William Hunter was born in Yorktown, the son of an Elizabeth City County merchant, also named William Hunter (d. 1742), and his second wife Mary Ann Hunter (d. 1743). He also was half-brother to Colonel John Hunter, the Hampton merchant who became commissary for British forces in America during the French and Indian War (1754–1763), as well as confidante to Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie. Shortly after their parents’ deaths, Hunter’s sister Elizabeth Hunter married John Holt, the one-time mayor of Williamsburg; Hunter and his sisters—all minor children—moved into the Holts’ home. By that time, Hunter was already apprenticed to William Parks, Virginia’s first public printer. He had reached maturity by 1749, when he was reported as Parks’s shop foreman. Thus when Parks died onboard the Nelson, en route to England in April 1750, the responsibility for the government’s printing immediately fell to Hunter.
Printer and Postmaster
Hunter fulfilled that legacy with the assistance of John Holt and John Hunter. His first task was printing the collected laws of Virginia, ordered by the General Assembly in November 1749. Through his half-brother’s merchant connections, the needed materials were quickly procured and the volume published six months ahead of its mandated March 1753 deadline. In January 1751, Hunter resumed publication of the Virginia Gazette, which had been suspended once news of Parks’s death reached Virginia, and he issued his own edition of the Virginia Almanack that fall—both essential elements in the office’s financial vitality. Then in August 1751, Hunter bought the entirety of Parks’s operation with loans brokered by Holt. This nearly seamless transition from Parks to Hunter led Dinwiddie to formally nominate him as public printer. The assembly concurred in March 1752, setting his salary £20 higher than that paid to Parks. Notably, this also was the moment when the relationship between Dinwiddie and John Hunter flowered, as the lieutenant governor held power-of-attorney over the merchant’s affairs during a 1752 trip to England.
Hunter also reinvigorated the office’s connections with Benjamin Franklin. As early as August 1751, he was consulting with Franklin, then Pennsylvania’s postmaster, on plans to rebuild the continent’s postal system. They saw a chance to realize those plans when the colonial postmaster general, Elliot Benger, died early in 1753; each applied to London for the job. That August, they received a joint commission as deputy postmasters general for the mainland colonies, likely aided by John Hunter, then in England. Their commission was an equal partnership, with Hunter responsible for the postal system south of Annapolis, and Franklin for that to the north. Over the next year, they made joint inspection trips to assess the system’s deficiencies and plan for their correction. However, these tours came to a premature end when Hunter’s health failed.
In July 1754, Hunter came down with a fever while waiting in New York to meet up with Franklin, who was then attending the Albany Congress; his illness postponed their New England leg for a few weeks. But in Boston, Massachusetts, that October, he suffered a recurrence of his “summer fever,” which resulted in his spending that winter in Boston recuperating. When he finally returned to Virginia in the spring of 1755, his condition worsened. By September Hunter had announced his intention to seek treatment in England, departing in the fall; but a relapse detained him again. When Franklin visited in March 1756, he found his partner weak and thin, though improving. Hunter finally embarked for England that June, where he would reside for the next three years.
This three-year period coincided with peak of the French and Indian War, during which time his office was inundated with the printing needed to direct a colony at war. During his absence, Hunter’s office was run by his bookbinder, John Stretch. However, wartime conditions meant supply shortages and increasing demands that Stretch had difficulty meeting. Producing the treasury notes needed to pay for men and provisions became a problem. Between May 1755 and October 1760, Virginia’s treasury issued nearly £540,000 in currency, all of it printed in Williamsburg, most of it by Stretch. By mid-1757, demand for new notes dominated the office’s output, to the exclusion of other work. Most telling were delays in printing the “session laws” recording legislation deemed necessary to the conduct of the war. Gradually, tensions rose between Stretch, Dinwiddie, and the General Assembly over the conflicting priorities, all while Hunter was absent from his obligations.
Dinwiddie had angered the House of Burgesses in controversies over the pistole fee and the Two Penny Act, which came shortly after London’s attempts to alter the laws published in the 1749 collection. Hunter understood his need for Dinwiddie’s support and so he had not published anything harmful to the governor’s policies. But once he departed, it seems that Stretch shifted his attention toward the Burgesses, who actually paid for the public work. Indeed, the only political pamphlets produced by Hunter’s office were published during his English sojourn; these were the gentry’s justifications for the Two Penny Act, which allowed payment of clerical salaries in money rather than tobacco, leading to the Parsons’ Cause cases of 1763. Likewise, the Gazette apparently became a forum for dissenting views, leading Dinwiddie to complain of “the dastardly Spirit of our Common People.” The lieutenant governor’s pleas to be relieved from a deteriorating situation were realized in January 1758. His final report in London that summer brought pressure on Hunter to return home and reassert control over his printing office. Meanwhile, tensions crested after Dinwiddie’s recall when Stretch presented an “extravagant” bill for printing treasury notes that year; incensed, the assembly paid only one-third of it.
Hunter finally returned to Virginia in July 1759. Evidence suggests that two journeyman printers came with him: Joseph Royle and Alexander Purdie. Shortly thereafter, Stretch left for Maryland, indicating that Hunter had promptly purged his office of objectionable personnel and attitudes. Such a view is buttressed by the fact that Hunter was appointed as a justice to the York County Court within days of his return, and that his salary as public printer was raised from £300 to £350 when the General Assembly next met in November, both of which required gubernatorial consent. Evidently, he satisfied the needs of the government and so was rewarded for that service.
The operation of Hunter’s office was less dynamic than had been seen in the Parks years. Besides his newspaper and almanac, his press produced little beyond what the government commanded. The exceptions were Anglican tracts, as well as a few Presbyterian sermons by Samuel Davies, and new editions of John Tennent’s Every Man His Own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter’s Physician. Yet, Hunter did not cease being an entrepreneur on his return; he simply picked up where he had left off in 1754. With Franklin’s assent, he planned for a weekly extension of the post south to Charleston, South Carolina. His profitable book-selling business grew from contacts made in England. There he met members of the philanthropic group the Associates of Dr. Bray, dedicated to the education of enslaved African Americans. Through those contacts and his friendship with Franklin, who was a member of the group, Hunter agreed to help administer a school, which opened in Williamsburg in 1760. He also partnered with James Tarpley in 1759 to set up a new dry-goods store in a building that later became Alexander Purdie’s printing office.
In light of this renewed vitality, Hunter’s sudden death on August 14, 1761 (as reported by a Maryland death notice), was a surprise to many. Death, however, did not end his influence. In his will, he recognized his “natural son”—William Jr.—born to Elizabeth Reynolds (whom Hunter had never married) before his English journey; hence he left a half interest in his office to his foreman, Joseph Royle, if Royle operated the office for the equal benefit of himself and young Billy Hunter until the son reached adulthood. He also directed that his son should be sent to Philadelphia for a formal education supervised by his friend Franklin; as result, Billy Hunter and Franklin’s son William became lifelong friends, with both men evincing Loyalist sympathies during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Moreover, Hunter’s estate was sufficient to cover his outstanding debt while leaving enough to fulfill his bequests. He made substantial monetary gifts to his sisters. With a sizable dowry, Roseanna Hunter would marry two printers: first Joseph Royle, and then John Dixon. The bequest that Elizabeth Hunter Holt received in New York allowed John Holt, her husband, to establish an independent press later favored by the political group the Sons of Liberty; the couple also raised a son, John Hunter Holt, who returned to Virginia as Norfolk‘s patriot printer. Sister Polly Hunter had married into Williamsburg’s Davenport family, becoming wife to Reverend Joseph Davenport, and bearing sons who worked in Williamsburg’s printing offices as well. And from the proceeds that he received in the dissolution of their brief partnership, James Tarpley bought the bell that hangs in Bruton Parish Church‘s steeple in Williamsburg—as tribute to an Anglican patron.