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Author retraces explorer John Lawson’s 1700’s journey through the Carolinas

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By Greg Summers

Author Scott Huler likes to learn new things.

And that’s just what he’s doing by going back in time, some 300-plus years.

These days, Huler, a Raleigh, N.C., journalist  is retracing English explorer John Lawson’s 600-mile, 57-day trek from Charleston to North Carolina to hopefully catch a little glimpse of what Lawson saw in a land that was considered as nothing more than wilderness at the time.

Huler, who was walking in portions of Lancaster and Kershaw counties earlier this week, will speak at the University of South Carolina Lancaster’s Bundy Auditorium at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 26, as part of the Katawba Valley Land Trust’s 2015 speaker series.

The 55-year-old Huler is making the trek through a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship funded by MIT.

And it’s no accident that Huler’s visit here coincides with USCL’s Native American Studies Week, which runs through Friday, March 27.

As with most journalists, telling Lawson’s story was an idea Huler stumbled across while trying to find information about the piece of property his house sits on.

“My last book, ‘On The Grid,’ was on infrastructure and trying to conceptualize how all the systems that come in and out of our homes make our lives stupidly easy,” Huler said, while taking a quick break from his Flat Rock Road walkabout with Brent Burgin, director of archives for the USCL’s Native American Studies Center. 

The two visited Forty Acre Rock on Monday, March 23, as well as the old Georgia Stone Quarry on Flat Rock Road, in Kershaw County.

“The place to always start is the land,” Huler said. “It’s always about the land. I was trying to find out who owned it and when I got back about 100 years, developers were swapping it back and forth.”

Somehow, Lawson’s name came up and Huler said he wondered how close his family home was to Lawson’s trek in the winter of 1701. Huler said he figured someone had written about Lawson’s journey in the winter of 1701, but no one had.

After pitching several proposals, Huler said MIT was willing to provide the financial backing for the online, scientific and multi-media project.      

“I was kind of shocked to learn that, and well, you know how that goes with journalists,” he said. “Nobody had done it. I thought to myself, hey, I can do something with this.” 

Coming to America 

How Lawson, the well-educated son of a doctor with the right connections, ended up in the Carolinas is a story in itself, and one that Huler has told multiple times along the journey.

In 1700, Huler said, Lawson was 25 and looking to make a name for himself and a good reason to do it. Lawson was drawn to the new Royal Society scientists he met at Gresham College in London, while attending lectures that piqued his interest in the natural world, in science and discovery.

“At first, Lawson was going to Rome, them someone told him, ‘You don’t need to go to Rome, you need to go to the Carolinas, and that’s just what he did,” Huler said. “Think about it, this was 100 years before Lewis and Clark. He didn’t have the backing of Thomas Jefferson and the government behind him. He just went.”

Out of that expedition, Lawson wrote “A New Voyage in Carolina,” which chronicled his mostly-on-foot trip with friends and native guides. A best-seller of its time, Lawson’s journal produces a natural history of the colony, as well as descriptions of the plants, animals, birds, and crops he encountered along the way. 

It also includes a comprehensive account of the natives Lawson met.

“What’s most important is to walk the earth and notice what’s happening, which is what Lawson did,” Huler said. “If you think about what was going on, he was literally watching the end of a culture and way of life.

“The amazing thing I can tell is, he looked at the Indians and saw them as human beings,” he said. “Lawson was one of the few to do that. The world as they knew it was collapsing and Lawson could sense that. They were dying from diseases they got from settlers, as well as alcohol. Lawson saw what was happening, and given the state of things, he knew we will soon have their land, too.

“Lawson was out there shaking a tail feather at a time when shaking tail feathers was serious business,” Huler said.

Huler said he’s seen the same sort of effect along the way, too, but not to the same degree. In the last 30 years, he said the Carolinas’ culture has changed due to the almost total loss of textiles, the furniture industry and tobacco.

“It’s all disappeared,” he said shrugging. “All of it is just about gone.”

And just like Lawson, Huler is keeping records of what he encounters along the way and the stops he makes. 

While Huler is trying to stay as true as possible to Lawson’s journey, he never intended to do it in 57 days. 

That’s because sometimes, life – a wife, two sons, Sunday school, organizing carpools and mite basketball – takes priority.

“It is fun every once and a while to put a stake in the ground and say Lawson stayed here,” he said.

What’s become the real joy for Huler is knowing he will be able to share the stories of those he meets along the way, just as Lawson did some 300 years ago. 

“I’ve got 5,000 stories I can write from just three days of walking,” Huler said. “And one of the best things hearing from people as I go is, what’s happening in their little corner of the world.” 

2015 KVLT speaker series

WHO: Author Scott Huler, who is recreating the 1700s wilderness journey of John Lawson through the Carolinas

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 26 

WHERE: Bundy Auditorium inside the Bradley Arts and Sciences Building at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster, 476 Hubbard Drive

HOW MUCH: Free

INFORMATION: kvlt@comporium.net or (803) 285-5801

 

 

Contact copy editor Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156