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|The brilliant William Dunbar and cotton production|
At the age of 21, not long after the death of his father, William Dunbar left his native Scotland to make a life for himself in America. Although he grew up in a well-to-do, well-connected family, his half-brother -- the oldest male sibling in the family -- received the entire family inheritance in 1769.
In 1771, Dunbar bid siblings and beloved mother good-bye and purchased a ticket for Philadelphia, then the largest city in the American colonies. By 1792, two decades after his arrival in America, he was living in Spanish Natchez and already a leading citizen and one of the wealthiest.
In 1801, the U.S. territory of Mississippi produced about 6,500 bales (450-lb. average per bale) of cotton, up from about 2,600 bales in 1799. In the mid-1790s, in the area along the Mississippi River from Port Gibson south to St. Francisville, the entire production of cotton amounted to only 167 bales.
This increase in cotton production was due to the worldwide demand for cotton triggered by the Industrial Revolution and Eli Whitney's saw gin, which revolutionized the ginning process. Previously, one man could de-seed only 1.5 pounds of cotton a day. But prototypes of the Whitney gin built in Natchez in the mid-1790s initially produced 500 to a 1,000 pounds a day and improvements were constantly made. These gins were fueled by horse power and years later by steam.
William Dunbar, who established the Forest Plantation south of Natchez, was truly a brilliant man -- smart enough to design his own telescope. He was among the first to comprehend the potential economic rewards of the cotton industry. While others improved on the Whitney ginning technique, Dunbar set out to improve the baling process.
In the early years, a man stood inside a huge bag with a paddle to beat down and pack the cotton. The cotton was dumped through a hole from the second story of a barn into the big sack. Cotton fibers and dust often made the man sick and never compacted the cotton very well. In fact, it took one man a whole day to pack down just one bag.
Constantly tinkering and inventing at the Forest, Dunbar set out to improve upon a wood baling press designed by David Greenleaf of Natchez, which pressed the cotton inside a rectangular shaped box. The bale was then tied with hemp cloth. (At 12, Greenleaf was a signal boy for the Americans at Bunker Hill during the revolution, while Dunbar's little brother, Thomas, fought there for the British.)
Dunbar's biographer, Arthur H. DeRosier Jr., wrote that Dunbar designed a cast iron screw press then contracted a Philadelphia firm to build it. The press was delivered in 1802 and its assembly at the Forest drew a crowd of area cotton farmers. Dunbar paid for the machinery with seven bales of cotton -- worth about $1,000, a lot of money in those days.
Wrote DeRosier: "His original intention was to use it to press his cotton bales into a small rectangular shape that would need no further compressing at any seaport. Dunbar also hoped to recoup its cost by using the press to crush cottonseeds and selling the oil extracted." But his screw press was just too expensive for most Natchez farmers, so in the early years they stuck with Greenleaf's simple and inexpensive wooden press design. Notes DeRosier: "Large cast screw presses were not common until 1840; once again, Dunbar was ahead of his time."
Dunbar's idea on extracting oil from the cottonseed was also ahead of its time. He wrote fellow Scotsman Alexandria Ross in Philadelphia in 1799 that the oil "will probably be of a grade between the drying and fat oils, resembling that made from linseed in color and tenacity, but less drying. Where shall a market be found for such an oil?"
Historian John F.H. Claiborne wrote in the 1870s that Dunbar's idea was "the first suggestion of that product which has now become a great article of commerce, or indeed in utilizing cotton seed at all. At that period it was not dreamed of as a fertilizer, nor fed, in any shape, to stock. It was usually burnt or hauled to a strong enclosure, at a remote part of the farm, to decompose, and was considered of no use whatever, and really a nuisance."
In 1804, the multi-talented Dunbar would lead the U.S. exploration of the Ouachita River following the Louisiana Purchase. Just the year before in 1803, Dunbar's cotton crop was worth $16,000. According to an inflation calculator, that $16,000 would be worth more than $2 million today.
(Stanley Nelson can be reached at email@example.com)
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