Coastal Review is featuring the work of historian David Cecelski, who writes about the history, culture and politics of the North Carolina coast. Cecelski shares on his website essays and lectures he has written about the state as well as brings readers along on his search for the lost stories of our coastal past in the museums, libraries and archives he visits in the U.S. and across the globe.
When my wife and I were in London last summer, we visited the Natural History Museum to see the collection of plants that the naturalist, explorer, surveyor and sometimes fur trader John Lawson sent to the English naturalist James Petiver in 1710 and 1711.
Lawson, himself an Englishman, collected the plants on parts of the North Carolina coast near where I grew up: by the Neuse River, by the Trent River, at Thomas Pollock’s plantation on Salmon Creek, and along the shores of the Pamlico Sound, among other sites.
The collection is a wonderful array of coastal flora, including, just to name a few, a specimen of southern live oak (Quercus virginiana), an American persimmmon (Diospyros virginiana), a patch of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), two kinds of sunflowers (Helianthus sp. and Eupatorium dubium), a yellow-fringed orchid (Habenaria ciliaris) and a bit of woolgrass (Scirpus cyprinus), among much else.
Many are species that Lawson wrote about in the work for which we know him best, “A New Voyage to Carolina.”
Of the live oak, for instance, Lawson wrote in “A New Voyage to Carolina” that it bears an acorn “as sweet as chesnuts (sic), and the Indians draw an oil from them, as sweet as that from the olive, tho’ of an amber colour.”
According to Vince Bellis, an esteemed botanist who taught for many years at East Carolina University in Greenville, there are 295 specimens of Lawson’s at the Natural History Museum. To my knowledge, they are the only relics of Lawson’s life that have survived to the present day.
Deep in the museum’s inner recesses, they are preserved in a simple, but effective fashion that botanists have employed for nearly 500 years: dried and pasted onto linen paper pages, now grown yellowed and brittle, and bound together.
Lawson collected the plants soon after he published “A New Voyage to Carolina.”
First appearing in London in 1709, “A New Voyage to Carolina” is by far the most important account of North Carolina’s natural history and native peoples written at any time prior to the American Revolution. Today it is widely considered a classic of early American literature.
In a way though, the path of Lawson’s plant specimens to London’s Natural History Museum began almost a decade earlier.
I think the story really begins when Lawson first settled on the North Carolina coast. That was in 1701, at a time when there were not yet any English towns or villages in the territory that the British would soon begin to call “North Carolina.”
Almost immediately, Lawson recognized the potential to do pathbreaking natural history work in his new home. No naturalist had yet done any serious collecting there. Neither had any colonist or settler yet written with any depth of knowledge about the Tuscarora, Neusiok, Coree or other native peoples who inhabited the region.
After a long journey through Carolina, and after spending much of that time in the region’s Indian towns and villages, Lawson contacted James Petiver, who was a well-known apothecary, naturalist and collector of plant and animal specimens in London.
In a letter dated April 12, 1701, now preserved at London’s Royal Society, Lawson wrote Petiver from “Bath County on Pamphrough (Pamlico) River.” In that letter, Lawson offered to collect plant specimens for Petiver, as well as shells, butterflies, fish and insects.
He told Petiver that he was willing to do so there by the Pamlico River and on a trip that he was planning to the Outer Banks.
At the time that Lawson wrote to him, Petiver was building one of the world’s great herbariums.
Beginning in 1695, Petiver published a series of booklets called, in Latin, Musei Petiveriani Centuria Prima Rariora Naturae Continens. They featured descriptions of plants and other specimens that had been sent to him from around the world. At the end of every volume, he encouraged readers abroad to send additional specimens to him. Lawson may have first contacted Petiver in response to that plea.
Herbaria, the singular is “herbarium,” are collections of plants kept for scientific study and teaching. Some herbaria focus just on vascular plants (trees, shrubs, grasses, flowering plants, etc.). Others feature an even more astonishing degree of botanical diversity.
The herbaria at the Natural History Museum, where Laura and I were, for instance, make up one of the world’s largest botanical collections, totaling more than 3 million specimens in all.
In addition to the General Herbarium, the museum is home to quite a few other, more specialized herbaria. There is a herbarium just for mosses and other bryophytes, another for algae, one for ferns, yet another for lichens and even ones for slime molds and diatoms.
The museum’s bryophyte herbarium alone houses 900,000 specimens, all of them tiny evolutionary descendants of what are believed to be the first terrestrial plants on Earth.
Yet another of the museum’s herbaria holds 300,000 diatoms. Resembling a pillbox and its lid (to borrow Rachel Carson’s description of them), diatoms are one-celled, microscopic organisms that, by some estimates, produce 20 to 30 percent of the air that we breathe.
Because of their hard silica shells, fossilized diatoms have also proven tremendously useful for studying changes in environmental conditions over the centuries.
Botanists have long used herbaria to advance our knowledge of plant taxonomy, the branch of science that identifies, describes, classifies, and names the world’s plants.
But in recent decades, with the advent of DNA analysis and other new analytical tools, scientists have also begun to use herbarium specimens to study historic changes in local ecological systems and to investigate key questions about global diversity and climate change.
A physician and botanist named Luca Ghini (1490-1556) created what is believed to be the world’s first herbarium in the early 1500s, during the Italian Renaissance. A professor at the University of Bologna, he pioneered the process of preserving and displaying plants by pressing them and gluing them to a page of paper, then binding them into a book.
The earliest herbaria, including Ghini’s, were created in order to catalog, study and exhibit plants that had medicinal uses. At that time, botany was fundamentally a branch of medicine. Few scientists were interested in the study of plants if they did not have healing properties.
That soon changed, however. Over the next couple centuries, physicians and other healers, including apothecaries such as James Petiver, began to expand herbaria to include nonmedicinal plants as well as medicinal plants. The modern science of botany was born.
Luca Ghini’s herbarium has not survived, but the herbarium of one of his students, the artist and herbalist Gherardo Cibo, is believed to be the oldest extant herbarium in the world. Dating from 1532, Cibo’s herbarium is preserved at a public library in Rome, the Biblioteca Angelica.
The oldest herbarium in the United States is generally believed to be at Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The Academy’s herbarium holds a wealth of specimens from the early 19th century, including all but a few of the plant specimens that the Lewis and Clark expedition collected in 1803-06.
I should add though that at least some historians of botany consider a much smaller herbarium at Salem College, a small women’s liberal arts school in Winston-Salem, N.C., as being even older.
That herbarium—for many years occupying just a few drawers in a filing cabinet—was started in 1772, the year that Moravian settlers founded the school. However, the oldest plant specimen that remains in Salem College’s collection today is apparently a common snowberry (Symphoricarposalbus albus) that was not collected until 1817.
James Petiver’s herbarium was not one of the first herbariums, but he certainly compiled one of the largest and quite likely the most geographically diverse in early modern England.
Judging by his surviving specimens, Petiver began building his herbarium in 1683-84, while on medicinal plant collecting excursions into the London countryside that were sponsored by the Society of Apothecaries, one of the city’s trade guilds.
Petiver did not build his herbarium by traveling widely outside of Great Britain, however. He only traveled overseas once in his life, and that was not until he visited the Netherlands in 1711.
Instead Petiver relied on hundreds of correspondents around the world to send plant specimens to him. Like John Lawson, most of those correspondents were somehow connected to the colonial or imperialist aspirations of the British Empire.
From his apothecary shop, Petiver corresponded with naturalists, naval officers, ship surgeons, explorers, merchants, physicians, missionaries and an astonishing number of individuals who were involved in the trafficking of Africans to slave labor camps in the Americas.
In a 2013 journal article, Kathleen S. Murphy observed that seagoing men made up the largest number of Petiver’s correspondents in the Atlantic Basin and that nearly half of them sailed on the routes of the slave trade. See Kathleen S. Murphy, “Collecting Slave Traders: James Petiver, Natural History, and the British Slave Trade, ” William & Mary Quarterly 3rd ser., 70, No. 4 (Oct. 2013).
Murphy’s article is part of a growing body of scholarship revealing how tightly even the most enlightened spirit of scientific inquiry in Great Britain was entwined with colonialism and the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Petiver’s correspondents, including those involved in the slave trade and those who were not, lived or traveled in much of the world, including Western Europe, India, China, West Africa, and the Americas.
By one count, he corresponded with at least 80 individuals just in the British colonies in North America.
Above all, Petiver cultivated relationships with that far-flung network of correspondents in the hopes that they would collect plant specimens for him, as well as share with him any knowledge they might discover about their medicinal uses.
If they proved willing to collect for him, Petiver sent detailed instructions to them on how to gather, preserve and ship the specimens so that they would arrive in London in good shape. He often sent collecting supplies and scientific instruments to his correspondents as well.
The relationship between Lawson and Petiver unfolded slowly. While Lawson first offered to collect plants for Petiver in 1701, there is no record of him having done so for another eight years.
During much of that time, Lawson was busy with matters other than the study of natural history. He was a surveyor by training. In that capacity, he laid out the colony’s first English towns.
For years, he served as the official surveyor for the Lords Proprietors, the eight Englishmen to whom King Charles II had given the lands that the English called “Carolina” to use for their own profit and gain. (They were absentee landlords; none ever set foot in the territory that is now North and South Carolina.)
Lawson also worked hand in hand with the local British colonial leaders, a motley lot that we remember today largely for their corruption, perfidy, and rapaciousness.
Some were mere penny-ante charlatans and opportunists. Others were more like Thomas Pollock, on whose lands Lawson collected quite a few specimens that are now at the Natural History Museum. Pollock was a land baron, a trafficker in African and Indian slaves and an ardent, often brutal enemy of the region’s native peoples.
I have often struggled to reconcile the heartfelt sympathy that John Lawson showed native people’s culture in “A New Voyage to Carolina” and his eagerness to serve those that did so much to threaten the survival of Native American people.
After meeting with Petiver on a return trip to London in 1709, Lawson did finally begin to send both botanical and zoological specimens to him at his shop in London.
After that meeting in London, Petiver described Lawson to a friend as “a very curious person & hath lately printed a Natural History of Carolina wherein he hath treated the Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, & Vegetables, particularly the Trees, with a great deal of Judgment & accuracy.” (Petiver to William London, 7 Sept. 1709, Sloane Papers, Royal Society Archives.)
Petiver was referring of course to Lawson’s “A New Voyage to Carolina,” which was published in London that year.
Lawson sent a first shipment of specimens to Petiver in July 1710. (They apparently included some zoological specimens that have been lost.) A year later, he sent a second package, which he described in a letter to Petiver as “one book of plants very Lovingly packt up.”
The shipment of that second package of plants may have been Lawson’s last contribution to the field of natural history.
By the time they arrived in London, everything had changed back on the North Carolina coast. War had broken out between the Tuscarora ( or, in the language of the Tuscarora, the Skarù:ręˀ), and the English. Six or seven smaller Algonquin tribes had also joined the war on the side of the Tuscarora. Towns had been laid to waste. Many killed.
By the time his plants reached London, John Lawson was dead too, the war’s very first casualty.
The details of Lawson’s death are far from clear. The sources are few, and the sources that we do have are generally secondhand and far from trustworthy. Nevertheless, most scholars believe that Tuscarora leaders captured Lawson and sentenced him to death because of his leading role as an agent of British colonialism.
I would not be surprised if that was the case. By the beginning of the 18th century, anyone, native or newcomer, could tell that the British were an existential threat to the region’s native peoples — and Lawson had become one of the most public faces of British colonialism.
Correspondence between Lawson and Petiver indicates that Lawson had dreamed of doing important new work in natural history. Those dreams would not be fulfilled. He left us only “A New Voyage to Carolina” and the plants now at the Natural History Museum, many of them having been in the “one book of plants very Lovingly packt up.”
-To be continued-