherited in 1792—high hills on which stately homes were being built, with the largest river in North America flowing by; a lower level, Natchez under the Hill, to which ships of all kinds and sizes docked, depositing and loading goods...

  11. 7 Emergence on the National Scene
    (pp. 65-76)

    Land brings out the best and worst in humans, mostly the worst. Many assertions have been made about religious and political freedom as magnets attracting Europeans to our shores, but the truth of the matter is that land—its lack of availability to Europeans, from Spain to Scotland—is what whetted the appetite for migration. Land was dear, essentially because there was not much of it for most folks in Europe; that which was available was reserved for a precious few through the medieval practices of entail and primogeniture and the control of the Church. Land simply was not available...

  12. 8 Scientist
    (pp. 77-88)

    William Dunbar earned national recognition and status after 1798 based on the reputation he gained as a scientist running the thirty-first parallel line with Andrew Ellicott. As the lead U.S. commissioner laboring on a thorny boundary problem with another country, Ellicott gained respect back home in the East, and he emerged as the central figure in a successful endeavor. Dunbar emerged as a hero, too, particularly in Mississippi Territory, because the new, accurate boundary settled a dangerous local problem that had festered for years—and, more significant, because the border placed Natchez squarely in the United States, where its citizens...

  13. 9 Land Policies
    (pp. 89-98)

    To understand William Dunbar’s rise to wealth and influence in Mississippi Territory, one must first explore the importance of land and policies that governed its granting. The land policies adopted by different nations did not include automatic recognition of prior grants by one or more other nations, in part because the changes in national authority over a region usually had something to do with winning and losing wars. Nowhere in America were land policy difficulties more complex and more unsolvable than in the old Southwest. At various times, the lower Mississippi region was owned by different Indian tribes, Spain, England,...

  14. 10 Cotton and Slavery
    (pp. 99-112)

    As Dunbar’s agricultural pursuits in Natchez evolved, cotton became his most important staple.¹ When he arrived in Manchac in 1773, British authorities were urging settlers to cultivate and ship indigo, but Dunbar preferred barrel staves. Not only was indigo a difficult crop to cultivate because of its susceptibility to and bad weather, but producing staves was a year-round activity needing only oak trees and labor. Moreover, staves were in high demand. Then came the Spanish with their pet agricultural products, always indigo and often tobacco; both were tried in the Natchez region, and with some success. Dunbar was planting on...

  15. 11 Agricultural Experimenter
    (pp. 113-122)

    It was not easy to be a successful plantation owner. Those, such as William Dunbar, who became well known understood the ingredients necessary for success. Though it all began with the best land available, many planters who worked fertile land failed; success required business and financial skills as well as an understanding of fixed plantation costs. For example, sugar mills, cotton gins, rice irrigation ditches, and tobacco barns were costly items but essential to growing each of those staples. Such fixed costs forced owners to increase the size of land holdings and the number of slaves in an effort to...

  16. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  17. 12 An Invitation to Serve
    (pp. 123-136)

    The years 1803 and 1804 were exciting ones for the United States. In 1803, an area that almost doubled the size of the country was transferred, without a war or dire threats of one, from Spain to France and, then, to the United States. How this happened, and why, is an interesting and complicated chapter in the history of the old Southwest—a region whose evolution involved many countries and Indian tribes and was as unpredictable as the mighty river all tried to control and use to their advantage—but only ancillary as a chapter in the William Dunbar story....

  18. 13 One Hundred Three Days
    (pp. 137-152)

    As the Ouachita—hot springs expedition left St. Catherine’s landing on the morning of October 16, 1804, in a boat totally unfit for the journey ahead, there were aboard seventeen men participating in the adventure of a lifetime: Dunbar, one of his slaves, George Hunter, Hunter’s son George Jr., a sergeant, and twelve enlisted men garrisoned in New Orleans (a pilot-guide would be added at Fort Miro). Dunbar bade good-bye to family and home and, when he saw his beloved cliffs, nearly two hundred feet high, fade into the distance, he must have wondered whether he would ever again see...

  19. 14 Moments of Success and Disappointment
    (pp. 153-166)

    The praise that accompanies success can be momentary or permanent. It was permanent for Lewis and Clark; it was momentary for William Dunbar, even though President Jefferson believed Dunbar’s contributions to be significant. Though Lewis and Clark spent a considerable amount of time in Louisiana Purchase lands, they did not find an all-water route to the Pacific, nor were their scientific observations as diversified and thorough as Dunbar’s. Dunbar was a scientist; Lewis and Clark were not. Yet the mention of Dunbar’s Ouachita-hot springs expedition—the first completed in purchased Louisiana lands—brings forth an unknowing stare and the inevitable...

  20. 15 The Importance of Education
    (pp. 167-176)

    From childhood, the center of Dunbar’s life was education; he was the product of a brilliant mother who taught him the wonder of learning and the magic of problem solving. In addition, Dunbar was born in the middle of Scotland’s eighteenth-century educational renaissance, when its colleges and universities were without peer the world over, and he emerged from his youth and King’s College as an educated youngster committed to continuing to learn for the rest of his life. And learn he did, becoming a trusted surveyor in Spanish West Florida and an architect in the old Southwest while gaining recognition...

  21. 16 Politics, Mississippi Style
    (pp. 177-190)

    William Dunbar constantly lamented the untidiness of politics; he told his family, friends, President Jefferson, and the world that he hated politics and was thankful that he was not a politician. Then again, he always maintained that he was not a businessman either, when in reality he was one of the shrewdest, most successful businessmen in Mississippi Territory. Dunbar’s political instincts were among the keenest in an area that prided itself on politics as a game to be played and won. Though he never held high office, his political acumen underwrote his business success, enabling him to continue to succeed...

  22. 17 At Home
    (pp. 191-202)

    In many ways, Natchez, the town, and environs, including Second Creek, where the Dunbar family resided, mirrored William Dunbar the man. Natchez—and, indeed, early Mississippi—owed its persona to the territory’s proximity to the Mississippi River and New Orleans, to its ability to handle ships coming and going on the river, and to its high-quality soil, warm weather, and relative isolation from Memphis, St. Louis, Louisville, and Pittsburgh to the north and east and New Orleans to the south. Natchez’s location was tempered and flavored by French, English, and Spanish occupancy, Georgia foolishness, and the town’s ability to remain...

  23. 18 The End of a Life
    (pp. 203-212)

    William Dunbar died on October 16, 1810, “the victim of a most afflicting malady.”¹ In that time and place, the cause of death was seldom spelled out in medical terms unless it was smallpox, malaria, cancer, yellow fever, or some other obvious illness. Dunbar died, I think, of inquisitiveness. He devoted each day of his majority to re-creating what he would have had in Scotland had he been the firstborn son and, more important, satisfying his personal scientific curiosity about nearly everything. As a youth, he tested dust in Morayshire and water in the Firth of Moray. As an adult,...

  24. 19 The Legacy
    (pp. 213-218)

    Was William Dunbar a great American? If diversity of interests and inquisitiveness are the yardstick, he certainly was extraordinary. If recognition beyond his lifetime is the yardstick, he was not. But Dunbar certainly deserves recognition for the quality of his astronomical calculations at the thirty-first parallel in 1798, for his achievements as a scientific explorer, for his part in founding a college, for his significant scholarly contributions to the American Philosophical Society, for his improvements in the taking of longitude, and for his remarkable political skills.

    And then there was cotton. There can be no question about the leadership role...

  25. Postscript: A Note on the History of the Forest Plantation in Natchez
    (pp. 219-222)

    It would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate the significance of William Dunbar’s home, the Forest, to the story of his life; indeed, throughout this book, I, along with various other historians, Dunbar’s descendants, Dunbar himself, guests of the Dunbars, and an assortment of authors writing during Dunbar’s lifetime, have made reference to the Forest as reflective of Dunbar’s values, mission, and place in society. In every case, it was assumed that there was only one mansion built on the plantation.

    Early in my research for this work, I journeyed to Second Creek, Mississippi, and met Dunbar descendant Marian...

  26. Notes
    (pp. 223-252)
  27. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 253-262)
  28. Index
    (pp. 263-270)