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John Lawson, 1674-1711
A New Voyage to 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: [s.n.], 1709.


In late December 1700, John Lawson and a group of eight Englishmen and Native Americans set off on a 500-mile, two-month trek into the Carolina backcountry. The expedition began in Charles Town and headed north and west as far present-day Hillsborough, North Carolina, and then turned east, ending up in the settlement of Bath on the Pamlico Sound in February 1701. During the journey, Lawson kept a detailed journal, made sketches and maps, and gathered specimens of plants and animals.

The backcountry had not been officially explored, but both natives and European newcomers inhabited it. Lawson's group followed well-established trading paths, and along the way they enjoyed the hospitality of English and French traders and colonists. Lawson comments on the quality of agriculture, the potential for lucrative exports, the availability of cheap land, the democratic structure of colonial government, and the general physical health and moral character of the "Carolinians" along the coast and in the hinterlands. Lawson takes little notice of the lives of African slaves and white servants.

However, Lawson paid special attention to his contact with twenty distinct Indian tribes. He relied on native translators to communicate with his hosts, and shows himself to be an attentive listener. Lawson opened his eyes and ears to the Native American languages and habits, and interviewed village leaders regarding their traditions of warfare and diplomacy with neighboring tribes as well as their impressions of the European newcomers. The Sapona Indians even treat Lawson to a gruesome exhibition of how they torture a captive Seneca warrior by flaying him and burning him alive.

For its time, Lawson's presentation of Native Americans was remarkably candid and relatively free of assumptions of racial superiority. Lawson portrays Native Americans as generally friendly and accepting of European colonization. He also recognizes, however, the decimation caused by epidemics of diseases like smallpox, the scourge of alcohol spread by white traders, and the potential for future tensions over trade and land as European settlement spread west.

Lawson returned to England in 1709 to discuss the New Bern settlement and to find a publisher for his manuscript. The journal was initially offered in serial form, but the first issue proved so popular that the publisher rushed to put the installments under one cover, together with Lawson's added sections. Various editions and translations of A New Voyage to Carolina (also retitled The History of Carolina) appeared between 1709 and 1722.

In the three centuries since its publication, Lawson's New Voyage to Carolina has come to be regarded as a classic of early American literature. More important, Lawson's glowing assessments of the possibilities for settlement, as well as his subtle warnings that the supply of open land was diminishing, also undoubtedly inspired European speculators to invest in Carolina and prompted families to move to the region, either directly from Europe or from other American colonies.

In addition, Lawson's portrayal of North Carolina's Native American population is among the most accurate and perceptive of any produced by white authors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later eighteenth century travel narratives show Lawson's influence. William Byrd acknowledges that in many ways his 1736 Westover Manuscripts picks up where Lawson left off. In contrast, John Brickell plagiarized whole sections of Lawson's work for his The Natural History of North Carolina (1737).

Works Consulted: Remarks by Steve Davis at "Lawson's Legacy: Nature Writing and North Carolina, 1701-2001," conference at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, September 7, 2001. For other recent interpretations of Lawson, see A.L. Diket, "The Noble Savage Convention as Epitomized in John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina," The North Carolina Historical Review, 43: 4 (Oct. 1996), pp. 413-429; and W.H. Lindgren III, "Agricultural Propaganda in Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina," NCHR, 49: 4(Oct. 1972), pp. 333-44."

Michael Sistrom

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