Frances Louis Michel
The Trial of John Lawson, Christoph von Graffenried, and an Enslaved Man by the Tuscarora
France/North Carolina (1711)
Pen and Ink wash on Parchment.
The story behind this sketch is an interesting one. Lawson, a surveyor, and von Graffenreid were two founders of a colony in New Bern, North Carolina. The small group of European colonizers had offered many insults to the Tuscarora, including the destruction of religious objects, men who beat a diplomat during negotiations, the kidnapping and enslavement of Tuscarora children, and the final straw was Lawson’s threat, attempted theft of an unknown object, and physical scuffle with a community leader. The two white men were seized, and their wigs and coats thrown into a fire. The enslaved man was also seized, being associated with Graffenried, and the three put on trial.
The enslaved man was released on principle, having no say in his actions and therefore bearing no responsibility for the incident. It is unknown whether he decided to stay on with the Tuscarora or returned to the colony. Von Graffereid offered not only goods in ransom for his release, but unspecified services, presumably to correct the harm done. He was also released.
Lawson, however, offered nothing in terms of goods, nor in terms of offering to pay the debt with his service, in accordance with most Native American laws. He was thus condemned, and summarily executed. Although many historians and writers of articles claim he was tortured to death in the manner he himself has so luridly and sensationally described being done to other prisoners among the Native Americans, accounts from von Graffenried state that he was dispatched quickly with his throat cut.
Many academic articles written about Lawson’s death, like this one which refers to him in the title as a “gentleman”, offer endless apologia for his behavior and his trespasses. The assumption that because his writing was “not as bad” as some writing of other colonists at the time, that he somehow should have been exempt from Native laws, and write as if his death was somehow “inexplicable”. They attempt to create a narrative of once-friendly Natives turning on a poor, hapless “settler”.
I suppose a descendant of colonizers would have a stake in trying to represent Lawson as a sympathetic character, although any scholar of Native history recognizes Lawson’s accounts for sensationalized and bigoted hyperbole. He often refers to Natives as thieves (rather ironically, he claims they are “as ingenious at picking of Pockets, as any, I believe, the World affords; for they will steal with their Feet.” ), bestial savages, and sexual degenerates. Many European settlers made much of the unfamiliar sexual autonomy of Native women, and assumed that somehow the men must have been in control of it, or benefited from it financially. From Lawson’s writings:
The Girls at 12 or 13 Years of Age, as soon as Nature prompts them, freely bestow their Maidenheads on some Youth about the same Age, continuing her Favours on whom she most affects, changing her Mate very often.
[The Waxhaw] set apart the youngest and prettiest Faces for trading Girls; these are remarkable by their Hair, having a particular Tonsure by which they are known.… They are mercenary, and whoever makes Use of them, first hires them, the greatest Share of the Gain going to the King’s Purse, who is the chief Bawd…: his own Cabin (very often) being the chiefest Brothel-House.
Sadly, accounts like these are taken at face value still, including this passage from the North Carolina History Project:
In addition, Lawson described the marriage culture of the Waxhaw as relaxed and even communal at times. Young Indian girls who had the most sexual partners before marriage were usually the most sought after by the men of the tribe, and some men even lent their wives to interested neighbors.
Notice that once again, the agency is assumed to be in the hands of men: the men LENT their wives to other men. This is a case of the retroactive erasure of the agency of native women; there is nothing to suggest that these women did anything except exactly as they pleased in regard to sexual matters, partners, childbearing and marriage.
Because of settler accounts like that of Lawson who could not imagine a society in which men did not control women’s sexuality despite being witness to it happening before his very eyes, and perpetuated by articles like the one linked above, the assumption of sexual exploitation of Native women continues, and became the reality.
In much the same way that patriarchy was assumed by settlers who often refused to meet or negotiate with powerful women in Native communities, over time, with subjugation, murder, war, and epidemics, a patriarchal social structure was imposed on many native communities in North America.
The writings of Lawson, who was a bigot, a convicted criminal, and partially responsible for starting the Tuscarora War, are seen as more authoritative and “historically accurate” than the writings and oral histories of Native peoples today. After the war, many Tuscarora went north to join the five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, adding their strength and military prowess to the might of the alliance there. You can also read a letter George Washington himself wrote to the Tuscarora nation, begging aid in an upcoming military conflict with France.
If you would like to gain a greater understanding of the possible fate of the enslaved man among the Tuscarora, this article gives a very solid general overview of relations between kidnapped and enslaved African people and Native American nations in United States/North American history. The history between these two people is an area of special academic and personal interest to me, because this “alliance”, so to speak, was continued in my own immediate family, with our distinctive and shared identities, with our own and shared Histories in America.