Trial Run: Dunbar and Hunter

Part 7: Dunbar and Hunter

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Finding a leader for this Southwestern Expedition proved to be a really difficult task in early America. Jefferson, fairly early on in the process decided that he would enlist the assistance of a Scottish expatriate scientist who was living in Natchez, Mississippi, near the mouth of the Red River of the South. His name was Sir William Dunbar.

He was quite a famous character in early American history. Lived in a plantation that he called "The Forest," outside Natchez, where he was reputed to have had probably the best astronomical observatory in Jeffersonian America. He regularly published in the Edinborough Review, was one of those, sort of transatlantic figures.

And since he was on the scene, so to speak, in the Southwest, Jefferson decided to ask Dunbar if he would play a role in the Expedition. I think Jefferson had in mind possibly having Dunbar lead the expedition. Dunbar was intrigued by that—he sort of flirted with the idea, but what he agreed to do was to act as the on-the-scene director of the Expedition. And so this Southwestern probe, the Grand Excursion into the Southwest, will end up being fitted out, in its last stages, at Dunbar's home outside Natchez, Mississippi.

William Dunbar had a friend in Philadelphia whose name was Doctor George Hunter, who was a chemist. Not a well-known naturalist, but a naturalist who had some European training. And Dunbar and Hunter decided, in the winter of eighteen-four and eighteen-five, to perform what amounted to a trial expedition for the Grand Excursion into the Southwest. With sixteen men they led a short, four-month probe up the Washita River, a tributary of the Red River, into what is now the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. To the Hot Springs country, in fact. Both men were in their fifties. They were the first explorers, in fact, to report back from the Louisiana Territory. And no less than John James Audubon would later write that Dr. George Hunter was "that renowned man of Jefferson." George Hunter was known as a Jeffersonian explorer for the rest of his life, and he lived into the 1830s.

This little expedition, this trial run into the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, in the winter of eighteen-four and eighteen-five, convinced both Dunbar and Hunter, though, that they didn't want to go on the Grand Excursion up the Red River. And so Jefferson's hopes to get those two men to lead the big exploration into the Southwest, dissolved after the expedition into the Arkansas country. Dunbar, however, continued to act as the on-the-scenes director, and he and Jefferson kept up a wonderful correspondence in eighteen-five and eighteen-six as Jefferson and Dunbar tried to find leaders for this southwestern probe.