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Carver, Jonathan

CARVER, JONATHAN (c. 1725-1780), American traveller, was born probably in Canterbury, Connecticut. The date usually given for his birth, 1732, is now considered too late, since he was apparently married in 1746. In early life he followed the trade of a shoemaker and subsequently served with the provincial forces in the French and Indian wars. According to his "Journal" he conceived the idea, after the peace of 1763, of exploring Great Britain's newly acquired territory in the north-west. He is said to have set out in 1766, journeyed westward by way of the Straits of Mackinac and the Fox and Wisconsin rivers to the Mississippi, viewed the Falls of St Anthony, lived for some time among the Indians, and received from them a grant of 100 sq. m. of territory between the Mississippi and St Croix rivers. Returning east in 1768 by way of the north shore of Lake Superior he proceeded in 1769 to England, where he presented a letter of introduction to Benjamin Franklin, and made vain efforts to interest the board of trade in his investigations. In 1778 there was published in London what purported to be his own narrative of his explorations under the title of Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767 and 1768. It had an immediate success, was translated into French, German and Dutch, and was long generally accepted as a truthful narrative of his travels and observations, and as one of the highest authorities on the manners, customs and language of the Indians of the northern Mississippi valley. Carver died in London on the 31st of January 1780, having married a second time in England although his first wife was still living in America.

Soon after his death a new edition of the Travels was brought out by the well-known Quaker physician and author, Dr John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815), who "edited" the work and furnished a biographical introduction. Some doubt seems to have been early entertained as to the real authorship of the work, Oliver Wolcott in 1792 writing to Jedediah Morse, the geographer, that Carver was too unlettered to have written it, and that in his belief the book was the work of some literary hack. Careful investigation of Indian life and north-western history, notably by H.R. Schoolcraft in 1823, William H. Keating in his narrative of Major Long's Expedition (1824), and Robert Greenhow in his History of Oregon (1844), showed a remarkable similarity between the Travels and the accounts of several French authorities, but these criticisms were scarcely noticed by later writers. Finally Professor E.G. Bourne, in a paper contributed to the American Historical Review for January 1906, proved beyond dispute that the bulk of Carver's alleged narrative was merely a close paraphrase of Charlevoix's Journal, La Hontan's New Voyages to North America, and James Adair's History of the American Indians. Professor Bourne's theory is that the entire book was probably the work of the facile Dr Lettsom, whose personal relations with Carver are known to have been intimate, the "journal" alone, which constituted an inconsiderable part of the whole, having been, in part, founded on Carver's random notes and recollections.

See also J.G. Godfrey, Jonathan Carver; His Travels in the North-west, 1766-1768 (No. 5 of the Parkman Club Publications, Milwaukee, Wis., 1896), and Daniel S. Durrie, "Captain Jonathan Carver and the Carver Grant," in vol. vi. of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Collections (1872).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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