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ECU library puts the works of explorer John Lawson online

(Nov. 14, 2002)   —   If television had been around in the early 18th century, explorer and naturalist John Lawson would have had his own show and in prime time, too. Now, an online exhibit at East Carolina University has placed Lawson's exploits into the public spotlight.

ECU's Joyner Library has added the "John Lawson Exhibit" to its collection of Eastern North Carolina Digital History Exhibits. The website for the exhibit is at

Lawson, famous for starting the towns of Bath and New Bern, traveled the wilds of eastern North Carolina before his untimely death in 1711. He surveyed fields, rivers and streams to observe and write about the plants, animals and native people. It was a time when England was pondering the resources of the "New World" and Lawson was more than apt in the skill of "show and tell."

Accounts of Lawson's influence and experience as a surveyor, explorer, land speculator, fur trader, naturalist, ethnographer, and writer are intended as resources for learning about eastern North Carolina. The exhibit includes letters and other writings. There are also court records from cases and hearings related to Lawson, part of his will, and excerpts from magazines and books published since his death.

A unique feature is a huge catalog of high-quality photographs of hundreds of plant specimens that Lawson collected, provided by The Natural History Museum of London. The explorer had sent the specimens to England and they were acquired by Sir Hans Sloane (1660 -1753). The collection eventually gave rise to the British Museum and later to The Natural History Museum.

Dr. Vince Bellis, a biologist and retired member of the ECU biology faculty, conducted an inventory of the plant specimens and identified them in a way that allows computer searches by the plants' common or Latin names. Bellis believes that this is the first time such an inventory has even been performed on these 300-year-old, and well-preserved plant specimens that are native to eastern North Carolina.

The exhibit also provides information that reveals the moods and other personal characteristics of Lawson and his contemporaries.

Dr. Thomson Shields Jr., director of the Roanoke Colonies Research Office at ECU, said that Lawson has long been regarded as a good source for North Carolina history.

"What many have not realized is that as an individual he is interesting as well because of his business dealings," Shields said.

He said that the exhibit provides an overview of those "dealings" which add a human element to the history and make the materials more interesting for people who study history and literature as well as those who enjoy fascinating non-fiction stories.

The J. Y. Joyner Library contains an extensive collection of materials about North Carolina history as it developed in the eastern part of the state. More than one million printed volumes are among the library's holdings and over one million microforms are housed in the library's modern four-story structure.


Contact: ECU News Bureau | 252-328-6481