Thursday, April 12, 2012
The Historian as Adventurer
In 1879 a twenty-five-year-old Indianapolis attorney decided to give up the rigors of the law for a potentially more lucrative career—that of a prospector in the Colrado silver fields. That young man, Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr., never did strike it rich through prospecting, but he did discover something far more important, trades other than law that sustained him for the rest of his life: journalism and history.
Forty-two years later, Dunn, now a respected Indiana historian and political reformer, left the Hoosier state on another adventure. This time Dunn, well into his sixties, journeyed to the island of Hispaniola, which includes the present-day countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with the announced intention of attempting to find the lost gold mine of Christopher Columbus. According to a page-one account of Dunn’s trip in the Indianapolis Star, the mine that the historian sought was that from which the gold was taken that was presented to the Spanish court by Columbus on his return from several of his voyages.
In this, as in many other instances during his life, Dunn was exercising his well-known wit by spreading such a story. Actually, the main purpose of his journey to the tropics was to prospect for another rich mineral—manganese. For his trip to Hispaniola, the second largest island in the Caribbean, Dunn, the author of classic histories of Indiana and Indianapolis, was acting as field agent for the Hispaniola Mining Company, a group that included as officers such prominent Indianapolis men as Samuel Ralston, former Indiana governor; Solomon S. Kiser of the Meyer-Kiser Bank; and Elmer W. Stout of the Fletcher American National Bank.
The company charged Dunn with journeying to Hispaniola and, if possible, obtaining a concession for mining manganese under the local laws. Richard Lieber, head of the Indiana Department of Conservation, helped strengthen Dunn’s position with U.S. officials in Haiti (American military forces occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934) by appointing him as a special deputy geologist for the collection of exhibits for the Indiana State Museum.
As he had many years before as a prospector in Colorado, Dunn threw himself wholeheartedly into his newest enterprise, frequently writing his family back home in Indianapolis and keeping detailed journals of his experiences. Leaving the United States on December 23, 1921, Dunn journeyed south aboard the Panama Railroad Steamship Line's S. S. General Gorgas, in which he occupied a cabin approximately two feet by six feet in size. The room’s small size, and its unfortunate location over some steam pipes, failed to dislodge Dunn’s good humor. He noted that his quarters were no “worse than a Pullman on the Chesapeake & Ohio [railroad].”
Onboard the ship Dunn displayed the same affability he was known for back home. To help the passengers become better acquainted, Dunn organized a Christmas Day celebration for the small number of children on the ship. “There was some difficulty about [obtaining] a Santa Claus costume,” he noted, “but I made some whiskers out of mop furnished by the steward, and with the aid of bath robe, a canvas hat, and some rouge, I got up a fair imitation, or burlesque, of Santa, which satisfied the youngsters.”
Arriving in Port-au-Prince on December 29, 1921, Dunn settled into lodgings provided by the Haytian American Sugar Company (known in Haiti as Hasco), a firm for which his wife’s cousin worked. Over the next few days, Dunn prepared himself for his mineral exploration of Haiti. Before journeying into the countryside he consulted with Professor Edward Roumain, who was in charge of Haiti’s exhibit at the 1904 Saint Louis Exposition. Roumain welcomed the Hoosier explorer “with open arms” and helped to arrange a guide for his trip.
After conferring with Roumain, Dunn next busied himself with purchasing his supplies. He bought a horse, complete with saddle and bridle, for thirty-six dollars and also furnished himself with a pickax, frying pan, small stew pan, two teaspoons, two tin cups, two small cans of Armour pork and beans, and three cans of sardines. Also, on the advice of American officials worried that Dunn might be set upon by thieves during his journey, he received permission from Haiti’s chief of police to carry a 44-caliber Colt revolver and twenty rounds of ammunition.
For his ambitious trip into the Haitian interior, Dunn hired a guide named Oceart Noël, a bespectacled black man he described as being only four feet, six inches tall. Noël agreed to be Dunn’s guide for five days, to furnish his own horse, a pack animal, and an interpreter, all for twenty-nine dollars. The interpreter, named Salomon Télamour, “proved to have command of about thirty words of English, but is quite proud of them,” Dunn said.
The elderly Dunn managed to make his excursions into the mountainous countryside without too much difficulty. The local food did upset his “internal workings,” which he later calmed with liberal doses of milk of magnesia, and when arising in the morning after trying to sleep on a hammock (the cold night air kept him awake), he had to “do gymnastics for several minutes” in order to relieve his cramped muscles. Although his companions claimed he spoke the native French “like a French oyster,” Dunn was able to build good relations with the Haitians he encountered on his travels due to tendering a “substantial reward for any service rendered.”
Dunn may have had good luck in charming the native Haitians with his largesse, but he failed in his quest to discover sufficient quantities of manganese to risk large-scale mining operations in the country. Returning with his specimens to Port-au-Prince on January 17, 1922, Dunn had his first bath and shave in almost a week. His adventure, it seems, had taken a toll. “Appearance somewhat improved,” he noted in his log, “but a trifle gaunt. The trip had evidently been some strain.”
A refreshed Dunn took the specimens he collected to be analyzed at the sugar company’s laboratory by a Dr. Joy, a Haitian chemist employed by the firm. “We satisfied ourselves,” Dunn noted, “that there was not a particle of manganese in any of them. He later wrote his wife, Charlotte, the following about his unfortunate news: “I am including the log herewith, and there is little else to say. The manganese scheme is gone glimmering, and I expect to know pretty soon whether there is anything in the gold proposition.”
Coming up empty in Haiti, Dunn hoped for better luck in the neighboring Santo Domingo, which since 1916 had been occupied by the U.S. Marine Corps. While in Santo Domingo, Dunn conferred with American officials in charge of public works for the country and was able to obtain motor transportation into the countryside where he could investigate reports of large manganese and gold deposits. He found neither. Charlotte sympathized with her husband's misfortune, writing: “Too bad about the manganese. I hope other things will look more promising—but you know I was never very optimistic. Still, success would be most welcome! At any rate, you are getting this out of your system, and having a complete change and a good time. Perhaps something good will ‘turn up’ when you return.”
A disappointed Dunn returned to the United States the same way he had gone: by boat. The Hoosier historian arrived in New York Harbor on March 2, 1922, and made his way overland to his Indianapolis home. His bold adventure in the West Indies may have failed to provide Dunn with riches from precious metals, but it did offer him the opportunity to investigate and write about Haitian dialects and the island’s voodoo cult for Indianapolis newspapers.
Unfortunately, during his travels in Haiti Dunn had contracted some form of tropical disease that left him susceptible to jaundice. He died on June 6, 1924. Dunn’s death received front-page coverage in both the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News. Commenting on his fellow Democrat's death, former governor Ralston expressed his “great admiration” for Dunn. Ralston noted that the first time he heard Dunn make a speech its subject was the value of circulating libraries to citizens. “It was characteristic of him to be most interested in those things that most benefited the people,” said Ralston. Dunn was not only loyal to the truth, at whatever the cost, Ralston added, but also loyal to his friends. “And trustworthy—absolutely so,” said Ralston. “I shall miss him.”