“Their way of Living is so contrary to ours, that neither we nor they can fathom one anothers Designs and Methods.”
John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina combines a travel journal with an account of North Carolina principally devoted to natural history, including crops, herbs, animals, birds, fish, and insects. The sections excerpted here are from the conclusion of the book, a lengthy account of the American Indian nations of the area, their cultures and habits, which was one of the most authoritative discussions of southern American Indians available in English at the time. There were two editions of Lawson’s work, 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., published in London in 1709, and The History of Carolina, published in London in 1714.
Lawson was writing at a time when English settlers were overflowing from surrounding areas such as Virginia and moving into coastal areas like that which became the province of North Carolina. At the time, North Carolina had not yet been settled by English colonists and was part of the province of Carolina, governed from Charleston in what is now South Carolina, until 1712. As both an early colonial settler and promoter, Lawson was deeply involved in the settlement process. North Carolina was overshadowed by the more developed economies and societies of South Carolina and Virginia and was also poorly represented in literature. Lawson’s book was the first to come out of the province and was the major English-language resource for those interested in the area.
English settlement of the North Carolina back country had not yet begun at the time of Lawson’s journey, so prior contact with colonists was quite limited among the American Indians he met. Although American Indians had been driven out of many areas of colonial settlement, the area that became North Carolina possessed an active frontier while lacking the elite land-holding and slave-owning class of Virginia and South Carolina. The area also lacked urban centers; there were no recognized English towns in the entire colony when Lawson arrived. As a frontier area, North Carolina was particularly shaped by contact and conflict with the American Indians who lived there. The steady expansion of the English colonies at the expense of American Indians meant that settlers viewed them more as an obstacle to further development and expansion of the colonies than a serious threat to the colonies’ survival. Britain was also fighting the War of the Spanish Succession against Spain and France, although North Carolina was well away from the main battlefronts. Many English people and American colonists feared that American Indians would ally with France or Spain against the English settlements, yet they also considered friendly American Indians to be potential military assets.
Lawson was also writing during the early Enlightenment, when Europeans were increasingly knowledgeable about a wide range of other cultures, including American Indian cultures. This knowledge contributed to a growing sense that other cultural paths were not to be condemned out of hand and that European ways of living were not the only valid ones.
A Londoner who claimed the status of gentleman, John Lawson came to Charleston, Carolina, in 1700, though the specific reason he decided to come to America remains unknown. Although there is no record of a John Lawson attending either Oxford or Cambridge at that time, he was a man of some education, particularly in the sciences and had learned to be a skilled surveyor, an area of expertise always in demand in the British American colonies. He was a correspondent of the London botanist James Petiver, who may have been the inspiration for Lawson’s choice to go to Carolina, and connected to botanical circles in London.
After arriving in Carolina, Lawson was commissioned by the lords proprietors of Carolina to make an expedition into the previously unexplored North Carolina back country along with a party of Englishmen and American Indian guides overland to Virginia. Although he did not make it to Virginia due to fear of encountering hostile Iroquois, Lawson decided to settle in the then lightly settled Pamlico River region in North Carolina. It is this journey that is recounted in the opening section of A New Voyage to Carolina. Lawson temporarily returned to London in 1709 to supervise its printing with a frontispiece map of his own creation. The book gave him a reputation as an expert on American Indians living in the southern colonies.
After Lawson returned to Carolina in 1710, he handled several official surveying jobs for the Carolina government, including the surveying of Bath, North Carolina’s first town, and serving as a representative at a conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1710 to resolve the perpetually vexed Virginia–Carolina border. Though the conference was unsuccessful, the line that was eventually run in 1728 was very close to the one Lawson’s proposed.
Lawson was active in promoting European settlement in North Carolina in association with the Swiss promoter Baron Christoph de Graffenreid. While in London overseeing the publication of A New Voyage to Carolina, Lawson had also helped plan a settlement of Swiss and Palatine Germans, eventually leading a group of three hundred settlers on his return to Carolina. North Carolina’s second city, New Bern (named after the capital of Switzerland), was laid out near the site of Lawson’s cabin. The founding of New Bern and the arrival of a new community of white settlers angered the American Indians in the area, particularly the Tuscaroras. In 1711, Lawson was killed by a group of Tuscaroras while on an expedition up the Neus River, accompanied by de Graffenreid, who survived.
In these passages from A New Voyage to Carolina, John Lawson stakes a claim to expertise on American Indian subjects gained by personal experience. Lawson contrasts his own knowledge with that of other, unnamed writers on American Indian affairs who allegedly proceeded by hearsay and prejudice. Lawson bolsters his credibility by recounting conversations and other personal experiences with American Indians. Lawson’s discussion of them is ambivalent: He praises the strength of their bodies, their skill in handicrafts, and their courage in war, but also describes their extreme vulnerability, not to violence but to smallpox and rum and criticizes many aspects of their society including their greed and initiation rituals. His attitude toward his fellow English settlers is much more hostile, although he does not recommend any major changes in the colonization project nor does his work discourage potential settlers.
Lawson emphasizes his own possession of informed knowledge about American Indians and his presentation of it to the reader by insisting that good writers on American Indian subjects are “very few.” Lawson describes other English or European writers on American Indian subjects as driven by materialistic motives of “Interest, Preferment or Merchandize” to distort their pictures of American Indians in order to advance their own interests. These writers are also epistemologically inferior, as their knowledge was acquired by hearsay rather than the direct experience Lawson claimed to possess—a very common way of claiming intellectual authority in the Enlightenment period. Lawson also suggests that previous writers on American Indian affairs are politically unreliable, in that they spend much of their books attacking the government. However, given the fact that Lawson does not name the writers he is referring to, it is difficult to know precisely why he holds this opinion.
Lawson’s description of American Indians contains many elements that would appeal to the English reader. He depicts American Indians as possessing many of the qualities valued in Europeans, such as physical vigor, obedience, deference to parents and leaders, and loyalty to their country. As was true of other English and European writers on American Indian subjects, Lawson assimilates them to European models of political life by treating their leaders as “Kings” despite the differences between the American Indian and English polities. He emphasizes that, as soldiers, American Indians never rebelled against their leaders and contrasts this with European behavior. This contrast had particular meaning given the heritage of political and religious division Britain had inherited from the seventeenth-century civil wars and revolutions, still in living memory at the time of Lawson’s writing.
Lawson ascribes to American Indians skill in handicrafts, specifically referring to canoes, an American Indian invention widely used by colonists. He also credits American Indians with the ability to endure privations without complaint, describing their bodies as extremely tough and well-suited to all sorts of weather and conditions. He praises the “agreeable” quality of the names they give to the months, which are based on fruits, animals, and fishes. Lawson also points out that American Indians are far more generous to the English than the English are to them and that they are on the whole morally superior to the English, despite the boasts of English “Religion and Education.” Although Lawson does not assert that American Indian religion is superior to Christianity, he does describe American Indians as innately religious, making “offerings” of food and “first-fruits.” Lawson does not identify the object of these offerings, but his approval of the behavior of the “more serious sort” of American Indians implicitly contrasts with his condemnation of English Christians as not being true followers of Christ. The belief in “natural religion,” a reverence for God that humans could attain without benefit of the Christian revelation, was widely held in the early Enlightenment period. Lawson noted that acquaintance with Christianity affected American Indians’ knowledge, as their awareness of Sunday and Christmas grew, but he, unlike some writers, makes no claim here that American Indians are ripe for converting en masse to Christianity. He also praises American Indians as relatively kind slave owners, so that their slaves require no weekly day of rest—a contrast with the kind of brutally exploitative plantation slavery practiced in parts of the colonial south.
However, Lawson’s presentation of American Indian life is not entirely favorable. He criticizes their disregard of health, which only their physical toughness enabled them to survive. In particular, he believed that their frequent washing was part of the problem; the belief that exposure to water, including bathing, was unhealthy was widely held among Europeans and European American settlers in the eighteenth century. Lawson is also willing to criticize aspects of American Indian social life. His description of their attitude toward gifts, which may reflect the difference between a monetary economy like the one Lawson was used to and a gift economy of the kind that characterized many American Indian communities, ascribes their behavior to “craving,” showing them as just as greedy as the settlers. He clearly dislikes the custom of husquenaugh, an initiation ritual for young people. This ritual involved sequestering the young people in a dark building outside the community and feeding them food deliberately made foul by mixing it with filth and hallucinogenic plants for a period of five or six weeks. Since the “husquenauwing” takes place around Christmastime, in other words in the dead of winter, the victims would also be subjected to extreme cold. Lawson claims that American Indians justified the practice as toughening the body, eliminating the unfit who would otherwise be a drain on the community’s resources, and making young people obedient and deferential to their elders. They also compared it to the schooling of settlers’ children. Lawson, who claims to have personally witnessed the results of the husquenaugh, seems to be unpersuaded by these justifications, describing the husquenaugh as “abominable,” and “diabolical,” presumably due to the suffering it caused, and claiming that many young people who were subjected to it died.
The husquenaugh may have been a type of “vision quest” employing psychoactive plants practiced in many American Indian cultures. Lawson does not mention any spiritual aspects of the husquenaugh, but Lawson’s subjects may have been unwilling to discuss this with him, or he may simply have viewed claims to a spiritual aspect of the process as mere superstition, unworthy of being repeated. (The leader of the community may have not wished for outsiders to see what went on in the house where the husquenaugh took place, but tactfully forbade entrance to Lawson on the grounds that he would be putting himself in danger.) Unlike the sacrifice of first-fruits or making food offerings before meals, the husquenaugh had no obvious parallel within European religion, thus making it difficult for Lawson to perceive it as a religious practice. Lawson did, however, find the practice transformative, in that survivors seemed like different people than they had been before they began the husquenaugh.
Lawson also contrasts his subjects’ awareness of the harmfulness of rum (made from Caribbean sugar, it was the premier cheap spirit of colonial America) with their inability to give it up. His claim that his subjects used the same word for rum as medicine, or “Physick,” on the grounds that both made them sick is based on the common eighteenth-century use of purgatives, laxatives, or emetics, as medical treatments. They realized that rum was literally poison to them, yet continued to drink it and suffer its harmful effects.
Despite his willingness to criticize some aspects of American Indian culture such as the husquenaugh, Lawson adopts a form of cultural relativism in dealing with many of the differences of American Indians and the English, pointing out that the American Indians in many areas simply had different customs from the English and that the English wrongly blamed them for what was merely a difference in culture rather than anything evil. So prejudiced against the American Indians were the English settlers that they regarded them as “Beasts in Humane Shape.” Lawson also ascribes the ability to treat differences in custom in a neutral fashion to the American Indians themselves, who not only compare the husquenaugh to schooling but compare their custom of throwing the first bit of food into the fire with the English custom of removing hats. The cultural relativism shared by Lawson and many of his subjects contrasts with the bigotry of the English settlers, whom he viewed as being unable to make allowances for cultural differences.
Lawson depicts the impact of the colonizers on American Indians as entirely negative. English colonists were the ultimate source of the alcohol and disease, which was decimating the American Indian population in Lawson’s time. Like modern historians, Lawson ascribes the arrival of smallpox in the Americas to the arrival of the Europeans, and he describes its initial impact as wiping out whole American Indian towns without leaving a single survivor. He also believed that the impact was worsened by ineffective approaches to treatment. In his view, immersion in water simply made the disease worse and impossible to cure or even survive. Rum too was introduced by the English, for whom it was one of the major products produced by colonial industry. Rum was particularly destructive, as it not only contributed to demographic decline of the American Indian population but corrupted morality as well. At the same time, colonists cheated American Indians by charging them higher prices than other Englishmen for the same goods.
The destruction of American Indian society caused by contact with colonial culture was an ongoing process not limited to a specific group of American Indians who interacted with the English. The depopulation already extended to a two hundred mile radius of the existing settlements, and as the “Westward Indians” were getting access to rum indirectly through those who had direct contact with settlers, these even more distant communities would presumably suffer the same demographic collapse.
Lawson thought that the frequent wars between the American Indians and the English were caused by the dishonesty of the English, an assertion that he claims again to have verified through personal observation and that he believed would be found true of the wars which he had not been able to personally observe.
Following a common eighteenth-century polemical strategy, Lawson uses the figure of the American Indian as a way of satirically commenting on English mores. The slander of “Worthy Men’s Reputations” by hack writers is portrayed as worse than the supposed savageries committed by American Indians. Lawson puts his criticism of English behavior in a religious framework, pointing out that the English are not following the precepts of Christianity that they claimed to uphold, such as the Golden Rule. Settlers were shamed by the fact that the generosity American Indians showed to hungry or homeless settlers was not returned. Lawson criticized the hostile attitudes that many English settlers displayed to American Indians as unfair, in that they were not the original intruders—the English were. However, Lawson’s defense of American Indians and attacks on the English did not lead him to call for the abandonment of English and European colonization efforts in North Carolina, of which he was a leading participant.
The discussion of the American Indians in much of this passage turns on their use to English settlers, on “making them serviceable,” although Lawson anticipated that his subjects would benefit themselves by aiding the settlers as well. American Indians aided settler communities in many ways, from extending charity in the early days of settlement to serving as military auxiliaries. Lawson is careful to reckon the potential military strength of the neighboring American Indian communities, giving the oddly precise figure of 1,612 “Fighting Men.” The numbers of these potential fighters could be relevant in viewing them either as enemies or potential allies. Many of the virtues that Lawson ascribes to American Indians he specifically relates to their role as soldiers. Some American Indians also served settlers as slaves, a fact to which Lawson makes passing reference, locating these slaves in South Carolina, with its far more developed plantation-based economy. Locating American Indian slaves outside North Carolina makes it easier for him to praise American Indians as the “freest people in the world” and rebuke the settlers for calling them slaves.
Lawson’s emphasis on the possible usefulness of his subjects and depiction of them as at worse a waning military threat may have part of his mission as a promoter of settlement. Painting the American Indians he met in a favorable light may have been a way to make the American environment seem less hostile to prospective settlers, even going so far as to refer to his subjects as “Poor Creatures,” beleaguered by encroaching English settlements, smallpox, and rum.
A New Voyage to Carolina was a widely read, referenced, and plagiarized book in the following decades, as it was a major repository of information not just on North Carolina and its indigenous peoples but on the Upper South in general. Lawson’s discussion of American Indian cultures raises persistent themes concerning interactions between American Indians and European colonists. The vulnerability of American Indians to European diseases and alcohol, which long predated Lawson’s work, remained a constant for many decades of American Indian–European interaction. In the struggle with the English and European settlers of the back country that followed Lawson’s time, the still-independent American Indian peoples he described would lose that independence, and in many cases, the survivors would be forced to move hundreds of miles away.
Lawson’s limited cultural relativism would be shared by some whites, but in practice, the dominant approach whites took to American Indians, both before and after the American Revolution, would not be marked by intercultural respect and tolerance. Instead, whites would kill them in order to take their land and force the survivors to conform to the norms of the settled white population, including the abandonment of a wide-ranging hunting lifestyle in favor of agriculture and conversion to Christianity. Lawson’s disdain for the husquenaugh would extend to many aspects of American Indian religious practices that could not be easily assimilated to European models.
Lawson’s hope that American Indians would better themselves by becoming useful to the colonists was doomed to disappointment. Although English settlers and British officials sometimes made use of American Indians as military auxiliaries, they did not find a permanent place in colonial society. The brutal Tuscarora War that began in 1711 ended in a victory for the settlers that broke the back of American Indian power throughout much of eastern North Carolina. The independent American Indian society coexisting and trading with whites that Lawson portrayed would be replaced by a culture of whites supported by African slavery.
The romanticization of indigenous life as “free” and praise of Native physical hardihood and Natives as practitioners of “natural virtue” would continue to be common in colonial discourse long after Lawson, as would the combination of condemnation and acceptance of European colonization projects.
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