Donald was born in the town of Wick on the southern coast of Caithness. His father evidently died about the same time Donald was concieved, drowning in a storm when fishing for herring. The Dunnet children were raised by their mother at a coffee and boarding house on High Street. It must have been an interesting childhood. Reminscences in a local newspaper described Christina Dunnet's clientele as itinerants, for the most part, and not always well-behaved. The premises were above an apothecary shop facing the town's marketplace, and it was a convenient place for peddlers to board. On the benign side, a German band stayed there. This wasn't unusual in Scotland. In May 1850 such a band performed in Wick during a tour that had previously included Shetland and Orkney. On the darker side, a man from Aberdeen selling fruit at the market, and staying in one of Christina's rooms, was harassed by "some Highlandmen." He was afraid he would lose his produce and sent a helper boy up to his room with a basketful. Apparently on impulse, the boy decided to throw water on the men from above, inciting some to run up the stairs to the inn and get him. Christina tried to stop them, but she was struck hard in the chest, sending her down the stairs. She was knocked unconscious, but recovered.
Oral history says that Donald attended a "divinity school," where he learned Latin and Spanish. It's more likely he studied for a more general education at a church-related school in Wick. There were schools associated with both the Wick Church of Scotland and the Wick Free Church (an offshoot of the Church os Scotland). More oral history says Donald worked at the John O'Groat Journal. He definitley worked as a typesetter for the book publisher D. Appleton & Company after he moved to Brooklyn, New York, supposedly specializing in Spanish and Latin texts. He likely apprenticed at the O'Groat Journal and worked there until he left Scotland in 1871. The Journal was published at the printing house of Peter Reid on Union Street. The building still stands and has remnants of painted signs on the window and door lintels. One says "John" and the other "O'Groat." The newspaper is still in production in a collection of old buildings at this site, but now printed elsewhere.
Donald joined the 93rd Caithness Rifle Volunteers. A story was passed down in the family that he was part of the "Queen's Guard," and that he was a devoted (in his wife's view, overly devoted) fan of Queen Victoria. He also played tuba in a military band. This is partly true. A photo of Donald in his band uniform, which was distinctly that of the 93rd regiment, shows him with what is most likely a baritone horn. Newspaper notices of marksmanship contests among the 93rd and other local regiments show he was an accomplished rifleman, occasionally winning prizes (including a watch and a portmanteau) in events across Caithness. In those notices he is often mentioned as being a member of the band. Aside from routine drills, the regiment marched at ceremonial occasions, and the band also performed at various public events.
Donald doesn't appear with his family in Wick in the census of 1871. His death certificate said that he had been in the United States for 37 years, indicating he immigrated in that year. He was certainly in New York City by 13 August 1874, when he applied for US citizenship. He was approved for naturalization in the New York County Court of Common Pleas on 23 October 1876. Given that the law made it necessary for an alien to be a resident in one state for five years before gaining citizenship, an 1871 immigration date is all the more plausible. He was very likely the "A. Dunnet" who came to New York on the steamship India, which sailed from Glasgow on 27 May and arrived at New York on 9 June 1871. Mr. Dunnet's age was 24 and Donald was two months shy of his 24th birthday. The passenger list says that he came in company with four other "engravers." Passenger lists aren't known for their accuracy, and engraving and compositing are related the printing business. The first initial is clearly an "A," but a man with the unusual last name of Dunnet being very nearly the same age, in the printing business and traveling from Scotland in 1871 is probably not a coincidence.
Donald's 1876 naturalization papers and the New York city directory for that year say he was living at 197 East Broadway in Manhattan. He doesn't appear in earlier directories. The only known place where he worked in the United States was D. Appleton, which had a large plant at 201 Kent Street in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn. He was certainly a compositor, being a member of the local Typographical Union #6. At the time of his death he is described as a proofreader.
Donald and the Vyse family were living at 146 4th Street (later 323 Bedford Avenue), Williamsburgh, in 1879, and this is likely how he and Laura Vyse met. They were married by Rev. John Hyatt Smith of the Lee Avenue Baptist Church, a noted orator. The family moved to 142 Kosciusco Street and to 196 Stockton Street by 1890/1891, both in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. When Laura's mother died in 1898, she inherited land in Canarsie, Brooklyn, and had a house built there at 89th Street and Farragut Road, later known as Avenue F.
Donald was active in the church. He and the family attended Throop Avenue Presbyterian in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was a deacon, taught "Sabbath" school and was active in the church's mission organization.
When the family moved to Canarsie about 1898, the family attended Grace Methodist Protestant Church. The online magazine "Canarsie Courier" has the following reminiscence of John Denton:
In those days we went to Grace M.P. Church and I think Pastor Henry Hull was minister or Rev. Chas. Ackley. The church had a Christmas party and all of us were given a box of hard candies by Santa who we kids knew was not our Sup't (the well known lawyer who in later years became a Supreme Court Judge, William R. Wilson), nor was it Elmer McCrodden (our well known Canarsie plumber), but we suspected it might be Donald Dunnet as he was one of the Choir singers in the Church and had a lovely voice.
According to his death certificate, Donald died at his home after passing into a coma from chronic nephritis. He is buried in the Forest Knoll section of Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn/Queens. His stone wasn't found when I visited, but it may one of several that have been knocked over, face down.
children of Donald and Laura Emma (Vyse) Dunnet:
James Gilbert b. 24 October 1879, m. Maria Kouwenhoven Miller
Robert Hancock b. 7 June 1881, m. Emma Louise Krin
Isabella Emma b. 10 May 1882, died as an infant after being dropped on her head by a nanny
Elizabeth Vyse b. 10 November 1885, m. Stanton Eldredge
Laura b. 9 September 1888, m. William Garnett
Donald b. 24 October 1889, m. Jenny Johnson Rowland
Christina b. 9 March 1893
Margaret Lois b. 23 March 1895, m. Alfred Edward Sinclair