Lederer’s Lake, Desert, and Savanna – An Early Exploration of Carolina

1676 Speed Map of Carolina based on Lederer's Discoveries

1676 Speed Map of Carolina based on Lederer's Discoveries

The first serious mapping of the Carolina Colony’s interior was accomplished in the 1670s by the intrepid German explorer and physician John Lederer on the commission of Virginia Governor Berkley. Lord Berkley, like many Europeans at the time, believed that the Pacific could be reached by traveling westward from the Atlantic Coast no more than two weeks. Lederer was commissioned to find this path.

Pre-Lederer maps of Carolina tended to be vague at best, incorporating semi-fictional elements from both the De Bry – Le Monye map of Florida and the De Bry – White map of the Grand Banks. Lederer’s explorations changed all of this, describing the interior for both future explorers and for the map publishers in Europe. The mapping of Carolina was heavily influenced by Lederer’s work with elements of it appearing on maps of the region for the next 60 years.

Today Lederer’s explorations and discoveries are highly criticized and considered by some to be outright fabrications. The narrative of Lederer’s three journeys consists of no more than 35 short pages and a map drawn by the man himself. Nonetheless, the text expresses much of the man’s character. He is determined, brave, honest and humble. We must agree with his friend and compatriot, Sir William Talbot, who describes him as “a modest ingenious person and a pretty scholar.” Further, Lederer’s narrative and his map are sufficiently accurate on a number of counts, including the course of several important rivers, the orientation of the Appellation Mountains, the identification of certain mountain passes, and the placement American Indian villages, that there can be little doubt Lederer truly passed through this region. Why then, is his significant contribution to cartography so heavily criticized?

It comes down to three seemingly anomalous elements that appear both in Lederer ‘s narrative and in his map: the Deserta Arenosa, Ushery Lake, and a great savanna in the piedmont region. We will attempt to examine each of these both individually and in the context of his greater voyage.

Close up of the Arenosa Desert from John Speed's Map

Close up of the Arenosa Desert from John Speed's Map

The most easily tackled is the Deserta Arenosa. Lederer encounters this desert on the return portion of his second journey. He describes it as “a barren Sandy Desert where I suffered miserably for want of water; the heat of the summer having drunk all of the springs dry,” and he surely would have died there had he not “found a standing pool, which provident nature set round with shady oaks, to defend it from the ardor of the sun.”

The Sand Hills Region Outlined in Red

The Sand Hills Region Outlined in Red

To us this seems to be a not-inaccurate description of the Sand Hill region during a dry summer. And indeed, by comparing our example map from 1676 with a modern detailing the Sand Hills region, we can easily see that the Arenosa directly overlays the Sand Hills.

Lederer’s description of a large savanna has long been one of the strongest attacks used against him. Lederer encounters the savanna on his third journey and describes it thusly:

These Savannae are low grounds at the foot of the Apalataeans, which all the Winter, Spring, and part of the Summer lie under snow or water, when the snow is dissolved, which falls down from the Maintains commonly about the beginning of June, and then their verdure is wonderful pleasant to the eye, especially of such as having traveled through the shade of the vast Forest, come out of a clear and open skie.

By the late 18th and early 19th century much of this savanna had largely disappeared. Many 19th and 20th century historians were locked into the convention that, prior to settlement by white man, that the region was covered by a vast primeval forest. This could not be farther from the truth. The historian, William Henry Foote describes this area as it existed in before 1750,

Extensive tracts of county between the Yadkin and the Catawba, now waving with thrifty forests, then were covered with tall grass, with scarce a bush or shrub, looking at first view as if immense grazing farms had been at once abandoned, the houses disappearing, and the abundant grass luxuriating in its native wildness and beauty, the wild herds wandering at pleasure, and nature rejoicing in undisturbed quietness.

We also know from historic records and fossil evidence that buffalo once wandered in this region on a short time before it was settled by colonials. The map scholar Cummings also supports this view, “It is certainly probable that before the forest land was denuded and the top soil washed away, the Piedmont may have had marshy sections, which have since largely disappeared”. In this light, the savanna described by Lederer, if anything is the strongest evidence to his veracity, rather than the opposite.

The lake that Lederer calls Ushery is possibly his most enduring legacy as well his most damning. We must first remember that Lederer did not invent this lake – it had in fact been on maps of the region for over 100 years!

Lederer's Savanna

Lederer's Savanna

Our earlier blog post on the “Great Sweet Water Lake of the Southeast” discusses and explains the history of this lake in more detail. Lederer claims to have not only discovered the lake, but to have actually sampled its waters. Lederer’s validation of this lake kept it on maps of the region well into the 1780s!

Now why? Lederer, as a learned man, would no doubt have been familiar with the many maps issued prior to his expedition, aware of, and even expecting to discover the Lactus Aquae Dulce. No doubt had Lederer returned and not discovered the lake, his explorations would have been more highly criticized in his time and may never have found their way into the cartographic corpus. Many have suggested that Lederer was conscious of this and simply added the lake to his narrative in order to validate the greater substance of his work. We find this supposition highly contrary to the humble and truthful character appearing elsewhere in the narrative.

Still others suggest that Lederer actually turned back without seeing the lake and then added the lake based upon a misinterpretation of American Indian descriptions of the wave-like undulations of the Blue Ridge mountains. This is plausible especially given that Lederer makes a similar mistake elsewhere with regard to the land of the Rickohockans “who dwell westward of the Apalataean Mountains, are seated upon a land, as they term it, of great waves (the Blue Ridge Mountains), by which I suppose they mean the seashore.” While we do believe this idea has merit, it again strikes us as odd and against Lederer’s character to lie.

Lake Ushery renamed after Lord Ashley by John Ogilby.

Lake Ushery renamed after Lord Ashley by John Ogilby.

More likely Lake Ushery is a case of “seek and ye shall find”. That is, since Lederer no doubt expected to discover the lake, it was easier to interpret what he did find as what he expected to see. Lyman Carrier explores this idea in his excellent analysis of Lederer’s travels. Carrier maps Lederer’s lake in either the Yadkin or Catawba Valley. Lyman writes, “Had the rivers been obstructed by beaver dames or debris, or had the channels through some of their gorges not been cut to their present levels, large areas of flooded land would have resulted.” While this may seem farfetched, we feel that the expectation of a lake combined with the discovery of a large flooded area, may have led to easy misinterpretation.

In general we find Lederer’s narrative to be truthful if limited in its scope. The errors that he did make are easily understood given the trials he faced. He had no reliable way to measure distance, no shared language with his American Indian guides, and only limited experience as a cartographer or surveyor. Moreover, it was nearly 50 years before other explorers contributed significantly to the knowledge of this region. For lack of contrary information from other explores, Lederer’s errors, which are surprisingly few, enjoyed considerable longevity.



REF: Carrier, L.,”The Veracity of John Lederer”, William and Mary Quarterly, Series II, Vol. 19, No. 4, p. 435 – 445. Talbot, W., The Discoveries of John Lederer…, 1672. Cumming, W., “Geographical Misconceptions of the Southeast in the Cartography of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries”, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 4, No. 4., pp. 476-492. Cunz, Dieter, “John Lederer: Significance and Evaluation”, The William and Mary Quarterly, Series II, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 175-185. The North Carolina State Archives, MC.150.1676s;MARS Id: Phillips (America), p. 817. Cumming, W. P., The Southeast in Early Maps, #77. Goss, J., The Mapping of North America, Three Centuries of Map-Making 1500-1860, 41. Foote, W. H., Sketches of North Carolina, historical and biographical, 1847, p. 180.

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2 Responses to “Lederer’s Lake, Desert, and Savanna – An Early Exploration of Carolina”

  1. Rich Owings says:

    For years I’ve heard botanists discuss a “piedmont prairie” that ran (at least) from Alabama to North Carolina. The savanna doesn’t sound that far-fetched to me.

    • Kevin Brown says:


      Your are 100% correct. I had intended, and still do, to dwell on this issue more completely in a later post discussing the Alabama Black Belt, but as you will see, I have updated the post with a brief discussion of the Piedmont Prarie.

      Thanks for your insightful comment.


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