The Hunter-Dunbar expedition was one of only four ventures into the Louisiana Purchase commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Between 1804 and 1807, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the northern regions of the Purchase; Zebulon Pike into the Rocky Mountains, the southwestern areas, and two smaller forays; Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis along the Red River; and William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore the “Washita” River and “the hot springs” in what is now Arkansas and Louisiana.
While the Ouachita River expedition was not as vast as and did not provide the expanse of geographic and environmental information collected by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the exploration of Dunbar and Hunter remains significant for several reasons. It provided Americans with the first scientific study of the varied landscapes as well as the animal and plant life of early southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. In fact, the expedition resulted in arguably the most purely scientific collection of data among all of the Louisiana Purchase explorations.
The explorers described an extremely active and vibrant interaction between the European and the Native American population. Hunter and Dunbar also reported many encounters with European trappers, hunters, planters, and settlers as well as fellow river travelers plying the waters of the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers. Their copious notes also portray a region in which these European and Indian inhabitants harvested the abundant natural resources along the rivers and in the lands beyond.
The reports from both men show that the hot springs had become an important site for people seeking relief from ailments and infirmities. The expedition met several individuals who had either been to the springs or were on their way to bathe in its waters. When the explorers arrived at the hot springs, they found evidence that people had lived there for periods of time to take advantage of the location’s medicinal virtues. A cabin and several small shacks had been built by people coming to the springs. The explorers used these dwellings during their visit.
Because this trip ended well before Lewis and Clark’s, the journals of Dunbar and Hunter became the first reports to Jefferson describing the landscapes and people within the new territory. Through the detailed notes kept by each man, the Jefferson administration received an accurate depiction of the area’s varied resources. Their daily journal entries became the first description in English of the Ouachita River region in Arkansas and Louisiana.
Dunbar was born to an aristocratic family in Elgin, Morayshire, Scotland in 1749. He later studied astronomy and mathematics in Glasgow and London, which ignited a life-long interest in all areas of science and discovery. At the age of twenty-two, he traveled to Philadelphia, where he engaged in trade with the Indians of the Ohio River valley. He settled near Natchez, Mississippi, where he built a large cottage known as “The Forest” in an area nine miles south of Natchez called Second Creek.
By 1803, Jefferson and Dunbar had become well acquainted through correspondence. Dunbar became the key figure for Jefferson in his various discussions and plans to explore the southern Louisiana Purchase from 1804 to 1807. The president relied on Dunbar’s advice and his propensity for getting things done in the frontier of the southern Mississippi Valley.
Jefferson not only asked the prominent Natchez resident to lead an expedition into the Louisiana Purchase, he also informed him that he had assigned another Scottish immigrant, George Hunter, a chemist and druggist residing in Philadelphia, who had explored areas of the Ohio and Indiana back country, as his “fellow labourer and counsellor” for what became known as the Grand Expedition. For Dunbar, Hunter, and Jefferson, the proposed Grand Expedition would be a trip along both the Red and Arkansas rivers. Such a trip, if conducted, would rival the breadth of the one being planned by Lewis and Clark along the Missouri River.
A Postponed Trip
Following an appropriation of $3,000 by Congress, preparation began in earnest. During the initial planning stages, however, both Jefferson and Dunbar became worried about the warring activities of certain Osage Indians in what would become Arkansas and Oklahoma. A group led by a chief called Great Track had broken away from the main tribe. Because of his concerns for the safety and success of the expedition, Jefferson wrote to Dunbar that he was afraid that the Osage would hinder their travel along the Arkansas River “and perhaps do worse.” Both Jefferson and Dunbar also had apprehensions over possible Spanish resistance above the Bayou Pierre in northwestern Louisiana and northeastern Texas.
In June 1804, Dunbar wrote to Jefferson asking for permission to attempt what both men initially considered a trial run up a tributary of the Red River, a smaller stream called the “Washita.” Dunbar wrote to Jefferson on August 17, 1804, that there were many “curiosities” along the Ouachita River, and in particular he referred to a location he named “the boiling springs”—the present-day Hot Springs National Park.
The Ouachita River Expedition
Jefferson agreed to the change in plans, and after several months of planning and preparations by both men, the group departed from St. Catherine’s Landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River on October 16, 1804. The team consisted of thirteen enlisted soldiers, Hunter’s teenage son, two of Dunbar’s slaves, and one of his servants. The nineteen men occupied a strange-looking “Chinese-style vessel” that had been designed by Hunter in Pittsburgh several months earlier. The boat proved unsuitable for inland river travel, as its draft was far too deep. As Dunbar and Hunter ascended the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers, the journals of both men became replete with descriptions of soil types, water levels, flora, fauna, and daily astronomical and thermometer readings. To construct the most accurate map possible, William Dunbar used a pocket chronometer and an instrument called a circle of reflection—an instrument usually set on a tripod used to calculate latitude using the horizon and a star or planet. Dunbar also successfully used a surveying compass and an artificial horizon. In addition to the scientific recordings, their journals document the daily human drama of their adventure and the toil of the soldiers as they hauled, polled, and rowed the vessel against the currents.
On November 6, after great difficulty in traversing the river in Hunter’s vessel, the group reached the site of Fort Miro, also called Ouachita Post (modern-day Monroe, Louisiana). The fort, first established by the French around 1784, had been turned over to American control only seven months before, in April 1804. The new American commander of the site, Lieutenant Joseph Bowmar, treated the explorers to what hospitality he could muster in the primitive surroundings, allowing the crew to receive some much deserved rest from the rigors of the first two hundred miles.
At the fort, Dunbar secured a large flatboat with a cabin on deck and hired an experienced guide named Samuel Blazier. The new guide’s familiarity with the area may be the reason both men where able to name many of the sites above Fort Miro. As they crossed into modern-day Arkansas on November 15, 1804, the landscape began to change from mainly pine forests to bottom lands mixed with various hardwoods.
When the team neared Ecore a Fabri, modern-day Camden (Ouachita County), the former site of a French settlement, two significant events occurred. First, the explorers found a tree with curious Indian hieroglyphs carved onto its trunk. The carvings portrayed two men holding hands and may have been the site of trade between Europeans and Native Americans. Second, on November 22, as Hunter cleaned his pistol on the flatboat, the gun discharged. The bullet ripped through his thumb and lacerated two fingers. It continued through the brim of his hat, missing his head by only fractions of an inch. Hunter remained in severe pain and danger of infection for over two weeks. His eyes were burned, and he could not see to record entries in his journals and was little help to the expedition.
Near the current site of Arkadelphia (Clark County), they met a man of Dutch descent named Paltz. The Dutch hunter knew the area well, and he informed the explorers of a salt spring located nearby, as well as other natural features. Paltz told him that he had “resided forty years on the Ouachita and before that on the Arkansas.” Hunter, Paltz, and a small team investigated a “salt pit” and reported it to be of a substantial nature. The chemist conducted specific gravity experiments on the saline water and discovered it to be a high concentration of what he called “marine salt.”
On December 3, 1804, Dunbar and Hunter confronted the greatest potential obstacle to their journey. Near what is today Malvern (Hot Spring County) or Rockport (Hot Spring County), an enormous series of rocky rapids, called “the Chutes” by the two men, stretched almost one mile before them. Dunbar described the formations as looking like “ancient fortifications and castles.” Through strenuous efforts of cordelling, rocking the vessel from side to side, and essentially dragging the flat boat between and over rocks, the team finally traversed the maze of boulders. Dunbar compared the roar made by the Chutes to the sound of a hurricane he had experience in New Orleans in 1779.
Exploring the “Hot Springs”
By December 7, the group had reached the closest point along the Ouachita River to the hot springs, and they camped at the confluence of a creek they identified as Calfait Creek (today Gulpha Creek), also called Ellis Landing. Several men immediately began a nine-mile walk to examine the site. They returned the next afternoon with vivid descriptions of their experiences, stating that they had discovered an empty cabin thought to be used by those coming to bathe in and drink from the purportedhealing waters of the springs.
The following day, Dunbar and Hunter traveled to the springs and began an almost four-week study of the water properties and geological and biological features present. During this time, the explorers decided that there were four principal and two inferior springs in the geologic complex. They measured the water temperature, which averaged between 148 and 150 degrees. Hunter also cataloged the numerous limestone deposits, while Dunbar discovered a cabbage-like plant he called “cabbage raddish of the Washita.” They described small microorganisms living in the hot waters, the recording of which may be the first report of living things in such hostile environments. The explorers sighted swans, deer, and raccoons, as well as more signs of buffalo in the areas around their camp and around the spring complex.
Despite their hypotheses and experiments, both men left without any definitive conclusions concerning the hot water source. Both also took several treks into the surrounding mountains and described the vistas and the creeks and natural features they traversed.
The Return Trip
Following a brief snow storm and the continual drop in daily temperatures, the explorers finally decided to begin the return trip on January 8, 1805. During their descent, the team met a group of (possibly) Quapaw Indians, or as Hunter called them, “Indians who had come from the river Arkansa.” The Indian party was led by a man named Jean LeFevre,who accompanied the expedition to Fort Miro. LeFevre provided Dunbar and Hunter with a wealth of additional knowledge concerning the region, including place names and the name origins, river sources, adjacent regions, and European and Indian relations. After a brief stop at Fort Miro to retrieve Hunter’s boat, the expedition finally arrived in Natchez on January 27, 1805.
During the following weeks, Dunbar and Hunter settled their accounts and began to work on their reports to Jefferson. Dunbar’s journals arrived on the president’s desk more than a year before Lewis and Clark returned from their trip to the northwest. The Dunbar journals and, later, the Hunter journals provided Jefferson his first glimpse into the new territory from a commissioned exploration team.
An interview with Hunter appeared in the New Orleans Gazette on February 14, 1805, in which he presented a grandiose view of the Louisiana Purchase. He touted the medical virtues of the hot springs and the vast resources available to settlers. Both men fully expected their time at home would be brief and that the Grand Expedition would be reorganized in 1805; however, the War Department informed Dunbar on May 24 that Hunter would not be part of the next expedition. When Hunter returned to Philadelphia, he found his business affairs in disarray and did not feel he could neglect them again by taking another lengthy journey. Congress also did not appropriate the necessary funds for the Grand Expedition. In 1815, Hunter moved his entire family to New Orleans, where he ran a steam distillery called Hunter’s Mills until his death on February 23, 1823.
After the expedition, Dunbar resumed the daily maintenance of his lands and began to prepare his report to the president. By the time of his death in 1810, he had published twelve papers in the American Philosophical Society’s journal on subjects as varied as natural history, astronomical observations, and Indian sign language.
Jefferson included Dunbar’s and Hunter’s accounts of the Ouachita River expedition in his message to Congress, and in 1806, the details of the journey were published in a work entitled Message from the President of the United States Communicating Discoveries Made in Exploring the Missouri, Red River and Washita.
Dunbar and Hunter were not the first to travel the Ouachita River or to taste the waters of the hot springs, nor were they the first to describe the region in journals or publications. They did succeed in the first scientific mapping and description of the Ouachita River valley. Their journals reveal an active European presence in the region, with numerous small settlements and individual homesteaders, trappers, and traders who had been utilizing the natural resources of the region for decades. The place names that are identified in the two men’s daily entries are also indications of a region well known and used by these same people.
Their voyage did not rival Lewis and Clark’s, but their journey up the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers, along with the explorations and journals of Freeman, Custis, and Zebulon Pike are important accounts that complete the story of Louisiana Purchase exploration.
For additional information:
Berry, Trey. “The Expedition of William Dunbar and George Hunter along the Ouachita River, 1804–1805.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 62 (Winter 2003): 386–403.
Berry, Trey, Pam Beasley, and Jeanne Clements, eds. The Forgotten Expedition: The Louisiana Purchase Journals of Dunbar and Hunter, 1804–1805. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
DeRosier Jr., Arthur. William Dunbar: Scientific Pioneer of the Old Southwest. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
The Dunbar-Hunter Expedition. http://dunbarhunter.omeka.net/ (accessed May 2, 2011).
McDermott, John Francis. The Western Journals of Dr. George Hunter, 1796–1805
. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1963.
Rowland, Eron. Life, Letters and Papers of William Dunbar. Jackson: Press of the Mississippi Historical Society, 1930.
Ouachita Baptist University