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John Lawson, Naturalist

John Lawson collected natural history specimens from the colony of Carolina for James Petiver, a London apothecary. Hans Sloane (1660-1753) acquired Petiver's plant collections upon the latter's death in 1718. Sloane's plant collections consists of 337 volumes, described as "the most extensive single series of botanical collections made in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries."

The Sloane Herbarium consists of linen paper sheets to which dried plants have been affixed with paste and strips of paper. The bound volumes are called Horti Sicci (HS), Latin for dried plants. The location of a particular plant can be identified by reference to "book number and page number within that book." Latin Family names are listed first with the common Family names in parentheses.

John Lawson's Plant Collections

John Lawson had resided in North Carolina for only a month, when in April 1701 he wrote to London apothecary James Petiver, offering to provide him with animal and vegetable collections native to the province. Lawson wrote, "I shall be very industrious in that Employ I hope to yr. satisfaction & my own, thinking it more than sufficient Reward to have the Conversation of so great a Vertuosi."

We do not know how frequently Lawson corresponded with Petiver, but the next letter in the Sloane Collection of the British Museum was sent from Portsmouth, England and dated January 11, 1709. Lawson had just arrived in England to supervise the publication of his book, A New Voyage to Carolina, and to meet Baron de Graffenried and his colonists, whom Lawson planned to lead back to North Carolina. In this letter Lawson thanked Petiver for the gift of "Mr. Ray’s Book of Physick." (Possibly Catalogus Plantarum Angliae published in 1670.) This book provided the basis for all subsequent floras of Britain. Lawson may have used this book to help identify plants collected in North Carolina.

[NOTE] John Ray (or Wray), b. 1627, d. 1705, Fellow of the Royal Society (elected in 1667), contributed to the development of the "Natural System" of classification. He published the first flora of Britain (see above), as well as a three volume Historia Plantarum (1686-1704) in which Ray included descriptions of all plant species then known to science.

Lawson concluded his letter to Petiver with the promise that upon his return to North Carolina he would begin monthly observations. He never stated exactly what observations he would make; they might have been of natural history events such as bird migrations or flowering times of plants. Lawson also promised Petiver that he would include it "with yr. collections" in the next shipment. In his next letter dated December 30, 1710, Lawson began by apologizing to Petiver for, "not writing sooner wch. was by reason of my too much business." He described a "small box of Collections" that he had sent in July to Virginia for forwarding to England. "In ye box are...all plants that are on yr. own paper those in ye white are for Mr. Fettiplace Rolley [Boller?]...."

Later in this letter Lawson wrote, "If God prolongs my dayes my intention is this. To make strict collection of plants I can meet withall in Carolina always keeping one of a sort with me giving an account of ye time & day gotten, when they first appear, wt. soil or ground, wn. they flower seed & disappear & what individuall uses the Indians and English make therof & to have enough of the same & to let me know how near they agree to European plants of ye same species & how they differ besides I would send seeds of all ye physicall plants & flowers to be planted in England. As for trees the time they bear flower bring their ripe fruit & soil I hope to Comply with Most of them this year 1711."

An inset within the above letter states:

I have some more plants collected but of books being not full I omitt sending them untill completed. Sr. pardon this freedom I take wth. you. I only tell you my Intentions & beg yr. Advice & am & shall ever Remain to the utmost of my power
Yr. most humble Servant
To command
John Lawson"

On July 24, 1711 Lawson again wrote Petiver, "Sr. I hope long since you have Received ye Collection of plants & Insects in 4 vials wch I sent for you wth. Mr. Fettiplace Boller’s [Rolley?].... I have now sent you by our Govrs. Lady one book of plants very slovenly packt up wch. I hope when you hear ye distracted Circumstances our Country has laboured under you will Excuse. I have more collected at my home at Neus but could not send them to you now being I have not been there since January last."

John Lawson did return to the Neuse soon after he sent this letter. Just two months later, Tuscarora Indians executed him while he explored the upper Neuse River in the company of Baron von Graffenried.

James Petiver (b. 1658) collected 106 numbered books (Horti Sicci) of dried plant specimens before his death in 1718. Dr. Hans Sloane purchased the entire collection from Petiver’s estate and it became part of Sloane’s 265 volume collection. In 1953, the British Museum acquired the Sloane Herbarium. Lawson’s plants were pressed on 53 pages distributed among 5 volumes of this collection. No systematic inventory of Lawson’s plants occurred before 2001.

In October 2001, the Joyner Library at East Carolina University obtained high quality digital images of the herbarium pages attributed to John Lawson. Dr. Vince Bellis, Professor Emeritus of Biology at East Carolina University, is working to identify plants in the collection and bring the identifications into conformity with Radford, et al, Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, (1968). Dr. Bellis’ inventory revealed 308 plant specimens representing about 100 taxa.

Most of the specimens are of plants commonly found in coastal North Carolina. Approximately 40 notes written in Lawson’s hand are attached to various plant specimens. Typically these notes list the date and collection location. Most of the dates are for spring and summer (May-July) 1710. Collection locations, according to Lawson, include: "Trent River," "Neus River," "Roanoke," and "Virginia." A second set of collection dates includes the period between January and May, 1711. Collection locations, according to Lawson, include: "Neus River," "my house," "Croatan," "Salmon Creek," "Broad Creek," "Little River," "Mr. Hancock.s," "Col. Pollocks," and "Government Landing." Most of the specimens appear to be from the New Bern area.

Lawson provided names for some of the plants. Names given for plants include: huckleberry, sand willow, a sort of vetch, chickapin, Wild Dock, Golden Rod, Sourwood, snake root, Virginia Mayak, St. Anthony’s Cross, Wax Gatherer’s, trefoil, moss, Paupau, silk grass, a sort of lily bulb, grass, Willow Oake, Hickory, Holly, Dogwood, spice tree, Black Cherry, black gum, black haw, Red Haw Tree, Huckleberry, gall berry, locust, Spirea, Maple and Smilax. Other plants are identified as evergreen, black berries, smaller weed, evergreen vine, and "a pritty tree".

Potential Never Realized

Had he not met an untimely and tragic death by execution at the age of 36, John Lawson might have become as well known as naturalists Mark Catesby and the Bartrams. Lawson is best known for his vivid and insightful descriptions of the flora and fauna of the Province of Carolina in the period immediately preceding the great wave of European development that swept away an ancient Indian culture during the early nineteenth century. Lawson’s descriptions of Indian life and customs are often the only written record of these peoples. This information is contained in A New Voyage to Carolina first published by Lawson in 1709.

It is apparent the Lawson intended to follow this publication with other more comprehensive studies. Less that one year before his death he described his ‘work plan’ in a letter to his London benefactor, James Petiver. Lawson says that he intends to collect specimens of all of the plants in Carolina and to include notes concerning their uses. He will record all of the animals and birds and describe their behavior, food preferences, and life history. He will study the fishes to determine which occur both in North Carolina and in Europe. He will record the insects, soils and fossils. He will report on the lives of the colonists - their diseases, farming practices, and building techniques. Lawson apparently planned to prepare a comprehensive ‘history’ of the Province of North Carolina.

John Lawson would have had difficulty in completing his ambitious plan of study. He had recently become the father of two children with his ‘dearly beloved’ common-law wife, Hannah Smith. He supported his family by surveying land and acting as an agent in various property transfers. Much of Lawson’s time was occupied in helping develop the towns of New Bern and Bath. Fully ten years after first promising Mr. Petiver that he would send him collections of plants and animals, Lawson prefaced his letter as follows: "Sir, Excuse me not writing sooner wch. was by reason of my too much business."

Later naturalists ‘borrowed’ heavily from Lawson’s work. Mark Catesby acknowledged his debt to John Lawson and wrote: "I cannot but here lament the hard fate of this inquisitive traveler, who, though partial in his favorable opinion of those Barbarians, died by their bloody hands, for they roasted him alive in revenge for injuries they pretended to have received from him."

How Plants are Named

Planet Earth supports thousands of different plant species. The same species may have different names in different languages. The name for our common Dandelion is an anglicized corruption of the French "dent-de-leon," or lion’s tooth. The German "Lindenbaum" is called "Basswood" in English. The same plant may be given different common names even within one country. A common American shrub, covered in Autumn with red-seeded orange pods, is known to most Americans as Strawberry Bush. Folks in the Appalachian Mountains call this same shrub "Hearts-a-bustin." Finding the correct name for a plant during the colonial period in America was further complicated by the fact that immigrants often applied European names to American plants that resembled familiar plants from home, but which were really different species.1 A common English tree is called a "Sycamore." It belongs to the maple family. When English colonists arrived in America they began calling a tree with similar leaves, "Sycamore." It turns out that the American sycamore belongs to an entirely different family. Many colonists simply used the local Native-American names. Examples of Native-American names include Yaupon, Chinquapin, Pawpaw, Ipomoea, Titi, Puccoon, and Sassafras. Still other plants indicate Native-American associations. These names include Indian Cucumber Root and Squaw Huckleberry. All of the above-named plants are represented among the Lawson Plants.

Plants have always been of economic importance to humans. Plants provide food and medicine. We make our homes and clothing from them while poets, artists, and gardeners receive inspiration from their beauty. Even in prehistory it was necessary to name plants correctly. Mistaking a poisonous plant for an edible one could have fatal results. Over two thousand years ago, Greek physicians began to produce plant identification books, called herbals. The books contained illustrations and brief descriptions of useful plants. I have found modern equivalents of these ancient books for sale at herb markets in Costa Rica. The problem of differing common names among the several languages was addressed during medieval times by writing plant herbals in the scholarly language of Latin.2 While it may be reasonable to expect a physician or naturalist to memorize a few hundred descriptions of useful plants, the task became unmanageable during the Age of Exploration when collectors, like John Lawson, began sending thousands of specimens back to Europe from all parts of the World.

Nearly half a century after John Lawson’s death, Carl Linnaeus developed a system that greatly facilitated the process for classifying plants. Consider the information given in the footnote below.3 The Latin words and numbers refer to published descriptions of plants that resemble the mounted specimen. The first entry compares this plant to Candy Cassidony as appears in a book by John Ray. John Ray made the first attempt to describe all known plants. He published Historia Plantarum in three volumes between 1686 and 1704. There is evidence that James Petiver gave John Lawson a copy of Ray’s book when Lawson was in England in 1708. The last entry in this footnote is in a classical pre-Linnaean format. It reads Staechas citrina globosa et amplo flore Cretica. A loose translation might read: "This plant is illustrated in plate 987 and is described on page 814 of a book by Burrelier that describes the flora of Crete. The plant bears abundant rounded heads of pale yellow flowers." This string of Latin is known as a Latin polynomial. Linnaeus’ innovation was to reduce all of this information to an abbreviated form. Linnaeus created a "scientific name" consisting of the first two words in the Latin description , Staechas citrina, together with the author of the description of that plant. This combination is called a Latin binomial. Linnaeus assumed that all serious naturalists would have access to the existing botanical literature and that they could use the "short description" to look up the detailed original. Thus, if two authors gave different names to the same plant the interested reader could compare Candy cassidony Ray with Staechas citrina Bourrelier or Elychrysum criticum CB. All three of these scientific names are correct Linnaean binomials. The book's authors are given as a helpful reference. Author names are referred to as the authority. An authority is the person who first published a Latin description of the species. A complete scientific name must consist of the Latin binomial and the authority. Candy cassidony is a binomial while Candy cassidony Ray is a scientific name. The word Candy is the generic name while the term cassidony is the specific epithet. This naming practice cites the more general category first followed by the more specific. For instance my surname is Bellis and my given name is Vincent. I am Vincent of the Bellis clan. In botanical Latin my ‘binomial’ would be Bellis vincent. Botanists say the Bellis represents the generic, or genus, name. Vincent is the specific, or specific epithet.

Why the italics and why is the generic name capitalized while the specific epithet is in lower case? Remember that the scientific name is a condensed version of a longer Latin description. By convention we begin our sentences with a capital letter. Since the generic name was usually derived from the first word in the Latin description it was capitalized. The specific epithet was derived from the second word (in the descriptive sentence) and is not capitalized. Most learned works during this period were printed in an Italic font. The authority was printed in Roman font to more clearly distinguish it from the binomial. Remember that the ‘name at the end’ is a reference to an author or authority and is not part of the description of the plant.

This scientific and systematic approach to naming plants greatly helped reduce confusion. Botanists could now compare similar specimens and descriptions from various locations. Plants belonging to the same species but bearing different binomials could be combined under one name. Here is one example. The weed that we know as Dandelion was identified in several European languages by terms that described the individual tooth-like flowers (Leontodon = Lion’s tooth) of the plant. Linneaus gave this plant the binomial Leontadon taraxacum. Since Linnaeus was the authority the scientific name became Leontadon taraxacum L. The ‘L.’ refers to Linnaeus. A later specialist moved this plant to a new genus that he called Taraxacum. This authority was Frederich Heinrich Wiggers, 1746-1811. The accepted modern scientific name for the common dandelion is Taraxicum officinale. Wiggers. The specific name, officinale, refers to the wide use of this plant in herbal medicine. "Officinale" means "of the shops or herb markets."

When a major change occurs two authorities may appear in the scientific name. Botanists often examine old collections of dried plants, or herbaria, in order to gain a specialists understanding of a particular group. We see evidence of this on page 145-47 of the Lawson plants.4 Information on this label shows that James L. Reveal of the University of Maryland examined this specimen sometime in 1989. He identified it as Polypodium polypodioides (L.) Watt. var michauxianum Weatherby. The information on this label indicates that this plant was first described by Linnaeus. He assigned it to a different genus. Later David Allen Poe Watt (1830-1917) transferred it to the genus Polypodium. Still later Charles Alfred Weatherby (1875-1949) recognized more than one variety of this species and designated this one as michauxianum. Andre Michaux was a French botanist who collected plants in eastern North America in the years just after the American Revolution. Michaux collected widely in western North Carolina. The French had helped push the English out of the United States and were interested in discovering new plants having potential commercial value.

The Linnaean System of Plant Classification was published in 1753 as Species Plantarum. This system remains the basis of modern plant classification and nomenclature. Over the years botanists have developed rules to govern the assignment of scientific names. One basic rule is that to be accepted as a valid name the description of a new species must be published in Latin in a recognized botanical publication. The rules governing plant names are published as The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. Botanists periodically organize International Botanical Congresses in order to review the Code and to resolve disputes. The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew in London, England attempts to record all plant descriptions as they appear in the literature. The Index Kewensis lists all known specific epithets alphabetically under each genus.