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Story Archives: Dinah's love letters and lemonade at the Forest
|Dinah's love letters and lemonade at the Forest|
William Dunbar quickly made friends with the new governor-general of Natchez, Manual Gayoso, a native of Portugal. Dunbar often sent the governor a few pumpkins from his garden or tobacco from his curing shed at his Forest plantation south of Natchez.
Of all of Dunbar's great successes in America, this Scotland native may have found his marriage to Dinah Clark in 1784 his greatest. Dunbar moved Dinah, his children, slaves and entire agricultural operation from Manchac to Natchez in 1792, not long after Gayoso became governor. Dunbar once wrote Dinah that Gayoso "stands always my firm friend."
When away on business in New Orleans, Dunbar and Dinah wrote to one other often. He often gave her advice on running the plantation and she reminded him that in between raising crops, mending fences, making roads and tending to livestock that she had little time to sit still. "I would willingly follow your advice and not go in the sun if I could avoid it," she wrote him in 1789. "But there is many things to do about a place that you men don't think of and I have not many servants."
Dunbar and Dinah married in 1784. She had come to America from Whitehaven, England, when a child and as a teenager came to Manchac to visit Alexander Ross, a relative who Dunbar had met in Pittsburgh after arriving in America in 1771.
Dunbar, Alexander Ross and Ross' father, John, became partners in the 1770s and acquired land grants from the British at Manchac and present-day Baton Rouge. A few years later, Dinah came to Manchac to visit Alexander Ross and soon thereafter Dunbar and Dinah courted and eventually married. He was 26. She was 15. The union would produce nine children.
Some men fooled around on their wives 200 years ago, too, and that fact wasn't lost on Dinah, who apparently never had reason to worry about the faithfulness of Dunbar. Yet still she did.
Come home, she once wrote him, adding: "Can my dearest be constant and faithful in such a vile place as Orleans where there is so many temptations? Don't be angry with me, my love, for expressing my doubts tho in my heart I am persuaded I have little cause for I think if there can be a husband true to his wife, it must be mine."
When the Dunbars moved to Natchez in 1792, it was a dream-come-true for both of them. Dunbar had title to more than 5,000 acres of property in Natchez country by 1788.
Wrote Arthur DeRosier Jr. in his biography of Dunbar: "(He) opened a mercantile establishment in New Orleans, left...Dinah in charge of the Manchac plantation during long absences, became a Spanish surveyor, served Spanish authorities as an official interpreter of many languages, and studied architecture and designed homes and gardens for Spanish leaders -- always taking land as payment for his services."
The work coupled with his agricultural operations enabled Dunbar to give up his interests in Manchac and New Orleans, move to Natchez and stay at home for the most part. "My whole happiness," Dinah wrote him before the couple settled at Natchez, "depends upon your fulfilling the dear sweet promise that we shall always be together."
At Natchez, tobacco and indigo were the top cash crops in the early 1790s although both, for various reasons, would soon be replaced by cotton thanks to the invention of Eli Whitney's saw gin in 1793. A farmer's son from Massachusetts, Whitney was born with a brilliant mechanical mind and a musical one. He made a violin when he was 12. While still in his teens during the American Revolution, he made and sold wrought-iron nails, a product hard to find in the Natchez of the 1790s.
Gayoso's biographer, Jack D.L. Holmes, wrote that "the difficulty of obtaining nails, hardware tools and machinery at Natchez led to experiments in home industry...There was great demand for Missouri lead and American iron, and nails at Natchez sold for twenty-cents a pound."
Although the Spanish had blacksmiths who worked with iron, Gayoso imported 15 shovels and 20 adzes in 1792, the year the Dunbars moved to Natchez. But soon Natchez began to produce its on own iron tools. Gayoso said axes made at Natchez were better than those imported.
By the early 1800s, however, iron was still in short supply in Natchez, but crucial in constructing cotton gins. A few miles to the west in present day Catahoula Parish, Edward and Richard Lovelace build a cotton gin. From the small amount of iron on hand, the two men shaped the nails needed on an anvil in the Lovelace's blacksmith shop.
In Natchez, Dunbar and Gayoso would become friends, drawn together by business and government interests and by a natural curiosity about life. Gayoso had 411 books in his library when he died in New Orleans in 1799.
"There was no count of Dunbar's growing library," wrote DeRosier, "surely the best in the old Southwest." Dunbar's books were on a variety of topics -- astronomy, natural history, geography and agriculture.
There at the Forest, Dunbar and Dinah made a life and enjoyed entertaining guests. Many visitors were amazed at the grace and fun-loving spirit of the pretty Dunbar daughters.
"I wish I had made somebody count the carriages and horses that arrived (one) fine moonlight" evening, son William Dunbar Jr. would recall years after the death of his parents. He said 100 visitors were entertained that night and "225 lbs. of ice buckets of lemonade...disappeared in a twinkling."
(Stanley Nelson can be reached at email@example.com)
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