The Omnivorous Reader

Exploring the Carolinas

Early settlers and the Tuscarora War

By D.G. Martin

“In the middle of a dark September night in 1711 in Carolina, John Lawson found himself captive, tied up and flung in the center of the council ring of the Tuscarora Indian town of Catechna,” writes Scott Huler on the opening page of his book, A Delicious Country: Rediscovering the Carolinas along the Route of John Lawson’s 1700 Expedition, recently published by the University of North Carolina Press. 

Lawson did not survive. Tradition says he was tortured to death, with wooden splinters pushed into his skin and set afire. On earlier visits to American Indian villages, Lawson had witnessed and described this type of torture.

Who was this Lawson, and why did the Tuscarora put him to death?

In 1700, English-born John Lawson was a newcomer to North America. Almost immediately upon arriving, he set out on foot from Charleston to explore the endless forests of the backcountry Carolinas. The notes he took became the basis of a book, A New Voyage to Carolina, first published in 1709 and still a classic for its rich descriptions of flora and fauna and the conditions of the native peoples.

Huler wanted to follow in Lawson’s footsteps. He looked for a modern book that explained where Lawson went and described what is there today. When he found that no such book had been written and that no one had even retraced Lawson’s journey, he thought, “That’s for me!”

Huler could have made the trip of several hundred miles in a day or two in a car. But he wanted to go slow, seeing today’s landscapes and peoples at the pace Lawson traveled.

He shares his travels in his new book. Like most other readers of Lawson, Huler is impressed with his descriptions and attitudes about the native populations. Lawson visited Sewee, Santee, Sugeree, Wateree, Catawba, Waxhaw, Occaneechi and Tuscarora Indians. Huler writes, “He stayed in their wigwams, ate their food, trusted their guides. And he emerged with their stories, for some of which he is the only source in the world.”

Lawson, Huler continues, “documented native communities, buildings, agriculture, hunting, dance, trade, and culture through eyes clear, thorough, and respectful. Lawson depicts the natives as fully human — not some subspecies perceived only in comparison to European settlers.”

Lawson’s words were, “They are really better to us than we are to them.”

But Lawson found the native populations to be in a precarious situation. “The Small-Pox and Rum have made such a Destruction amongst them, that, on good grounds, I do believe, there is not the sixth Savage living within two hundred Miles of all our Settlements, as there were fifty Years ago.”

Traveling Lawson’s route through the rural Carolinas, Huler found a discouraging similarity. Contemporary rural and small town landscapes are littered with empty manufacturing plants, corporate farms and forests, empty main streets and deserted houses. Three centuries after Lawson, Huler found that “our world would teeter: a way of life dying in the countryside, implacable new forces once again balancing an entire civilization on a knife edge.”

Setting aside this discouraging report, Huler’s adventures and misadventures on the road entertain and inform. He is the best type of tour guide, one who is well-informed but not at all pompous. His wry, self-deprecating sense of humor helps his serious medicine go down smoothly.

For Lawson, his explorations and the reports about them opened the door to prominence and high positions in the young colony. That success came to a sudden end in 1711 when he was captured and executed by the Tuscarora Indians he had so greatly admired and praised.

Why did they kill him?

To find out, I turned to University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor David La Vere’s The Tuscarora War: Indians, Settlers, and the Fight for the Carolina Colonies. Lawson is one of the main characters of La Vere’s book. La Vere sets out in detail the background for the Tuscarora War that began in 1711 with Lawson’s execution and a series of attacks by the Tuscarora on the thinly populated and, for the most part, recently arrived settlers in the New Bern area.

Earlier, in the late 1600s and early 1700s, North Carolina was only sparsely settled, mainly by Virginians moving south into the lands around the Albemarle Sound. They encountered small groups of Indians and were generally able to subdue them.

However, to the south and west, the mighty Tuscarora Indian strongholds stood as a barrier.

Meanwhile, Lawson’s glowing descriptions about his travels in the colony sparked the interest of the Lords Proprietors, who were looking for ways to encourage settlement. Lawson met a minor Swiss noble, Christoph de Graffenried, who worked out a plan with the Lords Proprietors to transport groups of German refugees and Swiss paupers to lands along the Neuse River near today’s New Bern.

These lands overlapped with the territories of the Tuscarora, who became increasingly threatened by the growing European presence.

La Vere writes that after overcoming odds, “de Graffenried’s colony of Swiss and German Palatines at the mouth of the Neuse River was thriving.” Therefore, he continues, “expansion up the Neuse seemed a real possibility.”

Lawson and de Graffenried made a trip up the Neuse, through Tuscarora lands, to scout sites for future settlements.

“All the while, the Indians grew more worried and angry as the abuses against them escalated and their complaints fell on deaf ears. That spark came in mid-September 1711,” according to La Vere, with this trip up the Neuse.

The local Tuscarora king, or chief, offended and threatened that his territory had been invaded, captured Lawson and de Graffenried and put them on trial for their lives. When one of the more radical Indian leaders berated him, Lawson lost his temper. “He argued back, his anger and sarcasm apparent to all.”

Lawson, of course, was doomed and shortly executed. His companion, de Graffenried, remained in custody while the Indians planned and carried out their first attacks on September 22, 1711, appearing at first as friendly visitors to the settlers’ farms and then striking suddenly from ambush when the defenses were down.

North Carolina’s efforts to beat back the Tuscarora were unsuccessful. The colony didn’t have enough manpower, firepower, or money. Help finally came from the wealthy sister colony to the south. South Carolina sent two expeditions to relieve its northern neighbor.

The first expedition, led by John Barnwell, set out with a force of about 700 men. Only 35 were regular militia. The rest were Indian allies. The results were mixed, and the Tuscarora remained a threat. The second expedition, led by James Moore and made up of 113 militia and 760 Indians, wiped out the Tuscarora at their stronghold at Neoheroka, near present day Snow Hill in Greene County, and opened the door to settlement in the interior of North Carolina.

What explains why South Carolina so enthusiastically aided its neighbor and how the South Carolina Indians were persuaded to provide the critical manpower? “Above all,” La Vere writes,“it was a chance to enrich oneself by looting the Tuscarora towns and taking slaves, which they could sell to waiting South Carolina traders for guns and merchandise.”

This sad footnote to North Carolina’s early history shows that the colonists secured their victory in the Tuscarora War only by facilitating and participating in the enslavement and sale of captured Tuscarora.

Scott Huler’s route through today’s Carolinas following Lawson’s path

In South Carolina: Charleston, Intracoastal Waterway, Buck Hall Recreation Area, Mouth of the Santee River, Hampton Plantation, McClellanville, Jamestown, Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, Congaree National Park, Pack’s Landing Rimini, Mill Creek County Park, Poinsett State Park, Horatio, Boykin, Camden, Hanging Rock Battleground, and Lancaster.

In North Carolina: Pineville, Charlotte, Concord, Kannapolis, Salisbury-East Spencer, High Rock Lake, Denton, Asheboro, Burlington, Saxapahaw, Hillsborough, Durham, Morrisville, Raleigh, Garner, Clayton, Flowers Crossroads, Wilson, Greenville, Washington, and Bath. OH

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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