In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, millions of people would tune in weekly to watch Dallas, a night-time soap opera about the tawdry scandals and business dealings of a Texas oil family. At the same time, a family of Texas oil barons transplanted from Arkansas was involved in schemes even more bizarre than those created for television. And among them was Nelson Bunker Hunt.
The patriarch of the Hunt Family was the legendary H.L. Hunt, born in Illinois in 1889. The elder Hunt had settled in the Chicot County area by 1910 and began a cotton plantation. By the 1920s, facing ruin from a series of floods, Hunt gambled his last dollars and ended up winning a fortune in a series of poker games that included a stake in the booming oil fields of El Dorado. In El Dorado, the Hunt fortune would begin as millions of dollars of oil flowed across Union County. He had seven children with wife Lyda Bunker of Lake Village, but carried on torrid affairs with at least two other women, having eight children with them.
Nelson Bunker Hunt was born in El Dorado in 1926 at the height of the South Arkansas Oil Boom. The family soon moved to East Texas as H.L. Hunt bought the rights to the massive oil fields discovered there in the early 1930s, making them one of the richest families in the world. Afterward, they permanently settled in Dallas where the elder Hunt became a prominent member of First Baptist Church.
The younger Hunt became known for strange ideas and behavior as well as his own business success. In 1938, on a family trip to London, Bunker Hunt walked all through the city on his own late into the night. In the 1940s, he dropped out of the University of Texas, reportedly angry over one professor’s lecture.
He traveled coach class on airplanes but spent lavishly on horses and farms around the world. After a falling-out with his father, he went into business for himself in the 1950s. By the 1960s, Bunker Hunt had struck oil in Libya, making tens of millions of dollars. However, in 1973, a jealous Moammar Gadaffi, who had seized power a few years before, seized control of the oil in Libya, permanently cutting Hunt off.
By the 1970s, he and younger brother William Hunt came upon a scheme to corner the silver market, steadily buying up more and more. They bought silver at $1.50 per ounce in the 1970s, which grew to $50 per ounce by January 1980. This meant $4.5 billion for the Hunts. Regulators quickly jumped in to limit the purchases, sending prices lower. Margin calls and price drops devastated the two, costing $2.7 billion in one week in March 1981, while silver dropped to $10.80 per ounce on March 27.
“I was trying to make money,” Bunker Hunt glumly explained. However, others close to him noted that Hunt believed the world economy was about to collapse and money would become worthless. Numerous lawsuits would be filed against the two, and numerous federal investigations followed. As a result of the silver ploy, he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1988, the largest personal bankruptcy in history up to that time.
Bunker Hunt would slowly recover from bankruptcy, but he spent his later years concentrating on horse racing and breeding. His health steadily declined, and the one-time oil giant died quietly in a Dallas nursing home at age 88 in 2014, having lived a life where truth was, certainly and frequently, stranger than fiction.