Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Carver, Jonathan

CARVER, JONATHAN (1732–1780), traveller, born at Stillwater, Connecticut, in 1732, was the son of William Joseph Carver of Wigan, Lancashire, captain in William III's army, who was rewarded for services in Ireland with the government of Connecticut. He studied under a physician in Elizabeth's Town, but afterwards purchased an ensigncy; was in command of a company in the expedition against the French in Canada, and had a narrow escape in the massacre at Fort William Henry. He served in five campaigns from 1757 to 1763, and retired from the army on the conclusion of peace. Carver then determined to explore the territory beyond the Mississippi, and to find a north-west land passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Starting from Boston in June 1766, he travelled thirteen hundred miles to the most remote British post, and surveyed the bays and rivers of Lake Superior. Then with goods for Indian trading he struck into the north-west of the Mississippi further than any traveller had been except Hennepin in 1680, and afterwards proceeded westward to the sources of the river St. Pierre, dwelling among the Indians and learning their languages. He returned to Boston in October 1768, having visited twelve Indian nations and travelled seven thousand miles. While proceeding in 1767 with the Indians to their great council, he reached a point within the present site of St. Paul's, Minnesota, on 1 May, and there, stepping ashore opposite the great cave, Wakan-teete (Dwelling of the Great Spirit), now called ‘Carver's Cave,’ he was elected a dakotah (allied) chief, and made his almost prophetic speech to the three hundred ‘braves.’ Carver having mediated a peace between the Nadowessies (Sioux) and Chippeways (Ojibeways), the former tribe is said to have made him an extensive grant of land near the Mississippi; but this is not mentioned in the account of his travels. The great wilderness which Carver traversed is now called, from its beauty and fertility, in Indian phrase, Minnesota. He laid down a scheme by which the St. Paul's district might become the centre of a great internal intercourse between the east and the west, and his plan of a water communication by canals between New York, St. Paul's, and Canada is now actually accomplished by the construction of the Great Erie Canal.

In 1769 he came to England to publish his journal and charts, and hoped that the British government would recognise his services. He underwent a long examination by the lords commissioners of trade and plantations, and received permission to publish his papers, but, being afterwards ordered to deliver them up to the board, he had to repurchase them from his bookseller, without receiving compensation for loss. Fortunately he had saved copies of his manuscripts and maps, which enabled him to publish his work ten years after. About 1774, in conjunction with Richard Whitworth, M.P. for Stafford, he had arranged his scheme for the overland route. Himself, Whitworth, and Colonel Rogers, with fifty or sixty artificers and mariners, were to make the party. Grants and other requisites were nearly completed when the troubles in America put a stop to the enterprise. In 1778 appeared the first edition of ‘Travels to the Interior Parts of North America,’ &c., illustrated with copperplates and maps, London, 8vo. The second part of the work is ‘The Origin, Manners and Customs, Religion and Languages of the Indians,’ and there is an appendix describing the uncultivated parts of America. It is dedicated to Sir Joseph Banks, F.R.S. In 1779 a second edition appeared, London, 8vo. A Dublin edition was published in the same year, 8vo. Editions appeared in 1784 (with an account of his life by Dr. Lettsom) and in 1796. A French translation appeared in 1784, 8vo. The ‘Travels’ also appeared in ‘Moore's .... Collection of Voyages and Travels,’ vol. ii., London, 1785, folio, and in Campe's ‘Kinder-und Jugendschriften,’ Bd. 20, 1831, 8vo. In 1779 Carver published ‘A Treatise on the Cultivation of the Tobacco-plant,’ with coloured engravings, London, 8vo; ‘A Treatise on the Use,’ &c., Dublin, 8vo; and under his name was published ‘The New Universal Traveller,’ London, 1779, folio, of which fifty-five weekly numbers came out with fifty-six engravings and maps. In the winter of this year Carver, with a wife and two children, had to subsist on his wages as a lottery clerk. His original fortune had been long exhausted. He died on 31 Jan. 1780. He was buried at Holywell Mount. Dr. Lettsom found an unnegotiated grant of ten thousand square miles among his papers. Lettsom interested himself for Carver's family, supported them, collected subscriptions, and paid all expenses of the third edition of the ‘Travels’ in 1781. His letters to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’—‘Hints for establishing a Society for Promoting Useful Literature’—were suggested by this unfortunate author's case, and helped to suggest the establishment of the Literary Fund.

A mezzotint portrait of Carver, from a picture in Dr. Lettsom's possession, is the frontispiece of the ‘Travels,’ 3rd edit. He was somewhat above the middle stature, with a muscular frame. He was a very agreeable and picturesque writer, as the story of his adventures shows. But there is one stain on his character; at the time of his marriage in England he had a wife and five children living in America.

The deed found by Dr. Lettsom (now lost) was dated 1 May 1767, the day of the ‘long talk’ in the cave. It bore the totems—beaver and serpent—of two great chiefs, and the Indians are made to speak, in English, of the grantee as ‘our good brother Jonathan,’ whence possibly came the name of the Americans collectively. The heirs by his first wife transferred part of their rights in 1794 to Edward Houghton of Vermont for 50,000l. After careful inquiry the land commissioners dismissed the claim in 1825. Dr. Hartwell Carver's claim in 1848 for ‘a hundred miles square’ met with the same fate, as did also that of Carver's grandsons, Groom and King. Martha, one of the daughters by the English wife, was brought up by Sir Richard and Lady Pearson. She eloped with a sailor, and a few days after their marriage conveyed her rights to a London firm for a sum of money and a tenth of the profits. The agent sent out to get a confirmatory grant from the Indians was murdered in New York, and the scheme collapsed. George III is said to have approved the grant, and Dr. Samuel Peters, an episcopal minister, who had purchased some rights in 1806, testified to the committee in 1825 that the king had given Carter 1,371l. 13s. 8d., and ordered a frigate and transport-ship with a hundred and fifty men to proceed with him to take possession, but the battle of Bunker's Hill had prevented it. In 1839 Lord Palmerston stated in parliament that no trace of a ratification of the Carver grant was to be found in the Record Office.

There is a Carver town and Carver county in South-eastern Minnesota; and Carver river is the name of a branch of the St. Peter's. The Carver centenary was celebrated by the Minnesota Historical Society on 1 May 1867, the hundredth anniversary of the council and treaty of Carver with the Indians at ‘ Carver's Cave,’ which is now within the suburbs of the important city of St. Paul. The proceedings were published at the expense of George W. Fehnestock of Philadelphia.

Carver's description of the funeral of a ‘brave’ suggested Schiller's ‘Song of a Nadowessie Chief,’ of which both Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer and Sir John Herschel have given translations.

[Carver's works; Nichols's Illustrations, ii. 680; Neill's English Colonies in America, 1871; Neill's Hist. of Minnesota, 1882; Minnesota Historical Society (Carver Centenary), 1867; Bishop's Floral Home … in Minnesota, 1857; Niles's Register, 25 Feb. 1825; Harper's Magazine, 1875, p. 630; Gent. Mag. 1780, p. 183; family papers.]

J. W.-G.