Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Dunbar, 14 July 1800

From William Dunbar

Natchez 14th. July 1800


Having been requested by a friend in London, to send him a Copy of such notes or remarks as I had made while upon the line of Demarcation, I have now complied with that request; while I was occupied in the preparation, I reflected, whether there could be any thing contained in those Notes worthy of being presented to you; and I had determined that there was not, being perfectly sensible how unimportant they are; knowing however that Men of learning and genius are indulgent to those of inferior talents, I have suffered my notes and observations to appear before you, with the expectation, that probably they may furnish you with the means or motives of asking some questions which it may be in my power to solve. Something more remains, which I have not been able to compleat by this opportunity, & will go to resolve your inquiries respecting the missisippi, and which at a future period I will have the honor of transmitting to you.

I have the honor to be with high respect Sir your most humble & Obedt. Servant

William Dunbar

N.B. After perusing the Notes, permit me to ask the favor of your directing the packet to be forwarded to its address at London.

RC (DLC); at foot of first page: “Honble Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 23 Oct. and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures: (1) Dunbar’s “notes or remarks … while upon the line of Demarcation,” not found (see TJ to Caspar Wistar, 16 Dec. 1800, second letter, and TJ to Dunbar, 12 Jan. 1801). (2) “Description of a singular Phenomenon seen at Baton Rouge,” describing a crimson, luminous object, “the size of a large house,” that passed overhead and fell to earth in the night of 5 Apr. 1800; dated Natchez, 30 June 1800, printed in APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 6 [1809], 25; note at foot of page: “The above communication was accompanied by an account of the first invention of the Telegraphe extracted from the works of Dr. Hook,” which was not selected for publication; enclosed in TJ to Wistar, 16 Dec. 1800, first letter; transmitted to the American Philosophical Society, 16 Jan. 1801, and approved for publication on 6 Feb. (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 308–9).

According to TJ’s second letter to Caspar Wistar on 16 Dec. 1800, Dunbar’s friend in London was named Smith. Dunbar corresponded with British scientists including Sir William Herschel, and perhaps Smith was James Edward Smith, the owner of Linnaeus’s collections and library, founder of the Linnean Society, and botanist, who was interested in the efforts of American scientists and collected natural history information from throughout the world (DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography, 2d ed., New York, 1908–09, 22 vols. description ends ; DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends ; Franklin L. Riley, “Sir William Dunbar—The Pioneer Scientist of Mississippi,” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, 2 [1899], 86, 91; Greene, American Science description begins John C. Greene, American Science in the Age of Jefferson, Ames, Iowa, 1984 description ends , 9, 10, 23, 96).

Inquiries: apparently TJ’s reference, in his letter to Dunbar of 24 June 1799, to the lack of knowledge about “the part of the continent you inhabit.” Dunbar did not complete his “Description of the river Mississippi and its Delta,” which concentrated especially on the river’s floods and alluvial deposits, until early in 1804 (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 6 [1809], 165–87, 191–201; Dunbar to TJ, 22 Aug. 1801, 5 Jan., 10 June 1803, 28 Jan. 1804).

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