William Dunbar was born in 1749 in Morayshire, Scotland, and attended the University of Glasgow before migrating to Pennsylvania in 1771. Dunbar established a trading outfit, moving supplies between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for two years, before entering into a partnership with fellow Scotsman John Ross. In 1773 he traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and established New Richmond, one of the earliest plantations in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which was then part of British West Florida. Dunbar kept a diary of life at New Richmond, detailing his efforts to control his Jamaican-born slaves, his excitement but uncertainty about social life on the frontier, and his various economic activities. Surveying this period of his life, historian Bernard Bailyn writes that “seen through his letters and diary,” Dunbar “appears to be more fictional than real—a creature of William Faulkner’s imagination, a more cultivated Colonel Sutpen but no less mysterious.”
After the 1783 Treaty of Paris handed the region to Spain, Dunbar moved north into Spanish-held Natchez, establishing a plantation called the Forest. Dunbar remained in place when the area shifted hands to the United States in 1795 and lived in his plantation home until his death.
Over the years he built up a fortune trading slaves and growing tobacco, rice, corn, indigo, and sugar. However, a large portion of his wealth came from the manufacture of barrel staves. Slaves took the local white and red oaks and transformed them from trees to staves in a single operation, moving from spot to spot and sending the finished product downriver to New Orleans for shipment to the West Indies. Typical of planters in that region, Dunbar cultivated extensive trading connections with partners in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Havana, and Scotland. Though Pinckney’s Treaty had shifted his allegiance from Spain to the United States, Dunbar nonetheless maintained good relations with Spanish officials.
In fact, during his time in American-held Natchez he remained in the pay of both the Spanish and American governments, mostly as a surveyor. He eventually took on the job of establishing thirty-first parallel boundary between Spanish West Florida and the United States in 1798, helping to open that region to greater settlement from both countries. He later headed the 1804 Red River Expedition, exploring the frontiers of what would become Arkansas and Texas for the United States. This final voyage probably soured his relations with the Spaniards, who viewed any American exploration in this area as little more than spying. Nonetheless, his descriptions of both the U.S.–West Florida border and the Red River area contain some of the earliest European scientific classifications of wildlife in those places. In West Florida alone he cataloged more than thirty species of trees as well as numerous fruits and vegetables cultivated by the natives.
Dunbar’s one foray into politics came during his time as a magistrate under Gov. Winthrop Sargent. However, from his time at the University of Glasgow, Dunbar had displayed an inquiring, scientific mind, and he spent a great deal of time engaged in scientific observation, making astronomical observations, and conducting experiments. This southern Benjamin Franklin corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on a number of occasions, and Jefferson recommended Dunbar for membership in the American Philosophical Society. Dunbar eventually wrote twelve entries in the society’s publications. He also introduced the square-bale style of cotton packing to the Deep South, developed a method for extracting cottonseed oil, and spent a great deal of time cataloging rainfall, barometric pressure, sunrise and sunset times, observations of a comet and an eclipse, and other natural phenomena in and around Natchez. At the time of his death in 1810, Dunbar was one of the wealthiest and influential persons in southern Mississippi.
- Bernard Bailyn, Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (1988)
- William Dunbar, The Life, Letters, and Papers of William Dunbar of Elgin, Moray Shire, Scotland, and Natchez, Mississippi, Pioneer Scientist of the Southern United States, ed. Mrs. Dunbar Rowland (1930)