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NC writer retraces 18th century explorer’s walk through the Carolinas

Posted: March 12, 2015 5:24 p.m.
Updated: March 13, 2015 1:00 a.m.
Courtesy of The Lawson Trek website/

This road, somewhere in Poinsette State Park, actually runs along the Indian trail or trade route Lawson would have followed on his journey through the Carolinas.

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Most people know Lewis and Clark. John Lawson … not so much.

Scott Huler wants to change that -- and he’s willing to walk a few hundred miles to do just that.

Thanks to a fellowship from the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Raleigh, N.C.-based author is retracing the journey Lawson took through the Carolina territory in 1700-1701, a long and circuitous route originally starting in Charleston and ending at what is now Washington, N.C., on the Pamlico Sound. Huler, who is on the second leg of the journey, will be in Camden this weekend.

Lawson, who covered more than 600 miles on his trip, essentially accomplished what Lewis and Clark would do 100 years later -- he would go forth into unknown territory, meet and get to know indigenous peoples, map the areas he explored, take notes, observations, drawings, and specimens of local flora and fauna. According to Huler, a book Lawson published in 1709 about his journey would become a best seller in Europe.

“He saw about as much as one could see on one trip,” Huler said. “He got to know the people along the way -- actually describes getting just falling down drunk at one stop. The mythology is that he was part of a small group seeing native cultures in their natural state, but he was already actually seeing the results of what alcoholism and disease had done.”  

Whether the Lords Proprietor of the Carolina Colony, which encompassed what is now North and South Carolina, paid Lawson or if Lawson was just a young guy looking for adventure -- he was 26 years old at the time -- is not known. Whatever the reason, Lawson’s trip resulted in significant contributions to science and history, Huler said.

“We don’t know why he did it; only that he did it,” he said. “He may have been looking for better trade routes from Charleston to Virginia. Get into a boat in the Atlantic Ocean, it’s risky; over land, you can really improve yourself.”

Hulder said Lawson was savvy enough to take people who knew the area -- traders and Indian guides.

“He basically followed these established trails and trade routes and in the process really got to know the country and the people very well,” Huler said.

In fact, Lawson advocated intermarriage between natives and Europeans. Granted, such an idea was less idealistic than pragmatic; he believed intermarriage was the most pragmatic and least painful method to “civilize” the natives, Huler said, who said he ran across Lawson’s exploits by accident.

“I came to this in an odd way,” he said. “I was doing a book on infrastructure and for the book I traced all the infrastructure systems from my house -- water, sewer, electricity -- I wanted to see how this happens, who is responsible, all that.”

At some point, Huler became interested in the land upon which his house sits, he said.

“What I learned is that tracing property for the first hundred years or so is easy -- then it gets crazy,” he said.

Huler changed direction; he started from the coast, and soon began to learn about the Lords Proprietor and the history of the Carolina territory -- including the story of John Lawson.

Huler met and befriended Val Green, a man who has been researching Lawson for the last 40 years. Thanks to Green, Huler has not only walked in Lawson’s steps, he has met descendants of people who likely met and entertained Lawson along his journey.

“I actually had coffee and cake with the descendants of a Huguenot family who would have visited with him and have visited with the current vice chief of the Santee tribe, whose descendants would have been friendly with Lawson,” Huler said. “Val is a master researcher. He’s gone to original land grants -- his depth and level of research is absolutely incredible. I’ve been able to find all this information, not because I’m this great researcher, but because he is. Val will say, ‘I can show you every place where John Lawson slept every night’ -- and I truly believe he can.”

Huler is doing the journey in legs; he completed the first leg from Charleston to just outside Santee earlier this year. Like Lawson, he paddled upstream. Like Lawson, he pulled his boat from the stream and started walking, at the same place Lawson did in 1700.

There are moments when one really feels drawn to Lawson’s perspective, Huler noted.

“The first time was just paddling in the marshes, and looking out at a vista of nothing but spartina and cord grass,” Huler said. “Nothing else, no reminders of modern life, just this very same vista and perspective Lawson saw.”

Another, more practical realization came on the very first day of Huler’s own journey.

“The first day of the trek, I was paddling a canoe; Lawson would have been in a huge canoe with 10 people,” Huler said. “By the middle of the day, the only thing I was thinking about was which way the tide is going, which way the wind is blowing. Pushing a canoe, especially against wind and tide, is hard work! My conclusion is that Lawson didn’t paddle his own canoe.”

Camden marks one of the stops on Huler’s next leg of the journey. He is camping out at Historic Camden on Friday and Saturday nights and will be at Books on Broad Saturday at 4 p.m. to talk about his adventures and answer questions.

For more information about the Lawson Trek, go to Huler’s website at www.lawsontrek.com.

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