“John Dunn Hunter,” by Samuel Griswold Goodrich (from Curiosities of Human Nature. Boston: Rand and Mann, 1849 ; pp. 236-253)
About the year 1822, there appeared at New York a young man, of small stature, light hair, light eyes, and in every respect of ordinary appearance, who told of himself a strange and interesting story, which was briefly this.
At an early period of his childhood, he, with two other white children, living on the farthest bound of the western settlements, were one day carried off by a party of Indians, probably Kickapoos. One of the children was killed before his eyes, and he was soon separated from the other. He was carried to a considerable distance by the Indians, who at last arrived at their hunting grounds. He became gradually reconciled to his situation, and, though he was occasionally taunted by being white, he was finally regarded as one of the tribe.
He continued to live among the Indians for many years; travelled with them in their migrations over the vast western wilds, visited the borders of the Pacific Ocean, and shared in the wild adventures of Indian life. He came, with his Indian friends, at last, to the Osage settlements on the Arkansas, where he found some white traders, among whom was a Colonel Watkins, who treated him with kindness, and
sought to persuade him to leave the Indians, and return to civilized life. Such, however, was his attachment to his adopted friends, that he rejected these suggestions.
Soon after, however, under the influence of intoxication, his Indian friends having laid a deep scheme for murdering Colonel Watkins and his party of hunters, the hero of our story deserted his tribe, and gave timely notice to Watkins, thus saving his life, and that of his friends.
Though his mind was greatly agitated by a feeling of self-disgust for the treachery he had committed toward his Indian brethren, he continued with the party of Watkins for a time, and descended the Arkansas river with them, nearly to its junction with the Mississippi. Here he left them, having made up his mind to join some Indian tribe which might not be acquainted with his breach of faith to the band of Osages, with whom he had lived so long.
Being supplied with a rifle and plenty of ammunition, he struck into the wilderness in a northerly direction, and pursued his wanderings alone, amid the boundless solitude. In the volume which he afterwards published, he thus describes this portion of his adventures:—
“The hunting season for furs had now gone by, and the time and labor necessary to procure food for myself, was very inconsiderable. I knew of no human being near me; my only companions were the grazing herds, the rapacious animals that preyed upon them, the beaver and other animals that afforded pelts, and birds, fish and reptiles. Notwithstanding this soli-
tude, many sources of amusement presented themselves to me, especially after I had become somewhat familiarized to it.
“The country around was delightful, and I roved over it almost incessantly, in ardent expectation of falling in with some party of Indians, with whom I might be permitted to associate myself. Apart from the hunting that was essential to my subsistence, I practised various arts to take fish, birds, and small game; frequently bathed in the river, and took great pleasure in regarding the dispositions and habits of such animals as were presented to my observation.
“The conflicts of the male buffaloes and deer, the attack of the latter on the rattlesnake, the industry and ingenuity of the beaver in constructing its dam, and the attacks of the panther on its prey, afforded much interest, and engrossed much time. Indeed, I have lain for half a day at a time, in the shade, to witness the management and policy observed by the ants in storing up their food, the manuvres of the spider in taking its prey, the artifice of the mason-fly in constructing and storing its clayey cells, and the voraciousness and industry of the dragon-fly to satisfy its appetite.
“In one instance, I vexed a rattlesnake, till it bit itself, and subsequently saw it due from the poison of its own fangs. I also saw one strangled in the wreathed folds of its inveterate enemy—the black snake. But, in the midst of this extraordinary employment, my mind was far from being satisfied. I looked back with the most painful reflections on what I had been, and on what sacrifices I had made, merely
to become an outcast, to be hated and despised by those I sincerely loved and esteemed. But, however much I was disposed to be dissatisfied and quarrel with myself, the consolation of the most entire conviction that I had acted rightly, always followed, and silenced my self-upbraidings.
“The anxiety and regrets about my nation, country and kindred, for a long time held paramount dominion over all my feelings; but I looked unwaveringly to the Great Spirit, in whom experience had taught me to confide, and the tumultuous agitations of my mind gradually subsided into a calm; I became satisfied with the loneliness of my situation, could lie down to sleep among the rocks, ravines, and ferns, in careless quietude, and hear the wolf and panther prowling around me; and I could almost feel the venomous reptiles seeking shelter and repose under my robe, with sensations bordering on indifference.
“In one of my excursions, while sitting in the shade of a large tree, situated on a gentle declivity, with a view to procure some mitigation from the oppressive heat of the mid-day sun, I was surprised by a tremendous rushing noise. I sprang up, and discovered a herd, I believe, of a thousand buffaloes, running at full speed, directly towards me; with a view, as I supposed, to beat off the flies, which, at this season, are inconceivably troublesome to those animals.
“I placed myself behind the tree, so as not to be seen, not apprehending any danger, because they ran with two great rapidity, and too closely together, to
afford any one of them an opportunity of injuring me, while protected in this manner.
“The buffaloes passed so near me on both sides that I could have touched several of them, merely by extending my arm. In the rear of the herd, was one on which a huge panther had fixed, and was voraciously engaged on cutting off the muscles of the neck. I did not discover this circumstance till it had nearly passed beyond rifle-shot distance, when I discharged my piece, and wounded the panther. It instantly left its hold on the buffalo, and bounded, with great rapidity, towards me. On witnessing the result of my shot, the apprehensions I suffered can hardly be imagined. I had, however, sufficient presence of mind to retreat, and secrete myself behind the trunk of the tree, opposite to its approaching direction. Here, solicitous for what possibly might be the result of my unfortunate shot, I prepared both my knife and tomahawk for what I supposed would be a deadly conflict with the terrible animal.
“In a few moments, however, I had the satisfaction to hear it in the branches of the tree over my head. My rifle had just been discharged, and I entertained fears that I could not reload it without discovering and exposing myself to the fury of its destructive rage. I looked into the tree with the utmost caution, but could not perceive it, though its groans and vengeance-breathing growls told me that it was not far off, and also what I had to expect in case it should discover me.
“In this situation, with my eyes almost constantly directed upwards to observe its motions, I silently
loaded my rifle, and then, creeping softly round the trunk of the tree, saw my formidable enemy resting on a considerable branch, about thirty feet from the ground, with his side fairly exposed. I was unobserved, took deliberate aim, and shot it through the heart. It made a single bound fromt he tree to the earth, and died in a moment afterwards.
“I reloaded my rifle before I ventured to approach it, and even then not without some apprehension. I took its skin, and was, with the assistance of fire and smoke, enabled to preserve and dress it. I name this circumstance, because it afterwards afforded a source of some amusement; for I used frequently to array myself in it, as near as possible to the costume and form of the original, and surprise the herds of buffaloes, elk and deer, which, on my approach, uniformly fled with great precipitation and dread.
“On several occasions, when I waked in the morning, I found a rattlesnake coiled up close alongside of me: some precaution was necessarily used to avoid them. In one instance, I lay quiet till the snake saw fit to retire; in another, I rolled gradually and imperceptibly away, till out of its reach; and in another, where the snake was still more remote, but in which we simultaneously discovered each other, I was obliged, while it was generously warning me of the danger I had to fear from the venomous potency of its fangs, to kill it with my tomahawk.”
After Hunter had been engaged in roving about in this manner for several months, hoping to meet with some party of Indians to whom he might attach himself, he met with a company of French hunters, whom
he accompanied to Flee’s settlement, on the White river. From this point, after a stay of some months, in which he acquired a good deal of credit for cures which he performed by means of Indian remedies, he set out on a hunting expedition, during which he collected a large quantity of furs. These he sold to a Yankee, for 650 dollars, as he supposed, but, being ignorant on the subject of money, he found, on having the cash counted, that it was only 22 dollars!
This took place at Maxwell’s fort, on the White river. Disgusted with the white people, by this act of plunder, he determined to quit them forever, and set off again to join the Indians. He was, however, diverted from his purpose, and went with a hunting party up the west fork of the river St. Francis. spending the season here, he returned, and making his way down the Mississippi, sold his furs for 1100 dollars. Thence he proceeded as a boatman to New Orleans, where his mind was greatly astonished at the scenes he beheld, the streets, the houses, the wharves, ships, &c.
He retraced his steps, and came to Cape Girardeau, in Missouri, where he remained some time, acquiring the rudiments of the English language. His acquaintances had given him the name of Hunter, because of his expertness and success in the chase. His Christian name was adopted, as he says in his book, from the following circumstance. “As Mr. John Dunn, a gentleman of high respectability, of Cape Girardeau county, state of Missouri, had treated me in every respect more like a brother or a son than any other individual had, since my association with
the white people, I adopted his for that of my distinctive, and have since been known by the name of John Dunn Hunter.” It is important for the reader to mark this passage, for important results afterwards turned upon it.
He now spent two or three years, a part of the time at school, making, however, several expeditions to New Orleans, to dispose of furs he had either taken in hunting or obtained by purchase. At last, in the autumn of 1821, he crossed the Alleganies, and entered upon a new career. So far, his story is told by himself, in his book, which we shall notice hereafter.
On his way, Hunter paid a visit to Mr. Jefferson, who received him kindly, and, taking a strong interest in his welfare, gave him letters of introduction to several persons at Washington. Hunter went thither, and, passing on, came to Philadelphia, and at last to New York, everywhere exciting a lively interest, by the remarkable character of his story, and the manner in which he related it. He was found to be well-informed as to many things, then little known, respecting the western country; he was, accordingly, much sought after, patronized and flattered, especially by persons distinguished for science and wealth. He was, in short, a lion. The project was soon suggested, that he should write a book, detailing his adventures, and giving an account of the Indians, and the Indian country, as far as he was acquainted with these subjects. A subscription was started, and readily filled with a long list of great names. The book was written by Mr. Edward Clark, and, in 1823, it
was published, under the title of “Manners and Customs of the several Indian Tribes located west of the Mississippi, &c.”
This work, written in a clever style, detailed the wonderful life and adventures of the hero, and gave a view of the Far West—the country, the animals, the plants; and it described the Indian tribes, their numbers, character, customs, &c. It also gave an account of their system of medicine, and their practice of surgery. The book was well received, and Hunter was borne along upon the full tide of public favor.
And now, another view was opened to him. It was suggested that he should go to England, and publish his work there. Taking letters from several men of the highest standing, and especially one to the Duke of Sussex, from Mr. Jefferson, as we are informed, he crossed the Atlantic, and made his appearance in the great metropolis. The career upon which he now entered, affords a curious piece of history.
Hunter’s letters, of course, secured him the favor and kind offices of some of the leading men in London. His book was immediately published and heralded forth by the press, as one of the most remarkable productions of the day. The information it contained was treated as a revelation of the most interesting facts, and the tale of the hero was regarded as surpassing that of Robinson Crusoe, in point of interest.
Hunter was a man of extraordinary endowments, and sustained the part he had to play with wonderful consistency. But all this would hardly account for his success, without considering another point. In
London, as well among the high as the low, there is a yearning desire for excitement. Imprisoned in a vast city, and denied companionship with the thousand objects which occupy the mind and heart in the country, they go about crying, “Who will show us any new thing?” Thus it is, that, in a crowded street, there is always a mob ready to collect, like vultures to the carcass, around every accident or incident that may happen: and these seem to consist of persons who have no profession but to see what is going on.
In high life, this passion for novelty is more refined, but it is equally craving. There are thousands in the circles of rank and fashion, who, having no business to occupy them, no cares, no sources of hope and fear, are like travellers athirst in a desert; and to them, a new scandal, a new fashion, a late joke, a strange animal, a queer monster, is an oasis, greatly to be coveted. One quality this novelty must have; it must, in some way or other, belong to “good society”—my Lord, or my Lady, must have a finger in it: they must, at least, patronize it, so that in naming it, the idea of rank may be associated with it.
Such a new thing was John Dunn Hunter. He was, supposing his story to be true, remarkable for his adventures. There was something exceedingly captivating to the fancy in the idea of a white man, who had lived so long with savages, as to have been transformed into a savage himself: beside, there was a mystery about him. Who was his father?—who his mother? What a tale of romance lay in these preg-
nant inquiries, and what a beautiful development might yet be in the womb of time!
Nor was this all: Hunter, as we have said, was a man of talent. Though small and mean in his personal appearance, his manner was remarkable, and his demeanor befitted his story. He had taken lodgings in Warwick street, and occupied the very rooms which Washington Irving had once inhabited. Another American author, of no mean fame, was his fellow-lodger. He held free intercourse with all Americans who came to London. He sought their society, and, in the height of his power, he loved to exercise it in their behalf, and to their advantage.
In dress, Hunter adopted the simplest garb of a gentleman; in conversation, he was peculiar. He said little till excited; he then spoke rapidly, and often as if delivering an oration. He was accustomed to inveigh against civilized society,—its luxuries and its vices,—and to paint in glowing hues the pleasures and virtues of savage life. He was very ingenious, and often truly eloquent. It was impossible, believing in the genuineness of his character and the sincerity of his motives, not to be touched by his wild enthusiasm.
It is easy to see, that such a man, unsuspected, introduced into society by the brother of the king, and patronized by the heads of the learned societies—launched upon the full tide of fashionable society, in the world’s metropolis,—had a brilliant voyage before him. During the winter of 1823-4, Hunter was the lion of the patrician circles of London. There was a real strife among countesses, duchesses, and the
like, to signalize their parties by the presence of this interesting wonder. In considering whether to go to a ball, a soir e, or a jam, the deciding point of inquiry was, “Will Hunter be there?”—If so, “Yes.”—If not, “No!”
Nothing could be more curious than to see this singular man, in the midst of a gorgeous party, where diamonds flashed and titles hung on every individual around him. He seemed totally indifferent to the scene; or, at least, unobservant of the splendors that encircled him. He was the special object of regard to the ladies. There was something quite piquant in his indifference. He seemed not to acknowledge the flatteries, that fell like showers of roses, and that too from the ruby lips and lustrous eyes of princes’ daughters, thick upon him. He seldom sat down: he stood erect, and, even when encircled by ladies, gazed a little upward, and over them. He often answered a question without looking at the querist. Sometimes, though quite rarely, he was roused, and delivered a kind of speech. It was a great thing, if the oracle would but hold forth! The lass or lady who chanced to hear this, was but too happy. The burden of the oration was always nearly the same:—the advantages of simple savage life over civilization. It was strange to see those who were living on the pinnacle of artificial society, intoxicated with such a theme; yet, such was the art of the juggler, that even their fancy was captivated. Those who had been bred in the downy lap of luxury, were charmed with tales of the hardy chase and deadly encounter; those to whom the artifices of dress constituted more
than half the pleasures of existence, delighted to dwell upon the simplicity of forest attire: those who gloried in the splendors of a city mansion,—halls, boudoirs, saloons, and conservatories,—thought how charming it would be to dwell beneath the wide canopy, or a deer-skin tent! Surely, such triumphs display the skill and power of a master.
During the winter of which we speak, Hunter’s card-rack was crowded with cards, notes, and invitations, from lords and ladies of the very highest rank and fashion, in London. Many a fair hand indited and sent billets to him, that would have turned some loftier heads than his. On one occasion, by some accident, he had dislocated his shoulder. The next morning, Dr. Petingale, surgeon to the Duke of Sussex, called to see him, by command of his Grace, and delivered to him a long note of consolation. This note, from his Royal Highness, was somewhat in the style of Hannah More, and kindly suggested all the topics of comfort proper to such an hour of tribulation.
Hunter did not spend his whole time in fashionable dissipation. He visited the various institutions of London, and often with persons of the highest rank. He fell in with Robert Owen, of Lanarck, who had not yet been pronounced mad, and the two characters seemed greatly delighted with each other. Hunter seemed interested in the subject of education, and made this a frequent topic of discussion. He visited the infant school of Wilderspin, consisting of two hundred scholars, all of the lower classes. When he heard forty of these children, under three years of age, unite in singing “God save the King,” his heart
was evidently touched, and the tears gathered in his eyes. It is not one of the least curious facts in his history, that he patronized his countrymen, and was the means of establishing a portrait painter from Kentucky, in his profession. He induced the Duke of Sussex, with whom he regularly dined once a week, to sit for him: the portrait was exhibited at Somerset House, and our artist was at once famous.
Hunter now took a tour to Scotland. In his way, he spent some weeks with Mr. Coke, of Norfolk, and experienced the noble hospitalities of that truly noble gentleman. He passed on to Scotland, where he excited a deep interest among such persons as the Duke of Hamilton, Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Jeffrey, and others of the highest eminence. The ladies, also, manifested the very liveliest sensations in his behalf.
During his stay in Scotland, he was invited to spend a few days at a charming seat, in the vicinity of Edinburgh. Thither he went. One day, as he was walking in the park with a fair lady, daughter of the proprietor, they came to an open space, through which a bright stream was running. At a particular point, and near the path of the ramblers, was a large rock, at the base of which the rivulet swept round, forming a small eddying pool. Over this the wild shrubs had gathered, growing luxuriously, as if escaped from the restraints of culture. Hunter paused, folded his arms, and gazed at the picturesque group of rock, shrub, and stream. The lady looked at him with interest. She hesitated, then gathered courage, and asked what it was that so moved him.
“Nothing! nothing!” said he, half starting, and
passing on. “Nay, nay,’ said the fair one, “you must tell me.” “Well, if I must,” was the reply, “I must. You may think it foolish, yet such is the truth,—that little pool, gathered in the shelter of the rock and briar, reminds me of early days—of my childhood, and the forest. Past memories come over my bosom, like summer upon the snow; I think how I have often stooped at such a stream as this, and quenched my thirst, with a relish nothing can now bestow. I feel an emotion I can hardly resist; it seems to call me from these scenes, this voluptuous, yet idle life. I have a sense of wrong, of duty neglected, of happiness missed, which makes me sad even in such a place as this, and with society like yours.”
By this time Hunter had framed a design, either real or pretended, of doing some great thing for the Indians. He insisted that the attempt to civilize them at once, was idle and fallacious; he proposed, therefore, to select some spot along the banks of the Wabash, and which he represented as a wild kind of paradise, and here he would gather the Indians, and, adopting a system which might blend the life of the hunter with that of the cultivator, wile them gradually, and without shocking their prejudices, into civilization. This scheme he set forth as the great object of his wishes. He spoke of it frequently, and in Edinburgh, especially, delighted his hearers with his enthusiastic eloquence in dilating upon the subject. No one suspected his sincerity, and the greatest men in Scotland avowed and felt the deepest interest in his project.
The summer came, and Hunter went back to London. He now announced his intention to return to America: still, he lingered for several months. His friends noticed that he was dejected, yet he assigned no cause for this. Presents were made to him, and hints of assistance, to further his scheme of Indian civilization, were suggested. He availed himself of none of these advantages, save that he accepted a watch, richly jewelled, from the Duke of Sussex, and a splendid set of mathematical instruments, from Mr. Coke, of Norfolk. He also borrowed a hundred pounds of a friend. He took his farewell of London, and bearing with him the best wishes of all who had known him on that side of the Atlantic, he embarked at Liverpool for America.
Immediately after his arrival, he hastened to the south, spent a few days at New Orleans, and pushed into the wilds bordering upon Texas. In some way, he excited the jealousy of the Indians, who resolved to take his life. On a journey through the wilderness, he was attended by an Indian guide. Having occasion to pass a river, he stopped a moment in the middle of it, to let his horse drink. The guide was behind: obedient to his orders, he lifted his carbine, and shot Hunter through the back. He fell, a lifeless corpse, into the stream, and was borne away, as little heeded as a forest leaf.
Such are the facts, as we have been able to gather them, in respect to this remarkable man. The writer of this article saw him in London, and the incidents related of him while he was in England and Scotland, are stated upon personal knowledge. The events
subsequent to his departure are derived from current rumor. The question has often been asked, What was the real character of John Dunn Hunter? That he was, to some extent, an imposter, can hardly be doubted. Mr. Duponceau, of Philadelphia examined into some Indian words which Hunter had given him, and found them to be fabrications. Mr. John Dunn, of Missouri, mentioned by Hunter as his friend and benefactor, was written to, and he declared that he had known no such person. These facts, with others, were laid before the public in the North American Review, and were regarded as fatal to the character of Hunter. The common judgment has been that he was wholly an imposter; we incline, however, to a different opinion.
We believe that the story of his early life, was, in the main, correct;* that he did not originally intend any deception; that he came to New York with honest intentions, but that the flatteries he received led him by degrees to expand his views, and finally drew him into a deliberate career of fraud. So long as he was in the tide of prosperity abroad, he did not seem to reflect, and glided down contented with the stream: when the time came that he must return, his real situation presented itself, and weighed upon his spirits. It is to be remarked, however, that, even in this condition, he availed himself of no opportunities to amass money, which he might have done to the amount of
* We have been informed that Mr. Catlin, in his excursions among the western Indians, often met with tribes who had known Hunter, and their accounts corroborated that which the latter gave in his book.
thousands. These facts, at war with the supposition that he was a mere imposter, seem to show that he had still some principle of honor left, and some hope as to his future career. At all events, he was a man of extraordinary address, and his story shows how high a course of duplicity may elevate a man yet only to hurl him down the farther and the more fatally, upon the sharp rocks of retribution.