Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Dunbar, 5 January 1803

From William Dunbar

Natchez 5th. January 1803

Dear Sir

A series of bad health which has endured above twelve months has withdrawn much of my attention from Philosophic objects, a favorable change having lately taken place, I perceive with satisfaction that my Mind & body are both recovering their former tone, and now again enjoy the pleasing prospect of dedicating my leisure hours to my favorite amusements; which however must for a time be suspended, in consequence of a Call (which I knew not how to refuse) to the Infant Legislature of this Territory.

I have now the pleasure to enclose a letter addressed to me from a french Gentleman of considerable merit and talents; he acts in the Capacity of Civil Commandant over the Oppelousas Country to the West of the Missisippi: his letter contains some particularities of his Country and is accompanied by two pretty full vocabularies of the tongues of two indian nations of that country to which is added a sketch of the religion, or superstition of those peoples; which I hope may afford you and the Society some small entertainment. From several other quarters I have used some efforts to draw similar information but am hitherto disappointed. Should you be of opinion that Mr. Duralde merits the distinction of an honorary Member of your Society, I have no doubt that such mark of your Approbation will operate as a strong incentive for this Gentleman to exercize his talents in promoting the views of the Society.

My sketch of a history of the Missisippi has been long delayed from the cause above assigned, but shall be prepared and forwarded as soon as it can be completed.

I have lately been honored by a letter from Sir Joseph Banks with an Extract from the transactions of the Royal Society on the subject of stones supposed to have fallen from the Clouds—I do not recollect to have heard of any such phenomenon having been observed upon the continent of America.

By a letter with which I was favored from my much esteemed friend Mrs. Trist by her son lately arrived, she says that you had informed her, it was my intention to remove shortly from this Country; I beg leave to remove this impression. Since the Country has been united to the American federation I have never ceased to consider it as my own Country, which I hope never to be under the necessity of abandoning.

With high consideration I remain Your most Obedient Servant

William Dunbar

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 9 Feb. and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures: (1) Martin Duralde to Dunbar, Opelousas, Louisiana, 24 Apr. 1802; he sends two Native American vocabularies; one is from the Atakapa tribe, recorded by Duralde; the other, from the Chitimachas, was prepared by another person; he had expected to get vocabularies of the Opelousas and the Conchatis (probably the Koasatis; Sturtevant, Handbook description begins William C. Sturtevant, gen. ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Washington, D.C., 1978- , 14 vols. description ends , 14:408, 413); those groups, however, communicate with outsiders through the Mobilian trade idiom (see below), and he has not found anyone who can directly translate their languages; he reports that people digging wells in the Opelousas district have found bones, layers of shell, and artifacts; in more than one location, skeletal remains that look like those of elephants have been found; Duralde has not been able to collect more information from those sites (RC in PPAmP; in French). Enclosed in TJ to Caspar Wistar, 28 Feb. (2) Vocabulary of the Atakapas’ language, giving the equivalents of almost 300 French words and terms and 30 sentences; with an explanation of Atakapa pronunciation; the vocabulary is followed by a narrative, headed “tradition,” of the Atakapas’ origin story and religious beliefs, including stories of a universal creator and a great flood; a tradition holds that the women of the tribe provided the labor to build its burial mounds; one legend, regarding a very large animal, predates the discovery of the carcass of an elephant in the region; most of the remains of that animal washed away, but in 1765, Duralde was shown one or two of the teeth; he states that this is an accurate copy of the vocabulary, traditions, and beliefs of the Atakapas that he wrote down from their testimony (MS in same; in Duralde’s hand and signed by him, 23 Apr.; in French and Atakapa). (3) Vocabulary of the Chitimachas’ language, giving the equivalents of approximately 350 French words and terms; as Duralde does not understand the Chitimacha language and did not record the vocabulary himself, he cannot provide any guidance regarding pronunciation; the vocabulary is followed by a narrative, headed “Croyance des Chetimachas” (“Belief of the Chitimachas”), that describes the bestowal of laws and tools by a creator, the Chitimachas’ religious beliefs, their customs regarding marriage and death, and the social stratification that gives special status to a nobility of chiefs; Duralde states that this is an accurate copy of the vocabulary and the substance of the history and beliefs of the Chitimachas sent to him at his request (MS in same; in Duralde’s hand and signed by him, 23 Apr.; in French and Chitimacha).

In 1803, Dunbar was a member of the house of representatives in the legislature of Mississippi Territory (Terr. Papers description begins Clarence E. Carter and John Porter Bloom, eds., The Territorial Papers of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1934-75, 28 vols. description ends , 5:267, 298).

particularities of his country: on 28 Feb., TJ sent Martin Duralde’s letter to Caspar Wistar for the American Philosophical Society, which received the document at a meeting of 4 Mch., gave it to John Vaughan for translation, and on 18 Mch. referred it to Benjamin Smith Barton and Caspar Wistar. On their recommendation, the society published an abstract in English. Dunbar had included some information from Duralde in a letter to TJ in August 1801. The APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends did not make Duralde a member (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 334, 335, 339; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 6 [1809], 55–8; MS of translation, PPAmP; Jack D. L. Holmes, “Martin Duralde Observes Louisiana in 1802,” Revue de Louisiane, 9 [1980], 69–84; Vol. 35:121–2, 124n).

two indian nations: the Chitimachas lived west of the Mississippi River, along the Gulf Coast and inland. The Atakapas were farther west, from Vermillion Bay to Galveston Bay. Albert Gallatin later used the vocabularies from Duralde in his research on American Indians. The Mobilian trade language that Duralde mentioned in his letter to Dunbar was a pidgin language that developed from Choctaw and other sources and was used as a lingua franca in the lower Mississippi Valley (Sturtevant, Handbook description begins William C. Sturtevant, gen. ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Washington, D.C., 1978- , 14 vols. description ends , 14:45, 79, 80, 174, 642–52, 659–63, 690; 17:124–7).

sketch of a history: Dunbar was working on a description of the lower Mississippi River and the lands along it (APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, 6 [1809], 165–87; Vol. 32:55n).

Joseph banks had probably sent Dunbar an extract from a presentation to the royal society of London in February 1802. The paper, of which Edward Howard was the primary author, compiled information about observed meteorite impacts and reported the analysis of “stony and metalline Substances, which at different Times are said to have fallen on the Earth.” Banks asked Dunbar about an impact near Baton Rouge in the spring of 1800. Dunbar did not witness the event, but had obtained information about it that he forwarded to the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends through TJ. Dunbar informed Banks that he would try to find out if pieces of the meteorite could be recovered (Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions, 92 [1802], 168–212; Neil Chambers, ed., Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765–1820, 6 vols. [London, 2007], 5:259–60; Vol. 32:55n).

her son lately arrived: for Hore Browse Trist’s plan to relocate to Mississippi Territory, see Vol. 36:389 and Vol. 37:98, 619. Correspondence of James Wilkinson to Henry Dearborn had given TJ the impression that Dunbar intended to go to Europe (Vol. 37:661).

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