The Great Dismal Swamp

Continuing our summer wetlands theme, this seemed like a good time for a post about the Great Dismal Swamp, which plays a crucial if complex role in the history of the eastern United States. It’s a true borrowed land—a space that humans have inhabited for centuries, but have never quite tamed.

For some, this wildness has been a curse; for others, an asset. George Washington wanted to drain the swamp. Escaped slaves took refuge in it. Though it’s been logged and drained—the modern swamp is about an eighth of its original size—the Great Dismal remains a dark, shifty place that’s difficult to navigate. When I first visited the swamp this winter, I was struck by the waist-high grasses that carpet most of the landscape’s higher ground. There’s no way to tell if the waving stalks index a gust of wind, or the movement of a body.

“The swamp is scarcely passable in many parts, owing not only to the softness of the sponge, but to the obstruction caused by innumerable shrubs, vines, creepers and briars, which often take entire possession of the surface, forming a dense brake or jungle.” – Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, 1856, p. 152 (http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/olmsted/olmsted.html).

“Dismal” is a regional name for swamp, or forested wetland, but I found the word’s common meaning more apt during my visit. I mean, take a look at that:

Dismal swamp
The Great Dismal Swamp in winter.

Pretty grim. The swamp itself stretches across southeastern Virginia into northern North Carolina. Currently, the Great Dismal is a wildlife refuge, but it’s had a more commercial nature in previous incarnations. In addition to logging the swamp, early Americans used the area’s natural waterways to transport goods through landlocked regions of the east coast. Most significantly, from 1793 to 1805, enslaved laborers worked under back-breaking conditions to dig out a 22-mile canal that remains in use today.

Map of swamp
A contemporary map of the Great Dismal. The canal runs along the swamp’s eastern edge. Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

As I hinted above, enslaved people also interacted with the swamp in more independent ways. The Great Dismal was a crucial segment of the Underground Railroad, and features prominently in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1856 novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. In contrast to the sentimentalized account of slavery that Stowe presents in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Dred introduces black revolutionaries who advocate for violent retribution against slaveholders. Dred, the novel’s titular character, lives in a maroon community located deep within the swamp. Although the work is not without its prejudices and blind spots, Stowe’s descriptions of life in the “wild, impervious jungle” (300) offer a rare written account of stories that existed primarily as oral history. Today, archaeologists have begun excavating evidence of maroon sites; you can read about their efforts here.

There’s lots more to say about the Great Dismal, but I want to end this post with a short note about Lake Drummond, a peat-bottom lake located in the heart of the swamp. As you can see from the picture below, tannins leach from the peat and dye the water deep brown, like well-steeped tea.

swamp water

The high tannin content keeps the swamp water fresher for longer; believe it or not, water from the Great Dismal was a prized commodity for people setting off on long voyages well into the 19th century.

Lake Drummond
The author, right, contemplates a pair of cypress trees in the middle of Lake Drummond.

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