Arts & Culture

Retracing history one path at a time

John Lawson, exploring the Carolinas in the 1700s called it a delicious country. Scott Huler, following in his steps, says it’s hard to disagree.
John Lawson, exploring the Carolinas in the 1700s called it a delicious country. Scott Huler, following in his steps, says it’s hard to disagree.

Anybody who lives in the Triangle hates giving directions to Cary Towne Center. It’s in a Bermuda Triangle of crisscrossing highways, it’s obviously not at the center of anything, and it’s on Maynard Road, a Dantean circle.

So try this for directions:

Start in Charleston, S.C. Canoe north for a week, along the Intracoastal Waterway. Head inland at the Santee River, getting out a day or so upstream and visiting the descendants of the area’s Huguenot settlers, there since the 1690s. Continue upriver on foot through national forests and state parks and along canals and lakes. Traverse the territory of the Santee and the Catawba, through colonial cities like Camden, meeting Indian dignitaries in Lancaster and passing natural wonders like Forty Acre Rock. When the Santee becomes the Catawba and you hit the Charlotte skyscrapers, turn back east, walking along the great Trading Path that was already centuries old when the Europeans showed up in the 1500s.

Follow that path through Salisbury and the Caraway Mountains of Randolph County, then angle north toward Hillsborough, where you can look forward to the hospitality of the Occaneechi. From there walk through Durham, down N.C. 54, through Morrisville. Get lost on Maynard Road and then meet your friend at the Chick-fil-A in the food court.

Anyhow, that’s how I got there.

I’m retracing the journey of John Lawson, who made this exact trip in 1700-1701, for reasons that to this day nobody is quite certain of. A young, educated man looking for excitement in a new world of science and exploration, Lawson had impulsively jumped on a ship from London early in 1700. A man who had seen much of the world, Lawson later wrote, “assur’d me that Carolina was the best Country I could go to.” It was a sort of 18th century “Go west, young man,” and Lawson was convinced. He made his way to Charleston, then a city of fewer than 2,000 people and the only town of any account in Carolina, then still a single colony.

Perhaps in search of scientific understanding, perhaps to curry favor with the eight Lords Proprietors who owned the colony, or perhaps because it just seemed like a cool thing to do, a few days after Christmas in 1700, Lawson set out with five other Europeans and four Indian guides for a long trip. The Carolina backcountry was then almost unknown by Europeans, and Lawson, enamored of the new and growing practice of science, seemed keen on joining in. He took copious notes, and in 1709 published “A New Voyage to Carolina,” the most important book to emerge from the colonial South. It included not just a “Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel’d thro several Nations of INDIANS” but a description of the natural history of the colony, a survey of Indian cultures, a map, some nutty illustrations, and even lexicons of several Indian languages.

His journey was not a thousand miles; it was more like 550 or 600, as scholars have estimated when they’ve used modern maps and historical knowledge to figure out exactly where Lawson went, though as Tom Magnuson of Hillsborough says, “exactly” may be something of an exaggeration: “Even Lawson didn’t know where he was most of the time.” Magnuson runs the Trading Path Association, which preserves and studies the Trading Path through the Piedmont, which Lawson traveled for much of his journey.

I stumbled onto Lawson when for another project I wanted to know what my little piece of ground in Five Points would have looked like before the Europeans showed up. I found out about Lawson, whose journey took him through what is now Wake County almost a hundred years before Raleigh was founded. When I looked into modern understanding of Lawson’s route, I found that though people had agreed on his general, horseshoe-shaped path for decades, nobody had ever actually retraced Lawson’s journey.

Which made it fairly obvious what I had to do. Now, Lawson was a young man of 26, on a continent almost unknown to his culture, with every friend and family member across the ocean. He could just walk into the back country with five new acquaintances and four Indian guides and emerge two months later if it suited him. Lawson didn’t have Y Guides outings to manage and religious school carpool to consider. So what Lawson traveled in two months I’ve been traveling in segments over most of a year.

Starting out

I started, like he did, in Charleston, paddling across the bay in a big canoe. Lawson would have been in a dugout canoe big enough to hold 10 people and all their supplies; I was in a big green pack mule of a canoe, fighting tides and winds for a week, camping on islands and in people’s yards. I got out of the canoe a day’s journey up the Santee, once one of the largest river outlets on the East Coast, and like Lawson, I began walking.

I’ve had coffee and cake with descendants of the Huguenot settlers who would have looked after him. Lawson described his friendships with Indians, especially with Enoe Will, who guided him to the end of his journey in what we now call little Washington, and I’ve been equally befriended by Peggy Scott, vice-chief of the Santee of South Carolina, and John “Blackfeather” Jeffries of the Occaneechi, to say nothing of a raft of Catawba and others – and plenty of European-Americans too – who helped me along my path.

People have offered me porches, basements, church pews to sleep in, patches of land to set up my tent on. They have brought me soda and and given me food, cached equipment and ferried cars. And they have pointed the way – people like Magnuson, who have studied, people who simply live there and know, and above all Val Green, a new friend whose wife gave him a copy of Lawson in 1970, which made him start wondering. Green has spent 40-plus years figuring out exactly where Lawson went, and he has shared his understanding with me, making my journey far less speculative than I thought it would be.

‘I have walked’

I have gone many places I know Lawson went: to the top of a hill in South Carolina’s Poinsett State Park, to the hollow rocks in Durham, along the Trading Path. I canoed through acres of spartina alterniflora – salt marsh cordgrass – in which my view and Lawson’s would probably have been exactly the same, and I walked by manmade lakes beyond his imagination. And I walked to the crossroads of Trade and Tryon streets in Charlotte, where Lawson met with Catawbas and traders – and wouldn’t know what to make of what’s there now.

Lawson saw panthers – he even thought he saw tigers – and may have seen buffalo. I saw a lot of deer, snakes and turtles. He does his best to describe such wildlife, though he takes as fact the occasional whopper, such as the old tale that raccoons “fish” for crabs with their tails. It was early days in science and exploration. Much remained unlearned.

But more than anything else, like Lawson, I have walked. I have walked on peaceful trails through state forests and along roaring divided highways that made me fear for my life. “You want to find an old road?” asked Dale Loberger, another student of old maps and the old ways, “look under a new one.” Not for nothing does I-85 roughly trace the old Trading Path.

A road is just a way for people to get from where they are to where they want to be, by the best route: a route that stays dry, that keeps you as safe as possible, that takes you through likely mountain passes and trustworthy river fords. Walking these paths I’ve come to think of what I call “roadness.” I walked through the paths of Poinsett State Park in South Carolina along a sand road that people have probably walked along for a thousand years; you could just feel it.

And my travel along that road is coming to an end this month. This week I’ll be walking into Washington, in 1701 simply the site of a tiny group of settlers. “Being well receiv’d by the Inhabitants, and pleas’d with the Goodness of the Country,” Lawson said, he “resolv’d to continue.” I expect to arrive on Sept. 17, and I too resolve to continue in Carolina.

Lawson used his experience to become a significant person in colonial Carolina. He ended up as surveyor-general for the colony, and he co-founded North Carolina’s two first incorporated towns, New Bern and Bath. (In fact, the Lawson Trek will triumphantly enter Bath by canoe, at 2 p.m. Sept. 26). He had inclusive views about Indians that placed him centuries ahead of his time – though as a developer he ended up being part of the process of dispossession that angered the Indians sufficiently that the Tuscarora eventually killed him. I’m hoping things work out better for me, but you never know.

I could end up back at the mall.

End of the trek

Lawson Trek will canoe into Bath at 2 p.m. Sept. 26. Scott Huler will give a brief presentation and take questions.

The event is part of the Smithsonian Magazine’s Museum Day Live at Historic Bath. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission to the historic site is free for two people with a Museum Day Live ticket. Get details and the free tickets at: museumday/

For more on Huler’s Lawson Trek go to


Scott Huler has been writing about his experience on the trail at Here is a sample:

I am in love with the grass.

Not regular grass – with marsh grass. Cordgrass, you might call it, but the naturalists call it Spartina alterniflora, and as we paddled by acres and acres and acres of it my guide Ed Deal told me he thought it was one of the most important plants in the world.

After research, I agree.

When I spoke with James Morris, director of the Baruch Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at the University of South Carolina, he told me the salt marshes I’d be paddling through would be very much like the ones John Lawson had paddled through in 1700. “Much of the South Carolina coast is unspoiled,” he said. “South Carolina is unique in that regard in that we have so much protected coastline.” Long before slaves would have cleared the tidal swamps and freshwater marshes for the rice and indigo plantations that made South Carolina rich, in 1700 “it still would have been really, really wild.”


I’ve been walking along a sand road that has probably been trodden by human feet for a thousand years or more. It follows a route that was an Indian path during the Mississippian period, stretching all the way to the Santee Mound. ... The Indians walked it. Lawson and his group walked it. Colonials walked it. “There aren’t too many roads in America that are a thousand years old,” my friend and fellow Lawsonian Val Green says. “But this one is.” ... I spoke to Val as I planned this segment, which follows the swamp on the northeastern edge of the Wateree River, which joins the Congaree to form the Santee. These rivers are named for the native tribes who lived along them, and Lawson describes them all, visiting their towns as he moves along.

But the path he describes would have lain, naturally, on the far edge of the swamp – the path that could have been depended on to be dry most times.