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John Lawson as an Adventurer

John Lawson as an Adventurer

In A New Voyage to Carolina, Lawson portrays his coming to Carolina as a spur of the moment decision that defines the rest of his life. As he opens his introduction to A New Voyage, "In the Year 1700, when People flock'd from all Parts of the Christian World, to see the Solemnity of the Grand Jubilee at Rome, my Intention, at that Time, being to travel, I accidentally met with a Gentleman who . . . assur'd me, that Carolina was the best Country I could go to; and, that there then lay a Ship in the Thames, in which I might have my Passage. I laid hold on this Opportunity . . ." (Lawson 7).

Once in Carolina, as A New Voyage tells it, Lawson almost immediately seizes on the opportunity to explore. Beginning on December 28, 1700, Lawson took off from Charleston, South Carolina, on a two-month, 550-mile journey that led him up the Santee and Wateree Rivers to the present-day North and South Carolina borders near Waxhaw, North Carolina. From here he walked across present-day North Carolina, ending up along the Pamlico River in Beaufort County on February 24, 1701. In his preface to A New Voyage, Lawson would say that most of his life in Carolina was taken up with such adventures: "Having spent most of my Time, during my eight Years Abode in Carolina, in travelling; I not only survey'd the Sea-Coast and those Parts which are already inhabited by the Christians, but likewise view'd a spatious Tract of Land, lying betwixt the Inhabitants and the Ledges of Mountains, from whence our noblest Rivers have their Rise, running towards the Ocean, where they water as pleasant a Country as any in Europe; the Discovery of which being never yet made publick, I have, in the following Sheets, given you a faithful Account thereof, wherein I have laid down every thing with Impartiality, and Truth, which is indeed, the Duty of every Author, and preferable to a smooth Stile, accompany'd with Falsities and Hyperboles" (Lawson 5-6).

Few people question Lawson's penchant for exploration; what is called into question is his "Impartiality, and Truth, which is indeed, the Duty of every Author." Some of the pieces included here claim that Lawson the adventurer was not the most objective relater of places and events. Both Christoph von Graffenried and John Urmston met Lawson in London in 1709 before coming to Carolina, one to found a settlement, the other to serve as an Anglican missionary/parish priest. By 1714 or 1715, both men had become disillusioned with North Carolina, at least as Lawson had sold it to them. For these two men, Lawson's death at the hands of the Tuscarora was his own fault. For von Graffenried, Lawson's quarrelsome personality angered the Tuscarora into finally killing him. For Urmston, there is a sense of divine justice in Lawson's death; it is wrong to do "as Lawson did, write whole volumes in praise of such a worthless place: he has had his reward" (Lawson 220). Yet each of these men had his own axe to grind, therefore calling into question their objectivity in describing Lawson. So who is the adventurer John Lawson-the careful and objective observer or the self-righteous propagandist for Carolina?

In later years, Lawson would be portrayed in various different ways. One example is a historical pageant from New Bern, North Carolina, written in 1939 by Mrs. J. S. [Frances Broadfoot] Claypoole, "The Torch Leads On." Claypoole writes, "Lawson's enthusiastic pen had not written too glowingly. It was indeed a land of plenty and opportunity for the new settlers and they stood their ground although there were but a handful of colonists in Carolina, seated at great distances from one another, amidst a vast number of Indians of different nations" (Lawson 7). It is hard to accept Claypoole's unabashed enthusiasm for Lawson, but it is equally as hard to accept Graffenried's and Urmston's harsh condemnation. Who is the adventurer John Lawson that can be imagined between these sorts of extremes?


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Page Updated 30 August 2004
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