Early Naturalists Marveled at North Carolina’s Geographic Diversity

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

One can stand on a beautiful overlook in the Appalachian Mountains, then drive and enjoy the verdant Piedmont, and later listen to the cresting waves of the Atlantic Ocean — all in one day.

Years ago, many naturalists marveled at North Carolina’s geographic and natural diversity and wildlife. John Lawson (1674-1711) and Andre Michaux (1746-1802) were two notable examples.

A London native, Lawson was an intellectually curious young man at Gresham College, where he had opportunities to listen to England’s and Europe’s leading botanists and naturalists. As a 25-year old, he embarked in 1700 on a naturalist adventure in what is now South Carolina.

His journeys took a somewhat circuitous arc starting in Charleston, heading north through the piedmont regions of what are now the two Carolinas, and later ending in eastern North Carolina. Lawson later helped found Bath, North Carolina’s first town.

Lawson documented his travels in A New Voyage to Carolina (1709) and described various plants, geographical features, and animals such as bears, panthers, polecats, wolves, raccoons, and fox squirrels. He also compares, for instance, the quality of apples and pears in North Carolina with those in Europe. Among many lists and descriptions, he describes various Carolina oaks.

One humorous incident — at least after the fact — involved his first encounter with an alligator. (Alligators were prevalent in North Carolina during the colonial era; if readers are interested, read Janet Schaw’s Journal of a Lady of Quality in which she includes North Carolinians’ interactions with nature and animals, in particular alligators, in the Cape Fear region.) Sleeping in a house by the “Fork of Neus-River,” elevated (likely more than a few feet) above an alligator’s sleeping spot, Lawson awakened to “a Roaring, that … made the House shake about my Ears, and so continued, like a Bittern, (but a hundred times louder, if possible) for four or five times. The Dog stared, as if he was frightned [sic] out of his Senses; nor indeed, could I imagine what it was, having never heard one of them before.” Lawson believed something “diabolical” was happening, but when his amused guide returned later that night, Lawson learned “what it was that made that Noise.”

Lawson also contributed to New Bern’s founding and continued exploring, including into the Chesapeake Bay area. According to scholar and biologist Vincent Bellis, Lawson “failed to ask … permission” in 1711 to cross Tuscarora land — tensions already were heightening between the English and Tuscarora — and Lawson’s exploration party was captured. All were released except Lawson, who died at the hands of the Tuscarora.

Another fascinating figure was Andre Michaux, a French naturalist and explorer. Financed with a 1785 commission from the French government, he traveled to North America and later Carolina to learn more about trees. (In many ways, this botanical trip had economic and military importance; the French government was interested in learning information that might improve naval construction.) Michaux sojourned to places such as Mount Mitchell, Grandfather Mountain, Linville Gorge, and the French Broad River. He visited North Carolina five times, and Michaux inventoried Western North Carolina.

He cited the existence of several plants, including the shortia galacifolia (Oconee bells), and he noted the growth of ginseng while obtaining samples for a specimen inventory. Michaux was awed by North Carolina’s scenery: Overwhelmed at the top of Grandfather Mountain, Michaux recorded that he and his guide, writes historian John Inscoe, “sang the new French hymn ‘La Marseille’ and cried: ‘Long live America and the French Republic! Long live Liberty!’”

Eventually, Michaux received no more support for his North American adventures, so he moved on to explore Africa. At 56, he died in Madagascar.