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Carver, Jonathanlocked

(13 April 1710–31 January 1780)
  • John Parker

Carver, Jonathan (13 April 1710–31 January 1780), explorer, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the son of David Carver, a town government official, and Hannah Dyer, a member of a prominent Connecticut family. Little is known of Carver’s youth. The family moved to Canterbury, Connecticut, and it was there that Jonathan grew up. He apparently had some formal schooling, for he wrote quite well, and his writing indicates a broad range of interests from religion to natural history. Carver’s father died when Carver was eighteen years old, and Colonel John Dyer, his uncle, became his guardian. From that point in his life until his marriage to Abigail Robbins in Canterbury on 20 October 1746, nothing is known of him. About 1749 they moved to Montague in northwestern Massachusetts, and they probably lived for a time in nearby Deerfield. Seven children were born to them between 1747 and 1762. He appears to have earned his living as a shoemaker.

With intensification of hostilities on the frontier in the 1750s, Carver served several enlistments in the military, participating in engagements at Crown Point, Lake George, Fort William Henry (where he was taken prisoner), and Fort Edward. He had risen to the rank of captain by the end of the war in 1763. It is possible that he met Major Robert Rogers during his military career.

Carver received no pension for his military service, and he perceived future opportunity on the frontier as a surveyor, so he studied drafting and mathematics in the hope of employment in the western lands newly ceded to Great Britain by France. The dominant element in the western economy was the fur trade, and British policy hoped to manage this business as a closely regulated trade. A key point in its management was Fort Michilimackinac near the juncture of lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. Major Rogers secured command of this fort from the Board of Trade in London in recognition of his military service. His intention was to make it a gathering point for furs from the western Great Lakes area and a base for further westward exploration in the hope of finding a west-flowing river leading to the Pacific Ocean. To these ends he planned an expedition to be commanded by Captain James Tute, a former military commander, and Carver was signed on as the expedition’s draftsman.

Carver left Boston on 20 May 1766 for Michilimackinac, arriving there on 28 August. He departed on 3 September with orders to proceed up the Fox and down the Wisconsin rivers to the Mississippi, then to go northward to the Falls of St. Anthony and to winter in that vicinity. Tute and the remainder of the company were to winter farther south along the Mississippi. Joining forces in the spring, they were to go northward to the head of Lake Superior and await further supplies from Rogers as support for a westward expedition in search of the river leading to the Pacific.

Carver spent the winter of 1766–1767 near the Minnesota River in what is now west-central Minnesota, among Dakota people, seeking to persuade them of the advantages of taking their furs to Michilimackinac in the spring. In May he joined Captain Tute at Prairie du Chien, Tute having wintered near there. Together they went on the Chippewa, Namekagon, and Brule rivers to Lake Superior to await supplies from Rogers. The supplies did not come, for Rogers had come under suspicion of treasonous dealings with France and would shortly be arrested. With no hope of further supplies, the expedition returned to Michilimackinac along the northern shore of Lake Superior, arriving there on 31 August 1767. Carver spent the winter of 1767–1768 at Michilimackinac. His appeals to colonial officials for payment for his services were denied on the grounds that Rogers had not been authorized to send out such an expedition. Returning to Boston, he sought subscribers for an edition of the journal of his travels that he proposed to publish, but the subscriptions were insufficient to pay for it.

In February 1769 Carver sailed for London, hoping to be paid for his services, and after more than a year of bureaucratic delay he appears to have received £1,376 6s. 8d. He also found some employment as a cartographer, but continuing financial distress led him to fabricate a land grant in the present state of Wisconsin from Indians west of the Mississippi. In 1774, probably for financial reasons, he was married a second time, to a Mrs. Mary Harris, by whom he had two children, despite having a wife in Massachusetts.

Carver hoped to increase his income through the publication of his journals. With the help of Sir Joseph Banks they were published in 1778 as Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767 and 1768, an account of his journey and return from Boston to the Minnesota River, including his wintering among the Dakota. Much of this area at that time was known only from French sources. Attempting to make the book more impressive both in size and in style, the publishers engaged Alexander Bicknell, an undistinguished author, as editor. Bicknell added large sections of material from the works of Louis Hennepin and Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, baron de Lahontan, without indicating his additions. As a result the book was soon under criticism as a flagrant plagiarism, despite its considerable popularity at the outset and its translation into German, Dutch, and French. Sixteen editions had appeared by 1798. German educator Joachim Heinrich Campe adapted it as a children’s text, and it enjoyed wide popularity in several languages in this form. The criticism continued nonetheless, and Carver’s reputation was damaged further by land claims made by his heirs and others after his death in London, apparently in great poverty.

Carver’s reputations as an explorer and as an author were restored in 1909 with documentation by John Thomas Lee proving that Carver had made the journey he claimed to have made, that he had the literary skills to write about it, and most importantly, that his journals had been acquired by the British Museum and remained there in four states of preparation for publication, none of them including material from other sources. Bicknell in his book Doncaster Races subsequently identified himself as the editor of Carver’s Travels. Subsequent studies have confirmed which portions of the Travels come from the journals and which are editorial additions. A noteworthy feature of both the journals and the Travels is a detailed map of the western Great Lakes–upper Mississippi Valley area. A facsimile edition of the 1781 edition of the Travels was published in 1956.


The only known manuscript sources relating to Carver’s travels and his book are the manuscript journals in the British Library and a collection of papers relating to Robert Rogers in the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Carver’s only other book is A Treatise on the Culture of the Tobacco Plant (1779). John Thomas Lee’s published documentation of Carver’s Travels is “A Bibliography of Carver’s Travels,” State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Proceedings 1909 (1910): 143–83, and “Captain Jonathan Carver: Additional Data,” State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Proceedings 1912 (1913): 87–123. The literature concerning the controversy over Travels, with a bibliography of its many editions, is in John Parker, ed., The Journals of Jonathan Carver and Related Documents, 1766–1770 (1976). Additional material on Carver’s time in London is in Parker, “New Light on Jonathan Carver,” American Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Spring-Summer 1986, pp. 4–17.