John Lawson (1674- 1711), explorer, surveyor, and author of A New Voyage to Carolina (London, 1709), was apparently the only son of Dr. John Lawson (1632-ca. 1690) and his wife [Isabella] Love (ca. 1643-ca. 1680). As a young man he yearned to explore the New World and set out to make contacts for passage and sponsorship.
Lawson wrote that he met with a “gentleman” who had been abroad and who was familiar with much of the New World. When questioned, he suggested that Carolina was the best country for Lawson to visit, and it just happened that there was a ship about ready to sail there. Although Lawson did not name his informant, there is evidence that it was either Christopher Gale, a native of Yorkshire and an official in the northern part of Carolina, or James Moore, from Charles Town, then in London seeking the governorship. Moore was already a friend of Lawson, and he gave him free passage on the ship that he owned which was about to sail for Carolina. Moore already situated in Charles Town, became Lawson’s host and introduced him to the area after they arrived in August of 1700.
A London botanist and apothecary, James Petiver, had recently published a notice seeking someone to collect American specimens for him, and Lawson volunteered to do this without charge. Thirty of the specimens that he sent still survive in the Sloane collection at the British Museum. Lawson proved to be an unusually keen naturalist.
From Charles Town in December of 1700, Lawson set off on a 57-day swing through the backcountry of what is now the two Carolinas. Accompanied by five other young Englishmen with Yorkshire backgrounds, three Indian men, and the wife of one the Indians, he continued his horseshoe-shaped trek of around 550 miles until arriving at the Pamlico River near Bath in February of 1701.
During his exploration of the interior of Carolina in 1700 and 1701, Lawson kept a journal. Afterwards, in whatever leisure time he had, he began to prepare it for publication as well as to add further information based on his subsequent discoveries and observations. In 1709 he and others sailed from Hampton, Virginia for England. Lawson’s purpose was to arrange for the printing of the book he had written as well as to discuss with the Lords Proprietors plans for the settlement of a group of refugees in North Carolina.
This work has come to be regarded as a classic of early American literature, and the detailed information it recorded of native Americans and the natural history of the region is highly treasured. Among other interesting compilations, there is a lengthy list of words in different Indian dialects. The first part of the book contains Lawson’s journal, followed by separate sections devoted to a description of North Carolina geography, produce, insects, animals, and fish, and of the Indians.
Lawson arrived back in North Carolina in April 1710 accompanying some three hundred Palatines to be settled in the second town that he laid out, New Bern. Lawson continued to work as a surveyor and explored the surrounding region. In London, the Lords Proprietors named Lawson and Edward Moseley to a commission to serve with Virginia representatives in surveying the line between Virginia and North Carolina. Several meetings were held and Lawson made some observations as to where the line should be, but no agreement could be reached.
Soon, relations with the Indians deteriorated. In the late summer of 1711, Lawson and von Graffenried planned a trip up the Neuse River from New Bern but their expedition was halted by a large group of Tuscarora Indians who took them prisoner and held them for a time before releasing von Graffenried, thinking he was the governor. Lawson, however, was put to death. A few days later the Tuscarora launched an attack on most of the white settlements and came very close to ending the occupation of their land.
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