text and photographs by Scott Huler
Just southeast of Charlotte, at the big rock that marks the corner of North and South Carolina – OK, one of many corners, and those corners have actually been somewhat mobile, but that’s another story – I stood with Dale Loberger, who lives not far from there. We had walked about four miles to get there, and it was sunny and humid and most of our way had followed asphalt two-lanes. (That was the good part; the bad part followed Route 521, a just-not-quite-Interstate with no sidewalks.) I wore hiking clothes; Loberger wore a tricorne hat, wool stockings, and a waistcoat he had sewn himself. Dale is a living history practitioner who rocks the surveying techniques (and the duds) of the 18th and 19th century. That is, Dale dons itchy wool clothes, stands out in the sun and the rain and the bugs, and does math for a hobby. He was teaching me to do the same.
I found myself in this unlikely situation because some years before, I wanted to find out the history of my little third-of-an-acre lot in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood.
The truth is that what brought me to Dale – what I’ve been doing lately – makes Dale look normal by comparison. Dale recreates some of the scientific techniques from the 18th and 19th centuries. I, on the other hand, have for the last several months been following a nonexistent trail – well, the idea of a trail – along the path of a man who in 1700 set out from Charleston into the Carolina backcountry. With Indian guides and some friends from the Indian trader set, he canoed for a week along the coast to the mouth of the Santee River, headed upstream, and then started walking.
Two months, 550 or so miles, and numerous Indian villages and camps later, this man, John Lawson, was guided to the home of one Richard Smith – near what you or I would now call Little Washington, on the Pamlico Sound. “Being well receiv’d by the Inhabitants, and pleas’d with the Goodness of the Country,” Lawson wrote “we all resolv’d to continue.” Evidently so: Lawson was so pleas’d that he stayed for the goodness of Smith’s daughter, with whom he had a child. He hung around long enough to be the founder and planner of Bath – the state’s first incorporated town – and of New Bern, though founding towns and bringing in boatloads of new European settlers eventually got him on the wrong side of the Tuscarora Indians, who killed him in 1711 as the very first casualty of the Tuscarora War.
The land itself
But I was talking about my little third of an acre in Five Points – which, Charleston to the contrary – is actually where this all began. Not in 1700, but about seven years ago.
Working on On the Grid, a book about the infrastructure systems that make our preposterously easy 21st-century lives possible, I was tracing every one of those systems from or to my house – electricity, water, sewer, communications, roads, and so forth. As I did, I realized that the sewer pipes and the electric wires and even the stormwater systems profoundly depended on the land itself. I took the notion, then, to find a brief land-use history of my house near Whitaker Mill Road. I started out by tracing backwards in the deed record, but within a century or so I had fallen into a nest of developers selling the land back and forth among themselves, and grew weary. So I decided to start from the bottom – when the eight Lords Proprietors first took “possession” of my land in the 1600s after King Charles II rewarded them for their loyalty during the brief period of Cromwell’s republic. Which of them got it then? To whom did the King grant acreage, and how long was it before that acreage ended up as my little house?
Again with the despair; land records are a special ecosystem, thrilling in what they can yield but infuriating in their complexity. So I decided to leave deed hunting to the professionals, figuring that like virtually all of the Piedmont my land had been cleared, weakly farmed, and abandoned. But I did find one interesting mention – this John Lawson fellow appeared to have wandered through somewhere nearby in 1701. He had taken a large, horseshoe-shaped journey into the Carolina backcountry when Carolina was still a single colony and its backcountry was virtually unknown to European settlers. His resulting book, A New Voyage to Carolina, published in London in 1709, became a classic of the period and was one of the first books of what we would now call reported creative nonfiction.
Lawson’s journey would have taken him, in early 1701, to within the vicinity of what became Raleigh almost a century later, which meant if I could find his description of that area, I could get a sense of what my land would have looked like. So after looking through Lawson’s book, I went looking for the newer book I assumed someone must have written, the one in which someone retraced Lawson’s steps and could shed some light on his trip and the land he traveled. That book, it turned out, did not exist.
If you’re a writer, and you go looking for a book that does not exist, you pretty much know what to do next.
So last October, funded by a Knight Science Journalism Project Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I went to Charleston to embark on Lawson’s journey. The first leg was to grind my way up the Intracoastal Waterway by canoe, just as Lawson would have done. I paddled my own canoe, though I’m quite certain Lawson himself, with five pals and four Indian guides in a 10-person canoe, never picked up a paddle. I believe this because in a week of discussing his journey by canoe, Lawson mentions a major storm once and the unpredictable currents a couple times, but he never mentions blisters or the despair of paddling into even a light headwind. And I can tell you by hard-won experience that once you’re paddling a canoe, you have interest in only two things: current and wind, wind and current. So I suspect his friends and guides did all the work, while Lawson, like Eustace Tilley on the cover of The New Yorker magazine, sat back and scrawled notes in his journal and observed things, though perhaps not through a monocle.
Which, actually, is the kind of thing I went out there to find in the first place. Lawson is an amazing historical figure – the First Citizen of the state, in many ways. He set out to make a name for himself in one way or another, and in subsequent years became Surveyor-General to the colony and sent boxes of botanical specimens to one James Petiver in London, whose collection, eventually acquired by Hans Sloane, became part of the founding materials of the British Museum in London. Lawson founded towns and knew governors here and dukes in England.
In a way, centuries before our generation, Lawson was just like us. He too faced a world in which technology was changing, industry was changing, communication was changing, and science appeared to be ready to help us understand, if not answer, all questions. Unsure about the future or his place in it, he wandered around, traveling and visiting and looking for what was next. “Lawson was a millennial,” a park ranger I met in South Carolina said to me. “He was couch surfing.”
Which is an amazing insight. And his science and his land development and his surveying all left results, but his greatest legacy is his book – and the journey that inspired it. So I set out less to slavishly find Lawson’s exact path (though an independent researcher in South Carolina named Val Green has found exactly that and has provided enormous help) than to recreate his journey in spirit and in approach. To go out and look around and see what the world is like.
Which is what I’ve been doing, and what I’ll continue doing on and off over the coming months until I reach Little Washington and then Bath sometime this summer.
Burial customs and barbakue
Lawson set out to explore the Carolinas, and his book describes the terrain, the flora, the fauna, and above all the people. He describes Indian burial customs and dance and the way they prepare and eat food and even their ways of torturing prisoners; just so, I cannot fail to notice modern cemeteries and roadside markers where people have died in car wrecks, to eat barbecue (Lawson called it barbakue; the Indian women shredded the venison with their teeth), and to see how the people entertain themselves and each other, whether it’s with SportsCenter in the bar or at the strip club attached to a family restaurant I ate at in Santee, S.C.
Lawson slept beneath covers of peeled birch bark and in Indian huts, some of which pleased him and some not so much (“a Parcel of nasty smoaky Holes,” he says of one night’s less-pleasant lodging; he also complained of fleas); I have slept in organized campgrounds and in backyards and on front porches, in church pews and on patches of ground whose ownership I did not bother to pursue. I have bought diet soda in the oldest continually running business in South Carolina, been fed cake and coffee by descendants of the French Huguenots who hosted Lawson 300 years ago, and walked along the rivers with descendents of the Santee and Catawba Indians who treated Lawson so kindly.
I have it on good authority that Lawson’s path led him from Hillsborough down through Durham, Morrisville, Cary, and south Raleigh on his way to the coast, but I’ll investigate as I go; informed sources sometimes disagree. I expect to get to Raleigh midsummer, and to Bath by summer’s end, and as I make my way along the asphalt two-lanes of the North Carolina Piedmont, I’ll try to pay closer attention than Lawson did. By the time he finished, his descriptions had grown slight. He was clearly tired, and after enough time in “nasty smoaky holes” he was ready to be done. Instead of the long descriptions of burial customs and food storage he devoted to the Santees and Sewees of South Carolina, he spends little time describing the Enos and Occaneechee. He does talk about “the Falls of a large Creek, where lay mighty Rocks, the Water making a strange Noise, as if a great many Water-Mills were going at once. I take this to be the Falls of Neuse Creek, called by the Indians, Wee quo Whom.”
My friend Val is certain that this is actually not the Falls of the Neuse but instead a falls of the Little River as it crosses Route 42, east of Clayton. He hasn’t steered me wrong yet – there’s even a mill there to this very day! – but I have a hard time looking past our own Falls of the Neuse.
As for what my land looked like back then, I can’t say I’m any closer to understanding that, though it’s a pretty good guess that when Lawson describes an area he calls “the Lower Quarter,” where “the Land … begins to abate of its Height,” he’s in our vicinity. He talks of “several tracts of rich Land, but mix’d with Pines and other indifferent Soil;” about fine, gravelly river bottoms, swamps mixed with “Percorson” (which we would call brushy pocosin), and higher dry spots – which sounds pretty much like our edge-of-the-Piedmont paradise. I mean, once you hear “Pines and other indifferent Soil,” you’ve got to think, “home,” right?
Anyhow, Lawson was new to town and led by Indian guides; I’ve been around for a while but am still being led.
I’ll let you know what else I find.
For more on Scott Huler’s journey, including an interactive map and updates of his progress, go to lawsontrek.com. Huler is also posting photos to @LawsonTrek on Instagram.