In 1700, John Lawson was an intelligent and eager 26 year old living in London looking to travel. An acquaintance suggested that, for the ultimate adventure, he should go to the Carolinas. He did and stayed, helping found the towns of Bath and New Bern in North Carolina. He took an intense interest in every aspect of New World life until his ironically tragic death eleven short years later. Fortunately for us, he recorded and published much of what he observed, and it remains the best and earliest account of the beginnings of North Carolina as we know it, and the end of the place as those who had lived here for centuries knew it.
Europeans settlers came to the western hemisphere with attitude and appetite and took what they wished without regard for the native inhabitants or the abundance of nature they found. They justified it all through some presumed character superiority granted by a conveniently misinterpreted religious heritage. Pardon my bias, but many histories tread all too lightly on the obvious and look with quaint nostalgia on our “settling” of the “New World” which, of course, wasn’t “new” at all.
Within seven months of leaving London, Lawson was leading a handful of men through the interior of North Carolina, almost unknown territory to Europeans at the time. He was a meticulously observant note taker and diarist recording everything from the “hide the sun” sight of the now extinct hoards of passenger pigeons, to almost otherworldly oaks, poplars, and pines so mammoth that the Indians had no tools to cut them down. Like a muse flitting through Eden, the Carolina Parakeet, whose beauty we can only imagine, caught Lawson’s attention… and everyone else’s for that matter. Seen one lately?
Lawson also recorded the social, political, and marital customs of the Native Americans becoming their confidante and frequent companion. He was trusted by the Indians who allowed him in their company to observe much of their life previously unknown to westerners. His observations were specific and detailed reflecting the curiosity and wonder that Lawson held for human character and the natural world. He spared no one from his judgmental eye. Rather than resort to the typical stereotyping, he leveled praise and criticism for both Indians and Europeans in every aspect of their behavior.
He described the Europeans’ deceptive and manipulative exploitation of the Indians, yet regretted that the Indians disregarded certain “Christian virtues.” He observed the extreme kindness with which Indians treated their children, yet was puzzled by the cruelty of their initiation rites for pubescent boys. He was impressed with the Indians’ style of verbal conversation and debate telling how they never interrupted another until he had finished what he had to say. And, he greatly admired the fact that Indian women never flew into verbal rages against their husbands, saying that “our European Daughters of Thunder” might learn from the Indians on this point of domestic tranquility.
But, Lawson was shaken by the extent to which Indians took vengeance in torturing their enemies. It was not just an observation of Lawson in 1709, it was also a conclusion of British soldiers in Kentucky and Ohio in the 1770’s. A case of the pot calling the kettle black? Possibly, but it seems that the Indians were unique in considering a quick execution far too merciful for redressing certain grievances, the slower the better.
In spite of Lawson’s respect for what he saw, the flora, fauna, and certain aspects of the Indian society, he has only a faint notion that this wealth of nature and culture could ever disappear. Not that it happened over night. It was another 200 years before the clear cutting of the virgin timbers on Mt. Mitchell led some to question this indiscriminant ravishing of the land. Even in 1899 one million bushels of oysters a year were being harvested in the North Carolina wetlands, but by 2000, the yield was only 38,455 bushels.
Lawson’s talents as a surveyor, his ability to communicate with and be trusted by the Indians, and his recording of plants, animals, people, and geography made him a leader and prompted the Lords Proprietors to engage his efforts to promote North Carolina as an attractive home for settlers coming from Europe. So, Lawson wrote a book of the compilation of his journals and notes, and he returned to England to have the book published. The Proprietors hoped the book would encourage a new wave of immigrants to the Carolina shores.
Well, the Proprietors had a motive. King Charles II had given them the land of the Carolinas, whether or not it was his to give. Their charter specifically gave them the land, the forest, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and anything under the ground (the typical gold and silver clause.) It also granted them the permission to establish local government, collect taxes from imports and exports, and particularly to sell the land that the Indians had for centuries considered their hunting territory. If the Proprietors granted rather than sold the land, there was a yearly “quitrent” sum required of the new owners. This comprehensive plan of acquisition was rationalized by missionary enthusiasm. “The Proprietors… being excited by a laudable and pious zeal for the propagation of the Christian faith (are granted this land) in the parts of America not yet cultivated or planted, and only inhabited by some barbarous people who have no knowledge of Almighty God.” As far as I can tell, none of the Proprietors ever bothered coming to the Carolinas.
The stage being set for the exploitation of the land and the native population, Lawson worked within the framework of the assumption that mass emigration from Europe was a good thing, but he seemed to sense that there was something hypocritical about the set up. He commented that the Indians in general treated the Europeans much more fairly and considerately than the Europeans treated the Indians. The Indians were also willing to give away certain hunting territory if they were guaranteed that the limits of European settlement would be honored. Well, you know that story.
Lawson’s book, A New Voyage to Carolina, is worthwhile reading. There are many versions available (even a Kindle copy,) but the one to get is published by UNC Press with an introduction by UNC history prof, Hugh Lefler. Some editions are still in the “Olde English” but Lefler transposed it to current English spelling and has added an introduction with essential biographical information about Lawson.
Minor anecdotes of life on the North Carolina coast from 1700-1709 add humor to Lawson‘s tale. For instance, he had built a cabin too close to the banks of the Neuse River near the future site of New Bern and was startled at night to hear a roar coming from below the earthen floor of his cabin. He reported it to an Indian friend who found it amusing that Lawson was unaware that alligators burrowed into the ground on the river banks, and that is what he had heard beneath his bed.
Lawson surveyed and laid out the streets in both Bath and New Bern, two of the most appealing towns in North Carolina. Bath, once the home of Blackbeard, is a place frozen in time. The sense of stillness and history there on the banks of the Pamlico River are a tonic to soothe the mania of central North Carolina’s traffic and hype.
The only thing Lawson was unable to record in his journal, once he had returned again to North Carolina from Europe, was his untimely and ironically tragic death. And here’s where history gets murky, and as they say, is written by the winners or at least the survivors to their advantage. Returning to North Carolina, Lawson’s fate was entwined with one Swiss fellow, Baron Christoff von Graffenried, who had organized a group of German religious refugees to settled what would become the town of New Bern. Graffenried’s interest, however, was not religious freedom, but the mythical silver deposits for which the Lords Proprietors kept funding expeditions. Graffenried proudly sketched this map of his small town of New Bern on the banks of the Neuse River.
In September 1711, Lawson persuaded Graffenried to accompany him on a canoe trip up the Neuse. They were captured by Tuscarora Indians. Curiously, Graffenried sweet talked his way out of certain death, and Lawson, the Indian’s most articulate advocate, was executed. We only have Graffenried’s self-serving account of this anomaly. Within a couple of years, Graffenried was back in Europe never to cross the ocean again, and the cooperative relations between Tuscaroras and the settlers had gone to hell, resulting in a three year war with merciless slaughter on both sides, belying any further fantasies about what an idyllic promised land awaited the European masses.
Last year, I took this photo of the Episcopal Church in Bath, built in 1734, a mere 21 years after the end of the Tuscarora War.
I wouldn’t presume to understand the tragedy of Lawson’s execution and the Tuscarora War, and the real story may be forever unknown, but you gotta wonder about a few what ifs? Lawson may have foreseen this impending disaster. He had suggested alternatives to the unilateral aggrandizement of land and resources. He even suggested that inter-marriage between the settlers and Indians was the way to make this conflict of cultures work. In the few instances where this occurred some Europeans preferred living in the Indian culture.
Obviously, he believed that a pattern of fairness and justice was necessary, that treaties should be honored and promises kept. But that was asking more of Europeans than they were capable of delivering considering the pace of desperate boatloads crossing the Atlantic. The pace might have lessened if Europeans had considered cleaning up their own act at home where they were slaughtering each other in religious wars.
Well, asking the what ifs of history is not just idle musing, though I rarely see anyone bother to do it. If we don’t imagine how it could have been different, we’ll just keep making the same mistakes over and over. For instance, are there lessons here for our current dilemmas with immigration or our presence in Afghanistan.
Leaving all such conclusions and judgments behind, it’s worth noting what a change the last few years has brought with the availability of historic information on the internet. What was only available to privileged historians is now accessible to anyone. One of the most fertile resources is a website called Documenting the American South, posted by the UNC-CH library. It has more original letters from Baron Christoff von Graffenried than you’ll ever want to read. Then there’s the entire 28,000 page plus collection of documents in the NC Public Records collection. It does not stop there… the website is a never ending resource, still growing.
There is also the North Carolina Historic Sites website and Learn NC, a collection of educational publications for school kids (and good reading for adults.) I can find more at these sites in less time than it used to take me just to put on my jacket and get out the door to drive to the library. You could search these sites for days trying to discover the truth about John Lawson, von Graffenried, the founding of New Bern, and the Tuscarora War. Still, barely informed, my bets are on Lawson as the “good guy” in this whole mess.
Had Lawson lived longer, he might have become a legendary American character even more credible than the bumbling “brave heart” Daniel Boone. He had a romance in Bath with a young woman to whom he left his property and possessions. In those possessions were more writings which have never been found. The romance, the daughter he left behind, and the years of potential later accomplishment short-circuited by his ill-fated canoe trip might have been the stuff of great books and good movies. But, as often happens, the best stories are buried early, and the tide of human history rolls through leaving sand and foam.