Retracing An 18th Century Voyage Through Wild Carolina

Mar 12, 2019

Author Scott Huler retraced the voyage of John Lawson, who set out in 1700 to explore what was then the wilds of colonial Carolina.
Credit Scott Huler

It seems young Englishman John Lawson wanted to leave his mark on a rapidly-changing world. In 1700 he journeyed to the port of Charleston, SC and later set off on a two-month voyage through what was then colonial Carolina. His notes and observations became one of the earliest and most important travel records of the area, though Lawson himself was killed in 1711. More than 300 years later, author Scott Huler decided to re-trace Lawson’s route and see what remained of the world he once documented. His own book, “A Delicious Country: Rediscovering the Carolinas along the Route of John Lawson's 1700 Expedition” (University of North Carolina Press/2019) emerged from that journey of discovery.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Huler about Lawson’s journey, his revelatory outlook on the people he encountered, and the parallels between that early traveler’s world and our own. Huler speaks on March 12 at 7 p.m. at Motorco in Durham; on March 16 at 2 p.m. at McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro; on April 10 at 5 p.m. at Country Bookshop in Southern Pines and in other venues throughout the spring.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On Lawson’s unique perspective on Native Americans: 
He's like the best cultural anthropologist you've ever met before cultural anthropology was invented. He is describing the Indian practices. He describes their burial customs. He describes their food preparation customs; he describes barbecue. He describes their hunting. He describes their religion. He describes dancing … And what's really important to me about John Lawson is he sees them as fully human and I think he's almost alone in his cohort … So the sense that the Native Americans, that the Indian populations were fully human, that they counted, that they were real, that they had a culture. Lawson was almost alone in that deeply humane sense of the people who he was meeting. 

On why he retraced Lawson’s journey:
I didn't want to slavishly foot after foot go exactly where Lawson was. What I wanted to do is what Lawson did. (Matsuo) Bashō has a quote that he supposedly said: Don't seek to follow in the footsteps of men of old. Do what they did. Seek what they sought. And Lawson went out, and as I'm telling you, he looked around. He documented. He understood that he was walking on this knife edge … 50 years ago the Indians were living the way Mississippian Indians had been living for 1,000 years. Fifty years later it was the United States, practically. It was a completely shifting time. I wanted to do the same thing and walk out and say: Well, what's going on now? How do people live? How do they get their living? How do they eat their food? How do they pray? What do they believe in? What's important to them? And I found that I too was walking on this knife edge. That we're seeing the end of something.  

On meeting people with deep connections to Lawson:
I met Peggy Scott, the vice chief of the Santee tribe down in coastal South Carolina. And she told me that she never doesn't know where her copy of Lawson is. She said: Lawson gave me my history back. She described growing up as a young Indian girl as the third group in a binarily segregated culture. There was a drinking fountain for the white kids, and there was a kind of junky drinking fountain for the black kids. If an Indian child wanted a glass of water, the teacher or the principal had to go and bring you a little paper cup of water. How much more marginalized could you feel? Then she went to college eventually, and she read Lawson. And then she said: Here is someone who is treating people with respect. The current government doesn't even want to acknowledge that my tribe exists. Here is someone who talks about the Santee tribe and clearly loves them and was loved by them. So that was incredible to me.