I love reading accounts of the early explorers in America because they describe the natural environments before man modified (or in my opinion destroyed) them. John Lawson was a well-to-do young man of 26 when he decided to explore and later settle in the Carolinas beginning in 1700. He gives us the first literate account of the environments of the Carolinas in his book, A New Voyage to the Carolinas, which was published in 1709. Although his botanical descriptions don’t match those of William Bartram, who traveled through the south 70 years later, his account is fascinating nonetheless, and his quaint manner of language is interesting to decipher.
Route of John Lawson’s 1000 mile journey through North and South Carolina in 1700.
John Lawson’s journey in America began in Charleston, South Carolina shortly after Christmas. In 1700 European colonization was restricted to a narrow band along the coast, and Charleston was the sole “metropolis.”. Lawson took 6 Englishmen and 4 Indians on the journey with him. They spent the first few nights at various islands along the coast including Bull’s Island where feral cattle and hogs abounded. They spent another night with a Scotsman on Dix’s Island and ate oatmeal the Scot had scavenged from a Scotch shipwreck. Despite the cool winter weather, mosquitoes plagued Lawson’s party at night. While in the low country the party lived on venison, wild hogs, raccoons, fish, shellfish, waterfowl, and rice, the latter of which they purchased from nearby plantations. They left the coast in a canoe and went inland for miles through uninhabited cypress swamp til they came into contact with Indians burning a canebrake. Lawson related how the hollow bamboo stems exploded after ignition.
“As we went up the river, we heard a great noise, as if two parties were engaged against each other, seeming exactly like small shot. When we approached nearer the place, we found it to be some Sewee Indians firing the Cane Swamps, which drives out the Game, then taking their particular stands, kill great quantities of both bear, deer, turkies, and what wild creatures the parts afford.”
They continued their journey through cypress swamps that were in flood that time of year. All the trees in 1 swamp had been felled by a hurricane, and they had a hard time navigating between the fallen giants. During the journey they only slept on the ground when they had no alternative. Usually, they could find a hunter’s cabin or an Indian town. The hunter’s cabins were often unoccupied but well stocked with food. As was the custom then, they’d leave beads and trinkets in exchange for food–a kind of honor system. A typical cabin pantry stored red beans, dried corn, dried peaches, and chinkapins–much healthier food than can be found in a McDonalds or any other fast food dump adjacent to our modern highways. Indian towns were spaced about 20-30 miles, or a day’s journey, apart with nothing but wilderness in between. At this particular time in history, all the Indians they met were friendly, though some tribes had a bad habit of pilfering Lawson’s party’s belongings. One of Lawson’s comrades got robbed by an Indian whore on one occasion. She stole his moccasins while he was sleeping after the party paid a fortune just so this 1 guy could get laid.
Upon reaching the piedmont region Lawson noted that his party could travel a whole day without seeing a single pine tree. This region then was mostly an oak forest–a contrast from the second growth woods found in the Carolina piedmont today where pine is a dominant species. The oak forests supported huge flocks of turkies. Lawson saw 1 flock numbering over 500 birds. At this point they ran short of bread and salt, and the only thing they had to eat was turkey. They became so tired of eating turkey that 1 of the Indian guides shot and ate a skunk for variety. Lawson also witnessed the legendary passenger pigeon and gives the following account.
“In the mean time we went to shoot pigeons, which were so numerous in these parts, that you might see many millions in a flock; they sometimes split off the Limbs of stout Oaks, and other trees, upon which they roost o’nights. You may find several Indian towns, of not above 17 houses, that have more than 100 Gallons of Pigeons Oil, or Fat; they using it with Pulse, or Bread, as we do butter, and making the Ground as white as a sheet with their Dung. The Indians take a light, and go among them at Night, and bring away some thousands, killing them with long Poles, as they roost in the Trees. At this time of the Year, the Flocks, as they pass by, in great measure, obstruct the light of the day.”
His noisy party kept away most predators but he does give this account of an encounter with a cougar (what he erroneously refers to as a tiger).
“As we were on our road this morning, our Indian shot at a Tyger, that cross’d our Way, he being a great distance from us. I believe he did him no harm, because he sat on his Breech afterwards, and look’d upon us. I suppose he expected to have had a Spaniel Bitch, that I had with me, for his breakfast, who run towards him, but Midway stopt her Career, and came sneaking back to us with her Tail betwixt her legs.”
After the journey was completed, Lawson settled in a cabin near the Neus River and worked as a surveyor when he wasn’t farming, and he founded 2 towns–Bath and New Bern. He recounts an interesting experience with an alligator that took up residence under his first cabin.
“I was pretty much frightened with one of these once; which happened thus: I had built a house about a half a mile from an Indian town, on the Fork of the Neus River, where I dwelt by myself, excepting a young Indian fellow, and a Bull-dog, that I had along with me. I had not then been so long a Sojourner in America, as to be throughly acquainted with this Creature. One of them had got his Nest directly under my House, which stood on high Land, and by a Creek-side, in whose banks his Entring-place was, his Den reaching the Ground directly on which my house stood, I was sitting alone by the Fire-side (about nine a Clock at Night, some time in March) the Indian fellow being gone to the Town, to see his Relations; so that there was no body in the House, but my self and my Dog; when all of a sudden, this ill-favoured Neighbor of mine, set up such a Roaring, that he made the House shake about my Ears, and so continued, like a Bittern, (but a hundred times louder, if possible) for four or five times. The Dog stared, as if he was frightened out of his Senses; nor indeed, could I imagine what it was , having never heard one of them before. Immediately again I had another Lesson; and so a third. Being at the time amongst none but Savages, I began to suspect, they were working some Piece of conjuration under my house, to get away my Goods; not but that, at another time, I have as little Faith in their, or any others working miracles, by diabolic means as any person living. At last my man came in, to whom when I had told the Story, he laugh’d at me, and presently undeceived me, by telling me what it was that made that Noise.”
He also had lots of experiences with black bears while living in the North Carolina low country.
“The bears here are very common, though not so large as in Greenland, and the more Northern countries of Russia. The Flesh of the Beast is very good and nourishing, and not inferior to the best Pork in Taste. It stands betwixt Beef and Pork, and the young Cubs are a dish for the greatest epicure living. I prefer their flesh before any Beef, Veal, Pork, or Mutton; and they look as well as they eat, their fat being as white as snow and the sweetest of any Creature’s in he World. If a Man drink a Quart thereof melted, it never will rise in his Stomach. We prefer it above all things, to fry Fish and other things in. Those that are strangers to it, may judge otherwise; But I who have eaten a Great Deal of Bears Flesh in my Life-time (since my being an Inhabitant of America) do think it equalizes, if not excels any Meat I ever eat in Europe. The Bacon made thereof is extraordinary meat; but it must be well saved, otherwise it will rust. This Creature feeds upon all sorts of Wild Fruits. When Herrings run, which is in March, the Flesh of such of those Bears as eat thereof, is nought, all that Season, and eats filthily. Neither is it good, when he feeds on Gum-berries, as I intimated before. They are great Devourers of Acorns, and oftentimes , meet the swine of the woods, which they kill and eat, especially when they are hungry, and can find no other food. Now and then they get into the fields of Indian Corn or mais, where they make sad Havock, spoiling corn ten times as much as they eat. The Potatoes of the Country are so agreeable to them, that they never fail to sweep ’em all clean, if they chance to come in their way. They are seemingly a clumsy Creature, yet are very nimble in running up Trees, and traversing every Limb thereof. When they come down, they run Tail foremost. They sit by the Creek-sides, (which are very narrow) where the fish run in; and there they take them up as fast as it’s possible they can dip their paws into the Water.”
By herring, Lawson meant shad which is in the herring family. He also wrote a long paragraph about hunting bears and the uses of bear’s oil. Today, I don’t think there are any bears in the Carolina low country.
Lawson enjoyed an idyllic life of fishing, hunting, and farming while he lived in the North Carolina low country. Like the majority of people living in the days prior to grocery stores, his life focused upon food production. He grew corn, wheat, and vegetables, and he had a successful fruit orchard. Unlike most fruits, peaches produce true to seed–the offspring resemble the quality of the parent. Peaches were so widespread among the Indians that Lawson mistakenly believed they were a native fruit. The Indians obtained peaches from the Spanish as early as 1550, and it quickly became an important food they ate fresh, dried, stewed, and in bread. Most, if not all, of the varieties Lawson grew came from seed he got from the Indians. One variety was large and luscious. Lawson called it a vinegar peach because he made vinegar from the fermented fruit. He also had a tree that produced yellow freestone nectarines. He claimed this tree never produced less than 15-20 bushels of fruit every year. This is surprising considering he only farmed for about a decade and the tree must have been young. He also claimed his peach trees began producing when they were as young as 3 years old. Lawson’s vinyard consisted of native grapes, but he did have to import apple scions because all good cultivated apples are mutants. Cider was an important drink and a substitute for beer which was considered essential for civilized life then. His list of apple varieties includes rare antique types and some that are probably extinct. He planted a 200 foot row of native strawberries, and like Bartram, he reported seeing wild strawberry fields of miles in extent. (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/04/)
John Lawson is the sole source of information for many of the Indian tribes who inhabited the Carolinas. Most of these tribes suffered extinction during the 18th century. Lawson estimated the population of Indians in the Carolinas decreased by 85% between 1650-1700, explaining why wilderness was reclaiming so much land. Smallpox and alcohol addiction caused the decline. The Indian words for rum (the chief spirit they imbibed) was sick or poison, yet they couldn’t control their addiction. Indians evolved in isolation from these 2 scourges, and they had little resistance. Smallpox occasionally annihilated whole Indian towns.
I was surprised to learn some Indians that bring to mind the far west lived in the Carolinas. Most of the tribes were Sioux. Lawson even met some Flatheads who made their skulls flat by fastening a board to their infants’ heads.
Most Indian culinary practices revolted Lawson. They cooked most game without removing the entrails. A favorite Indian dish was deer fawn, removed from a dead pregnant deer and cooked in the natural placental bag. However, Lawson did praise 1 particular Indian cook who repeatedly washed her hands before cooking and could make white bread. Other Indian women ladled out stew with their bare hands even though they possessed wooden ladles. Red beans were an Indian favorite, and Lawson provides an amusing account of its effects.
“The small red pease is very common with them, and they eat a great deal of that and other sorts boil’d with their Meat, or eaten with Bears Fat, which Food makes them break Wind backwards, which the Men frequently do, and laugh heartily at it, it being accounted no ill Manners amongst the Indians. Yet the Women are more modest, than to follow that ill Custom.”
Lawson held liberal views on Indians, so it’s a shame they captured, tortured, and killed him in 1711. The stupid, sadistic brutes tied him to a stake, stuck wooden splinters all over his body, and set him on fire. Lawson never married his sweetheart, Hannah Smith, but she bore him a daughter. He left all his land to them in his will.
Artist’s depiction of the Tuscarora Indians capturing Lawson who was surveying land up the Neuse River. He must have known the Indians were unpredictable and his job was hazardous because he wrote a will. They let his partner go to spread the word and scare the settlers. It was an act of terrorism that ultimately failed. A war between the settlers and the Tuscarora Indians broke out shortly after they burned Lawson alive, and the Indians were defeated.
A New Voyage to Carolina
The University of North Carolina Press 1967
The whole book is available for free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1447078&pageno=6