William Hunter: Finding Free Speech

Discovery of the Journal and Identifying the Author


I discovered the William Hunter journal through a chance encounter at a dinner party. That exchange sparked the discovery and identification of the only extant journal or diary written by a child of a British soldier during the American Revolution.   Initial examination of the family’s journal indicated a well-written, two-sided document in excellent penmanship that covered the Revolutionary period. Not recorded as a contemporaneous diary but written years afterward by a well-versed author, the journal is a remembrance for family and friends of the author’s childhood and young adult experiences. Remarkably, the diary is written from an American perspective, espousing sympathy for the Rebel cause. 

However exciting to read a newly uncovered primary source, a glaring roadblock stood in the way of historically interpreting the document – the author’s name is not found in the document, and no one in the living family knew the writer’s name. Other issues include missing the first page(s), several cut out portions, and missing pages in middle sections. Over the years, it appears that family members added edits or comments in pencil and different handwritings.  Finally, the journal abruptly ends in 1794.

Only left with clues from the 35-page, 12,000-word journal, the next steps were to assess the document’s veracity, to identify the author, and to fill in the missing sections. From the pronouns that the author uses one can reason that the author is a male.  His father is a member of the British Army in the 26th Regiment of Foot.  I consulted with Don Hagist, an expert on the British Army in North America who assisted with investigating the journalist name.  As no officer in this regiment had a family accompanying him, his father must have been an enlisted soldier.  Later in the diary, the journalist mentions that his father served in recruiting efforts indicating that he was likely a non-commissioned officer (NCO).  We identified several sergeants who had family members consistent with the author’s journal through reviews of muster rolls.  Given this information a Sergeant John Hunter lines up as a good possibility.  Hunter’s service dates line up with the journal entries which the except that he did not did not serve with the famous Benedict Arnold conspirator Captain John Andre, nor in a flank or grenadier company.  However consistent with the journal, Sergeant John Hunter left on recruiting mission to Britain per regimental muster rolls and received a discharge and Chelsea pension in 1783.

From the journal, we know the author came to Philadelphia in 1793 and worked in the printing business.  However, even with this information we still didn’t know the son’s name.  An electronic search of accessible digital archives and books identified a list of Hunters who were printers and had immigrated to the United States.  Further investigation, found the following brief biography of a resident of Kentucky.

“Col. Wm. Hunter was a native of New Brunswick, New Jersey; captured, when quite young, by a French man-of-war, and with his parents taken to France; left an orphan in a foreign land, he learned the printing business; returned in 1793, to Philadelphia, where he established a French and American paper, with which Matthew Carey (afterwards one of the most useful and remarkable men in the world) became associated…”[i]

The basic life story of the Kentuckian William Hunter lines up with the journalist.  Interesting, the biographical account omits his father’s role in the Revolution and glosses over why an American would be captured by a French privateer during the War of Independence.

A second source corroborates William Hunter as the journalist.  Hunter wrote a letter to the United States Counsel William Jarvis seeking the whereabouts and status of his mother and sister.  This letter identifies his mother’s name as Margaret but unfortunately, does not identify his sister. Further establishing William Hunter as the author of the Revolutionary War journal, the handwriting of the two documents are similar.

The final piece of the puzzle are the burial records for William Hunter in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.  In these prestigious final resting grounds, a large stone obelisk marks the grave of William Hunter born in 1768 and died in 1854.  An accompanying obituary in the Washington, DC paper, The National Intelligencer on October 24, 1854, confirms the basic facts contained in the journal.  Buried next to William is his oldest surviving offspring, Lavenia Hunter Jackson.  The current journal owner can trace her family linage back to Lavenia, thereby establishing a solid reason for possessing the 18th century journal among family papers.

The journal is unique among Revolutionary era works as there are passages which recount both major events not previously known to historians and interesting passages detailing the daily lives of British Army soldiers and their families.  However, one of the most interesting facets is that the author “turned” from supporting his father’s loyalty to the British Crown to sympathizing with American independence. By the journal’s date, the author had become a loyal American with anti-British and pro-French sentiments. Similar to most men and women of the time, the journalist espoused racist views and offered derogatory descriptions of Native Peoples.

Not a contemporaneously written diary, an aging man proudly wrote the journal to memorialize his untold, and likely disguised early life.  Given the references to a French King living in an Edinburgh Castle, the journal had to be written after 1830.[ii] Despite being in sixties, the author possessed a remarkable memory as his story is factually correct with only a few minute errors.  It’s possible that he kept notes or a diary from these early years which aided his recall.  William Hunter’s hopes have been satisfied as a proud family has preserved the journal. For successive generations, William’s early life experiences created an indelible impact as he lived through an eventful time and survived many dangerous experiences.

Unfortunately, we don’t have an image of William, as no portrait or likeness of William has survived. Despite a fulsome written record, we also lack a physical description of William Hunter.  All that is recorded is that he was remarkably muscular for an older man.  Further, we don’t know much about his personality and how he spoke and sounded.  The only clue is that contemporaries describe him as “genteel”.[iii] Lastly, we know just a few biographical facts about his family and their lives. We do know that William remained married for over fifty years and the marriage produced three children who lived into adulthood. 

[i] Lewis Collins, Collins Historical Sketches of Kentucky: History of Kentucky, Volume 2, n.d., 560.

[ii] Exiled, the French King Charles X (on the throne from 1824 to 1830) live in Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland until 1834.

[iii] F. Cuming, Sketcher of a Tour to the Western Country Through the States of Ohio and Kentucky:  A Voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and a Trip Through the Mississippi Territory, and Park of West Florida.  Commenced at Philadelphia in the Winter of 1807 and Concluded in 1809. (Pittsburgh: Cramer, Spear and Eichbaum, 1810), 193.