Last Saturday, as more than 60 hikers re-enacted John Lawson and Enoe Will’s 1701 trek across the Carolinas, they learned a significant lesson in North Carolina history, about how our checkered past impinges on the present. According to its co-sponsors, the Trading Path Preservation and Eno River Association, the hike was both a celebration of “Lawson’s youthful energy, audacity, and ambition” and “an artful moment to review our land through the eyes of a long gone observer so that we may ourselves look at it afresh.”

Audacious indeed. Over a span of two months, Lawson, a surveyor employed by the British Lords–Proprietors of the Province of Carolina in America, along with five Englishmen and four American Indians–three men and one woman–risked life and limb to hike and canoe their way northwest from Charles Town on the southern coast of what was then known simply as Carolina. Once they reached the foothills, Lawson turned to the northeast and led his cadre through our neck of the woods all the way to the Pamlico River near the present-day town of Bath. Fortunately for us, he kept a gripping journal of his travels, penned in gloriously clunky Elizabethan English and published online at

Like most diaries, Lawson’s journal records both his everyday activities and the deeper desires that motivate him. He admires the beauties and terrors of the Carolina country, its rolling landscape and rushing rivers, and describes those he meets along the way, mostly natives and the occasional European expatriate. Elsewhere he describes in great detail the local wildlife, bears, buffalo, wildcats, and in much the same way relates the physical appearance and group activities of the natives, as if they were one more species of indigenous animal.

Reading through this historical document, which the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography has termed “a classic of early American literature,” it is plain to see that Lawson embodies the complex coalition of adventure and avarice that brought on the European colonialist enterprise. On the one hand, he is struck by the humanity of the natives, their ingenuity, generosity and respect for the natural surroundings they have come to inhabit so unobtrusively. But on the other, he is incensed by their freedom from the Protestant work ethic, how they somehow manage to labor so little and enjoy themselves so much. Another feature puzzling him is the strength of the women, who toil alongside the men at tasks no polite Englishman would ever let a woman stoop to.

Most unsettling of all is Lawson’s desire to convert these all-too-happy “Savages” to Christianity, based in part on his assumption that “their God … is the Devil.” As ethnocentric as that evangelistic urge may be, its underbelly is even uglier: Lawson makes it clear that another reason he would baptize these infidels is to win them over to the British side as reinforcements in the battle against the French, chief competitors in one of history’s largest and most ruthless land grabs. Lawson may cast one caring eye on the natives’ lost souls, but his other eye looks longingly at the wealth of their land. Here we catch a frightening glimpse of the first chapter in a long and tragic history: As on the African and South American continents, the best Christian intentions would open the way for decimation and even annihilation of entire native peoples, not to mention countless nonhuman species.

Lawson’s life and work are thus a cautionary tale for anyone sincere and egocentric enough, regardless of their religion, to believe that their way is God’s way. His part in early American history could not be more relevant than at this moment: It stands as a warning to any politician or administration that might confuse the American way with a divine commission, in the words of Jesus, to “go unto all the world and teach all nations.” One cannot help but wonder what tragedies could have been averted, what lessons learned here and elsewhere, if Lawson and his brethren had approached their native hosts with a willingness to cooperate as deep-seated as their determination to conquer.

That spirit of cooperation was evident along the local leg of Lawson’s trek from the reconstructed Occaneechi Village to the former site of another, more mysterious village, Adshusheer. This eclectic tribe of hikers, many of whom had never seen each other before and might never again, shared water and snacks, held whiplash branches out of one another’s way, and freed the unfortunate from the clutches of thorny vines. As much as humanly possible, we stepped lightly so as not to scar the land, and littering was an absolute no-no.

The 11-mile journey began at 9 a.m. on the banks of the swollen Eno River near downtown Hillsborough and ended, seven hours and umpteen blisters later, on the Orange-Durham County border at the intersection of Erwin and Kerley Roads. After a week and a long night of relentless rain, no one could have expected the day to turn out so beautifully, the winter sun beaming down just enough warmth to unzip parkas and push up sleeves but not so hot that we sweated away our energy. In Lawson’s recollection, “The stony Way made me quite lame.” I must confess I’m not much of a hiker, and I run only when something is chasing me, but my trepidation about attempting such an arduous passage disappeared like the storm clouds of the night before when I struck up an acquaintance with Art and Gus St. John, two fit septuagenarians with a passion for movement. They spoke of “walking across England” as casually as I might tell of strolling across Duke’s East Campus. “If these folks can go the distance,” I thought, “then so can I.”

The most striking instance of human kindness occurred on the last leg of the trek as our group was struggling to ford the rain-swollen Piney Mountain Creek. After several of the hikers had stepped gingerly along the length of a fallen tree like gymnasts across a balance beam, one young man waded waist-deep into the bone-chilling water and grasped the hand of the other hikers to lead them one by one over the torrent. Here in the forest, on a day commemorating our forebears’ successes and failures in settling this already inhabited land, was the living embodiment of a kinder, gentler religion: the Buddhist ideal of a bodhisattva, one who has earned the paradise of Nirvana but chooses, at his own peril, to stay behind so that others might also cross over.

Before John Lawson ever stepped foot in Carolina, there was a well-established line of communication and commerce stretching from the coast to the mountains and beyond. Our hike revealed trails cut by the traffic of deer and buffalo, then followed by humans on foot and on horseback, and still later by horse- and mule-drawn wagons before being paved after the onset of the automobile. Over the last three centuries, the many millions who have followed in Lawson’s wake have all but obscured the path, but according to Tom Magnuson, founder and president of the Trading Path Preservation Association, this road, which has survived neglect and abuse, is likely to succumb altogether to urban sprawl unless steps are taken to preserve it. “In the future,” he says, “when politicians, planners and developers make decisions about what will this day become our landmark, we can demand that their decisions consider the cultural impact of willfully destroying an emblem of our shared past.”

Looking back down that road into our past, there is much that can be learned about ourselves, our ambitions and limitations, our relation to the local land and its creatures. “We conceive this hike,” says Magnuson, “as an antidote to social amnesia.” To turn a familiar adage on its ear, those who do learn from history, both local and global, are freed not to repeat it, but rather empowered to transform it and in the process to shape a better future.

For more information on John Lawson and the Trading Path Preservation Association, visit EndBlock