John Lawson, 1714

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Lawson, John, The History of Carolina, Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of that Country : Together with the Present State Thereof. And a Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel'd Thro' Several Nations of Indians; Giving a Particular Account of their Customs, Manners, &c.
(London: W. Taylor and J. Baker, 1714)
258 p.; 20 cm.
Presented by John Vaughan (copy owned by B. S. Barton)
Title page of Lawson's History of Carolina
Title page of Lawson's History of Carolina
A native Londoner, John Lawson (d. 1711), sailed to South Carolina, in August, 1700, to assume an appointment as Surveyor-General of North Carolina. Although his origins remain obscure, he appears to have had a solid scientific education and was sufficiently elevated socially to append "gent." to his name, no meaningless appendage in the England of Queen Anne.

At the time of Lawson's arrival, South Carolina was still a new colony. He found its only major city, Charleston, to be a pleasant town with "very regular and fair streets" lined with "good Buildings of Brick and Wood," and already awash in money, hut European habitation had not yet extended beyond the waterways within sixty miles of the coast. Much of the interior remained entirely unseen by European eyes, and it was there he set his eyes. Setting off on December 28th with a party of six Englishmen, three Indian men and one Indian woman, Lawson ventured up the Santee River by canoe and thence by foot through the interior, headed north to Virginia to survey places for new settlement. Upon arriving at the Indian village of Occaneechi (modern day Hillsborough, N.C.), however, Lawson learned that an Iroquois raiding party was scourging the region, and as a result, he veered back toward the coast for safety. On the north bank of the Pamlico River, where a few scattered Europeans had already settled, he purchased sixty acres in 1705 to incorporate the colony's first town. The town, Bath, prospered as North Carolina's first port of entry, boasting the colony's first grist mill and a robust twelve houses and fifty residents by 1708. Lawson remained at Bath until returning to London in 1709 to supervise the publication of his book, The History of Carolina.

Account of Indians
Section on Indians from
Lawson's History of Carolina
Though far removed from North Carolina, Lawson remained active in provincial affairs, representing the colony in its boundary dispute with Virginia and, more ambitiously, organizing a group of Palatine Germans to settle on the Neuse and Trent Rivers in 1710. His second visit to the colony, however, would be cut short. In September, 1711, improprieties in their trade with the settlers drove the Tuscarora Indians to lash out in revenge. Lawson and his associate Christopher von Graffenreid were captured while ascending the Neuse River, and were taken as hostages to the town of Catechna (near modern day Snow Hill). Insulting, rather than placating the Tuscaroras, Lawson was put to death, an event which engendered a fearful response. Using all their military might, the English inflicted grievous wounds on the Tuscarora nation, killing many and capturing over 1,000 Tuscarora and selling them into slavery. War weary, most of the nation's survivors left North Carolina in 1722 to take refuge among the Iroquois nations to the north, becoming the sixth nation in the Confederacy.

Lawson's History of Carolina, however, lived longer than Lawson himself. An account of his first sojourn in the Carolinas, the History covers a broad swath of territory in more than one sense, surveying the landscape, the possibilities for European settlement, and the native plants and animals, and placing a special emphasis upon the Indian inhabitants of the region. Balancing the desire to promote his colony with careful observation, and pitting overt credulity against observational rigor, Lawson's History at times presents some seemingly odd natural facts. Characteristically, he reported that rattlesnakes "have the power or art (I know not which to call it) to charm squirrels, hares, partridges, or any such thing, in such manner that they run directly into their mouths." His science, however, was perfectly adequate by contemporary standards, and ran directly into the mouths of his readership at home, enjoying three English and two German editions before 1722.

Like many Europeans, Lawson considered the indigenous inhabitants of America to be closer to nature than civilized Europeans, and believed, therefore, that they were a suitable subject for natural historical study. His extensive discussions of North Carolina Indians are particularly valuable both for documenting these populations during the crisis years of the first quarter of the eighteenth century when the pressures of a burgeoning English population were becoming overwhelming. Although professing to reject "that careless sort of [Indian] Life" that attracted so many English men, Lawson remained fascinated nevertheless. Neither excessively hostile to the Indians nor inclined to see them as "noble savages," he focussed on physical appearance, social and political relations, language, music, past times, food, houses, and dress, recognizing at some cultural distinctions between the Tuscaroras, Pamlicos, and Waccons. He displayed a particularly keen interest in Indian gender roles and sexuality, remarking upon how differed they were from the English. Anticipating arguments that would be reprised for decades to come, Lawson argued that Indian men were "not so vigorous and impatient in their Love as we [English] are," and were able to lie with their intended for months without engaging in sexual relations. He was equally fascinated by the Indian custom of children belonging to the mother, rather than the father, when marriages dissolved. In general, he concluded that women held much higher status in the Indian cultures than in the English and argued that Indian women might be cultivated as allies for whites in political or economic relations with Indians. Traders, he noted, often took Indian wives, for without them "'tis impossible for him ever to accomplish his Designs."


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