The letter was published in an issue of the society's newsletter entitled Transactions of the American Philosophical Society on page 25 of Volume 6. Dunbar was a member of the society and was also a diligent investigator of natural phenomena in the lower Louisiana region, which at the time was still Spanish territory. Dunbar studied rainfall, winds, rainbows, fossils, the Mississippi delta and even sign language among the native peoples in the area.
At the time this note was read, scientists were debating the existence of meteorites. It was not until 1803 when Jean-Baptiste Biot reported the fall of a meteor near the Norman town of L'Aigle that the general scientific community finally began to accept the existence of such objects.
But it is believed that what Dunbar describes, if accurate, what not a meteorite. The object's size if anywhere near accurate, could not have been a meteorite because an object of this size, entering earth's atmosphere at a speed typical of objects falling to earth from space, would have left a much larger trace of itself. For example, scientists estimate the size of the iron meteor that created Arizona's Meteor Crater, at roughly 50 meters.
Written on June 30, 1800, and received by Jefferson on January 16, 1801, Dunbar's letter reads as follows:
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.b
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.
Unfortunately, the diagram referred to as Figure 5, a one page document, is missing the plate page containing the drawing. Dunbar had been a friend of Jefferson's. Dunbar died in 1810. Six years earlier in 1804 President Jefferson asked Dunbar and George Hunter to lead an expedition to trace the Arkansas and Red Rivers to their sources. The president wanted to know as much as he could about his recent Louisiana Purchase. After hearing reports about a violent group of Osage Indians stationed along their planned route, Dunbar and Hunter were forced to scale back their planned expedition. The two men explored the Ouachita River.
Thirteen years later, on July 31, 1813, Jefferson received another report of what might have been a UFO, from a tavern keeper named Edward Hansford, and from John Clarke, a visitor from Baltimore, describing what they claim to have seen in the sky above Portsmouth, Virigina. In their letter, they described seeing a fireball that seemed to change shape and take the form of animals. Here is the text of their letter, which is archived at Jefferson's home and present day museum at Monticello:
From Edward Hansford and John L. Clarke
Portsmouth Va July 31st 1813.
most honorable Sir
We the subscribers most earnestly solicit, that your honor will give us your opinion, on the following extraordinary Phenomenon Viz:
At (blank) hour on the night of the 25th instant, we saw in the South a Ball of fire full as large as the sun at Maridian which was frequently obscured within the space of ten minutes by a smoke emitted from its own body, but ultimately retained its briliancy, and form1 during that period, but with apparent agitation. It then assumed the form of a Turtle which also appeared to be much agitated and as frequently obscured by a similar smoke. It descended obliquely to the West, and raised again perpendicular to its original hight which was on or about 75 degrees. It then assumed the shape of a human skeleton which was frequently obscured by a like smoke and as frequently descended and ascended—It then assumed the form of a Scotch Highlander arrayed for battle and extremely agitated, and ultimately passed to the West and disappeared2 in its own smoke. we are honorable
Sir with Sentiments of very high respect & esteem Your most Obedient very humble Servts
Edward Hansford, Keeper of the Washington Tavern in the Town of Portsmouth Virginia—
John L. Clarke, of Baltimore
There is no record of Jefferson responding to this letter. By all indications, Jefferson kept an open mind about what might have been up in the skies. In an 1822 letter, he wrote:
"Of all the departments of science no one seems to have been less advanced for the last hundred years than that of meteorology…the phenomena of snow, hail, halo, Aurora Borealis, haze, looming, etc. are as yet very imperfectly understood. I am myself an empiric in natural philosophy, suffering my faith to go no further than my facts. I am pleased however to see the efforts of hypothetical speculation because by the collisions of different hypotheses truth may be elicited and science advanced in the end."