Scott Huler saw a question without an answer and decided to solve it.
And his search became quite the journey.
Several years—and miles—later, Huler finds himself just a few weeks shy of completing his adventure: retracing the steps of explorer William Lawson through the Carolinas in the early 1700s in what he has dubbed the Lawson Trek.
“I said right from the start I want to be live Tweeting this; Lawson would’ve been live Tweeting his journey if he could,” Huler said. “1700, you know, you took your journey, you took your notes, and then nine years later a book came out. That was about the speed of things. Now, I’ve been posting Instagram photos and updating my website from a canoe. It’s that live; it’s that constant. It is awesome.”
The endeavor brought him through Hillsborough on Friday, Aug. 7, to the site where Lawson met with the Occoneechee people along the Eno River hundreds of years earlier.
Huler’s expedition came as something of an accident. The journalist started researching for a new book on infrastructure in about 2008. He started with his house in Raleigh and traced where the water came from, where the sewer lines ran, the pattern of roads and whose idea it was to put them there.
“So I took the notion that I was going to look at my little piece of land and trace it back to who owned it and who owned it and who owned it until we stole it from the Tuscarora,” he said. “And that was going to be a lot more land records than I cared to do, and I heard about this Lawson character while I was looking at Colonial records, and I thought I wonder how close he came to my house because then I could at least get a sense for what the land looked like.
“So I went looking for the book. Where’s the book where someone retraced this journey to see what’s there now? But it didn’t exist. So if you’re a writer, that’s how you know it’s time to write a book, when you go looking for a book, and there’s not anything out there. In 315 years, nobody had done that. It was astonishing to me.”
The next step—funding. Huler knew his publishers in New York wouldn’t be interested, and though UNC Press was a potential avenue, the author didn’t have enough money of his own to support that relationship.
In 2013, Huler applied for a science in journalism fellowship out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a stipend to undertake a scientific, multi-media project.
“I was like that’s exactly what I’m trying to do because right from the start I wanted this to be—I want to live Tweet this,” Huler said. “I want people to know where I am, and it’s not just where did the Indians live. It’s where did your grandpa take you for ice cream. I want to know. I wasn’t trying to slavishly retrace [Lawson’s] steps as much as try to do what he did, which is, OK, here I am in this culture. What’s going on in this culture? Who lives here? How do they live? How do they get their livings? How do they treat each other and their friends and enemies and who eats what and what eats what?”
Huler set out in October 2014, traveling by canoe up from Charleston, S.C., to the mouth of the Santee River. He took a hiatus during November and December to avoid hunting season but picked back up in January, chugging along in several-day stretches a few times a month.
Each segment, Huler finds a Hero of the Lawson Trek, as he dubs them, to help him drop his car off a few days’ journey ahead, scatter supplies where he plans to spend the night and drive him back to the starting point. When he reaches his car, Huler will head back to Raleigh for a few days before picking back up where he left up.
When he arrived in Hillsborough, for example, he had passed through Orange County’s seat a few days earlier to park his car at a new friend’s house and grab a ride back to Julian. From there, he walked to Cedar Rock Park, where he had left camping gear. The next day, he hiked to the Mebane Hampton Inn, where he had left clothes and his computer to hit up social media and the blog. The next day, he wrapped up the segment with a quick journey to Hillsborough.
“It’s been a revelation every day,” he said. “It’s just limitlessly fascinating once you start just walking through places and saying, ‘Hi, how are you, and what do you do, and what’s your story?’ And then you start finding stuff out. … The canoe portion the first week was so interesting, and then each walking segment has been just amazing. There’s always something. I’ve talked to people from the Catawbas, from the Occoneechee, from the Santees. You know, these are people who were descendents of the people who sat with Lawson.”
The Hillsborough stop
While in Orange County’s seat, Huler met with a member of the Occoneechee, John Jeffries, to talk with him about his life and the history of his people. Jeffries, who walked a portion of Lawson’s journey in the 1970s, said he was thrilled with Huler’s undertaking.
“I think the journey is fantastic,” he said. “See, that’s our story. His-story, they called it his-story, and this is the trek that Lawson went through on the Carolinas. … Our story is forgotten a lot when you read history, and history is written by the conquerors. That’s why people don’t hear a lot about the Occoneechee. That is why I think it’s important for him to do that, and I’m mighty happy that he contacted me.”