Adams County Mississippi Genealogy & History Network










William Dunbar

c1749 – 16 Oct 1810

(submitted by Clayton Rand)



Born near Elgin in Morayshire, Scotland in c1749 in the manorhouse of Thunderson that had long sheltered his titled ancestors, William Dunbar became the foemost scholar and scientist of the American Southwest.


Educated at Glasgow, he continied his advanced sutdies in mathmatics and astronomy in London. Breaking under the strain, he sailed for the New World when he was twenty-two to regain his health and find fortune. He arrived in Pittsburgh in 1771 with goods valued at five thousand dollars to trade with the Native Americans.


In 1773 he formed a partnership with John Ross, a Scotch merchant of Philadelphia, to establish a plantation in the British provence of West Florida. Dunbar came down the Ohio and Mississippi in a flatboat and repaired to Jamaica to buy slaves. At Pensacola, the seat of government, he secured title to lands near New Richmond, now Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Had it not been for the unsettled conditions of the times, which repeatedly wiped away his accumulations, he would have prospered there.


In 1775 he lost many of his slaves in an insurrection. In 1778 bandits raided his premises. In 1779 Spanish soldiers plundered his plantation, burned his fences, and destroyed his crops. In 1792, after twenty years spent at Baton Rouge, he opened up a plantation called The Forest and moved to his new location, nine miles south of Natchez.


At Baton Rouge, along with the cultivation of various crops, he had manufactured slaves for the West Indies trade. From Natchez he shipped ochre to Boston. He grew tobacco, experimented with indigo, and pioneered in cotton.


He applied his knowledge of chemistry and mechanics to make his plantation a self-sustaining unit. He forged plows and harrows to his own patterns. He improved the cotton gin that was coming into common use to produce a cleaner staple. He introduced the square cotton bale as more suitable for packing and shipping and invented a screw-press, which he had forged in Philadelphia according to his original design at a cost of one thousand dollars. He extracted oil from cotton seed one hundred years before it was done commercially, described the product, and prophesied its future.


Dunbar prospered, purchased his partner's interest in the plantation, and pursued his scientific research. He took the oath of allegiance to the American flag and bacame the friend of Thomas Jefferson with whom he carried on an active correspondence. He exchanged ideas with Sir William Herschell, David Rittenhouse, John Swift, and other well-known scientists with the states and abroad.


He was a friend and collaborator of Andrew Ellicott, an American civil engineer, who said of Dunbar that he was "a gentleman whose extensive information and scientific attainments woud give him a distinguished rank in any place or any country."


Dunbar imported rare books from abroad, bought an expensive telescope, a microscope, surveying instruments, and other scientific equipment. He set up a chemical laboratory and an observatory at The Forest.


He served as astronomer to the Spanish crown, defined the boundary lines between the United States and Spain, and in 1793 was appointed surveyor general of the district of Natchez.


As a member of the American Philosophical Society, Dunbar made 12 lasting contributions to its published Transactions. He wrote about animal and plant life. He made the first meteorological remport on the Mississippi Delta. He was the first to observe an elliptical rainbow and offer a plausible explanation for it. He solved the problem of finding the longitude by a single observer withut any knowledge of precise time. He advanced the theory that a profound calm exists within the vortex of a cyclone. He kept careful records of temperature, rainfall, barometric readings, and the rise and fall of the Mississippi River.


In 1804 President Jefferson appointed Dunbar to explore the Ouachita River country. He gave the first scientific account of Arkansas' Hot Springs and an analysis of their waters. He colleted the various Native American vocabularies and made a study of the sign language by which remote tribes speaking different tongues could communicate.


Indifferent to politics, Dunbar was for a time, nevertheless, chief justice of the court of Quarter Sessions and later became a member of the territorial legislature of Mississippi.


He traced he courses of the stars, observed comets, and was happiest when the moon or sun was in eclipse. He uncovered the fossilized remains of a mammoth and wrote a scientific description of it. In his later years, he retired to his laboratory, his observatory, and his technical books.


In 1799 Daniel Clark, prominent merchant of New Orleans, wrote Thomas Jefferson of Dunbar, "For Science, Probity, & general information he is the first character in this part of the world."


When he died at The Forest near Natchez in 1810, he was survived by a widow and several children, each of whom was left financially independent. However Dunbar left a legacy far richer than worldly goods....he added to mankind's ever-increasing accumulation of useful information. In the field of scientific resear he parted the curtain to a more abundant future.


William was buried in the Dunbar Cemetery (aka Forest Cemetery) on the grounds of what was "The Forest" plantation south of Natchez.



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