File this under Obscure Presidential Trivia: On the night of April 5th, 1800, William Dunbar, a 50-year-old plantation owner and Natchez resident who eventually achieved some notoriety for his scientific discoveries and his work as an explorer, saw something he couldn’t explain floating in the night sky above Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an object that he estimated to be the size of a large house.
Baton Rouge, which was first established as a French fort in 1721, was still a small town, home to fewer than 2,000 people. Spain had just ceded the Louisiana Territory back to France. The historic neighborhoods of Spanish Town and Beauregard Town were still vacant land. It’d take another half-century before the town became the state capital of Louisiana and another 69 years before the school now known as Louisiana State University officially relocated from Pineville.
Dunbar, a native of Scotland and a member of the unfortunately-named House of Duffus, was, among other things, somewhat of an amateur astronomer, and as luck would have it, only a year before that April night in Baton Rouge, he had been introduced to one of the most famous men in the world, the author of the Declaration of Independence (among other things), Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, at the time, was the Vice President of the United States, an unwanted consolation prize for finishing second to John Adams in a race to replace George Washington. Of course, throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson collected nearly as many titles as his pen pal King George, and in April of 1800, he also just so happened to be serving as the President of the American Philosophical Society, which meant practically every morsel of gossip he shared with the organization’s members ended up making their newsletter.
On page 25 of the sixth volume of Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, the story Dunbar shared with Jefferson about what he saw in Baton Rouge is faithfully retold, under the title “Description of a singular Phenomenon seen at Baton Rouge, by William Dunbar, Esq. communicated by Thomas Jefferson, President A. P. S.” It reads, in full:
“A phenomenon was seen to pass Baton Rouge on the night of the 5th April 1800, of which the following is the best description I have been able to obtain.
“It was first seen in the South West, and moved so rapidly, passing over the heads of the spectators, as to disappear in the North East in about a quarter of a minute.
“It appeared to be of the size of a large house, 70 or 80 feet long and of a form nearly resembling Fig. 5 in Plate IV.
“It appeared to be about 200 yards above the surface of the earth, wholly luminous, but not emitting sparks; of a colour resembling the sun near the horizon in a cold frosty evening, which may be called a crimson red. When passing right over the heads of the spectators, the light on the surface of the earth, was little short of the effect of sun-beams, though at the same time, looking another way, the stars were visible, which appears to be a confirmation of the opinion formed of its moderate elevation. In passing, a considerable degree of heat was felt but no electric sensation. Immediately after it disappeared in the North East, a violent rushing noise was heard, as if the phenomenon was bearing down the forest before it, and in a few seconds a tremendous crash was heard similar to that of the largest piece of ordnance, causing a very sensible earthquake.
“I have been informed, that search has been made in the place where the burning body fell, and that a considerable portion of the surface of the earth was found broken up, and every vegetable body burned or greatly scorched. I have not yet received answers to a number of queries I have sent on, which may perhaps bring to light more particulars.”
William Dunbar quickly became one of Jefferson’s favorite sources, and, by all accounts, the two remained friends until Dunbar’s death in 1810. Indeed, while Jefferson’s impact on Louisiana history is difficult to rival, Dunbar also earns a legitimate footnote.
In late 1804, Thomas Jefferson, now President, asked Dunbar and George Hunter to lead an expedition that aimed to trace the Arkansas and Red Rivers to their sources. The president wanted to know as much as he could about the real estate he’d just purchased. But, after hearing reports about a violent group of Osage Indians stationed along their planned route, Dunbar and Hunter ultimately had to dramatically scale back their ambitious plans, which Kelby Ouchley of 64 Parishes described as comparable, in scope, to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Instead, the two men explored the Ouachita River, which they never quite figured out how to correctly spell and which, unfortunately, turned up no additional evidence of extraterrestrial life.