Scott Huler is the author of A Delicious Country: Rediscovering the Carolinas along the Route of John Lawson’s 1700 Expedition, just published this month by UNC Press.
In 1700, a young man named John Lawson left London and landed in Charleston, South Carolina, hoping to make a name for himself. For reasons unknown, he soon undertook a two-month journey through the still-mysterious Carolina backcountry. His travels yielded A New Voyage to Carolina in 1709, one of the most significant early American travel narratives, rich with observations about the region’s environment and Indigenous people. In 2014, Scott Huler made a surprising decision: to leave home and family for his own journey by foot and canoe, faithfully retracing Lawson’s route through the Carolinas. This is the chronicle of that unlikely voyage, revealing what it’s like to rediscover your own home.
A Delicious Country is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Huler sat down with UNC Press publicity director Gina Mahalek recently to discuss the book and the journey behind it.
Q: Who was John Lawson?
SH: John Lawson was a young Englishman who, in 1700, for reasons unknown to this day, left London and sailed to North America. He hung around Charles-town for a few months, then in late 1700 left with a group of traders and Indian guides on a trek that took him through the then-little-known Carolina backcountry (Carolina was still a single colony). He emerged months later on the Pamlico Sound, near what today we would call Little Washington. The notes from his journey formed the foundation for A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), the most important book to emerge from early colonial Carolina. Historians and scientists today still refer to his descriptions of flora, fauna, inhabitants, and geography, and his botanical specimens were part of the collection that created the British Museum, where they still reside. He also helped found and develop both Bath and New Bern, North Carolina’s first two incorporated cities, and was named surveyor general of the colony. He was captured and killed by the Tuscarora in 1711, the very first casualty of the Tuscarora War.
Q: Lawson was a complicated character. Can you talk more about this?
SH: A young man in England in the late 1600s, he appears to have been fascinated by the members of the Royal Society and clearly wanted to leave that kind of mark, somehow. He describes in his book being talked out of a European adventure he considered and being guided instead to Carolina, and I love the sort of “go west, young man” of this moment. Once in North America, he did everything: he went on adventures, gathered botanical specimens for British collectors, met with Indians, bought and developed land, and became part of the political structure. Complicated is right. On one hand, he was very advanced in his thinking: he loved the Indians and saw them as fully human, even advocating intermarriage and describing them as morally superior to the Christian colonists. On the other hand, he was a man of his time and had no trouble acquiring their land to develop for his own purposes. In this way he’s a perfect expression of that moment when European society was emerging into modernity, still carrying some pretty bestial ideas and practices with it, as colonial history powerfully demonstrates.
Q: Lawson seems to be largely forgotten. Would you have rather known more about Lawson, or was not knowing part of the experience?
SH: Ha! It’s funny because I want everyone else to know more about him now, but I loved the feeling of discovery that attended every step of both my research and my journey retracing his. “Wait, he said the Indians were better to the colonists than the colonists were to the Indians? What?” “Wait, you can still see his actual botanical specimens in London?” “Wait — he advocated intermarriage? What?” Apart from his amazing contributions to the historical and scientific record, his profound decency towards the Indians astonished me over and over, and I love having the opportunity to share this with people who should know him better. I think of him as the sort of William Penn of North Carolina: our “first citizen,” whose words and actions affect us to this day, though so many of us don’t know a thing about him.
Continue Reading Author Interview: A conversation with Scott Huler, author of A Delicious Country