By Donna Bluemink
Fall 2002

One of the most beautiful pastoral scenes in America bears the gloom-inspired name, the Great Dismal Swamp.

For centuries, the swamp was seen as a dark, foul wilderness crouched between two colonies, working in a natural conspiracy with the barrier islands of coastal Virginia and North Carolina to impede commercial trade between the states.

Poets and escaped slaves, however, sought inspiration and refuge in the swamp, spawning many colonial and post-colonial narrative legends.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone by natural barriers, generations of engineers and lumber companies turned the swamp into a stew of commercial traffic.

Today, the Dismal swamp is much changed – more idyllic than savage, more isolate than human-trafficked. It is protected as a national refuge, beloved by birdwatchers, hunters, weekend bicyclists and history buffs. The thick forest of the swamp, cross-sected by its very old network of roads, ditches and canals, is a permanent record of mid-Atlantic colonial and post-colonial history, captivating those looking for both fact and fiction.

Finding the swamp involves a back road trip into the heart of what is known as the Tidewater region, miles away from the bustling shipyards of Hampton Roads and directly west of Knotts Island and the Currituck Sound in North Carolina.

This spring I was part of this idyllic picture, walking along the dirt track beside the swamp’s Washington Ditch. Every step forward brought bird calls to trace, wild flowers to name, rustling small animals to locate before they could hide, all along the murky water of the ditch, which cast its own spell over all. The prothonotary warbler is prevalent in the swamp and this particular day, young ones were playing along the banks, chasing and chattering and I think I heard happy laughter, my own maybe ... watching.

The early evening shadows in the forest were complimented by the misty haze arising from the nearby Lake Drummond and throwing a dreamy spell over all, reminding me of the Baroque nature oil paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael or the misty water color country scenes of England’s first impressionist painter J.M.W. Turner.

It is believed that the swamp was formed when the eastern continental shelf sank beneath the sea. Today the swamp is the highest ground above sea level in the Tidewater region. The land slopes from the edges of Lake Drummond at the center about eighteen inches per mile and the lake has seven streams flowing from it.

Heat and moisture with the addition of acidic leeching of cypress and juniper juices provide one of the few places in North America where peat is formed. At many places in the swamp the peat is fifteen feet thick and is undergirded by clay many times thicker, both of which keep the swamp afloat. Swamp water is coffee-colored from tree bark and peat, but in the Colonial period, was considered suitable for drinking – ships carried barrels of it on long voyages. At that time, the swamp spanned 2,200 square miles. Drainage and cutting activities have reduced its size by two-thirds, to about 600 square miles.

The Powhatan Indians were the first known inhabitants of the swamp and in earlier days, their hunting gear was found in the swamp and forest. Chief Powhatan is the father of Pocahontas. The last Indian group, the Nansemond Indians, all but disappeared with the harvesting of the last virgin timber. William Drummond was probably the first known white man to find Lake Drummond around 1665.

Col. William Byrd II (1764-1744) introduced the Dismal Swamp to the surrounding area when he with a group of other surveyors were dispatched to draw a boundary line between the colonies of North Carolina and Virginia. This was in 1728. Byrd named the swamp, referring to it as the “horrible desart” thinking that no “birds fly over it for fear of the noisome exhalation that rise from this vast body of dirt and nastiness.”

Though romanticized by poets, the swamp was a logistical nightmare for Colonial traders. The swamp barred land travel between the North Carolina coast and Norfolk, Virginia. The long and shallow barrier beaches along the coast of North Carolina also did not permit commercial boat traffic. In time, the government backed construction of the Intercoastal Waterway System – a 1,000-mile chain of canals along the Atlantic Seaboard. The Dismal Swamp canal is one of these links and the oldest survivor.

George Washington saw business opportunities in this wilderness when in 1763 he with other Virginia planters organized the Dismal Swamp Land Company and claimed 40,000 acres – intending to drain the high swamp with ditches and build canals to expedite lumber harvest and shipping goods between the states. Washington lost interest in this expensive venture about the time the timber industry got into full swing.

A good map of the Great Dismal Swamp will put its spider web network of ditches and canals into perspective. The ditches were dug first to drain the swamp and float timber before the building of the canals, and the dirt roads alongside canals and ditches are now popular spots for birdwatching and biking.

There are two main canals, the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. I speak mainly of the first canal, though today most business activity and vacationers on boats frequent the second. In 1793, slave workers began work on the first canal. Work went slowly mainly for lack of funding.

The Swamp has inspired various literary works and legends. Edgar Allen Poe stayed at “Halfway House” hotel where he reputedly received inspiration for penning “The Raven.”

The swamp was also used by runaway slaves, criminals to hide and live in, where duels could be performed in secrecy and where speedy marriages could take place.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his anti-slavery poem called “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” in 1842. In 1803, Thomas Moore came to visit the swamp and in 1846 wrote “A Ballad of the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,” which has inspired various legends.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an anti-slavery novel in 1856 called “Dred, A Tale of the Dismal Swamp,” in which she likens her main character to that of Nat Turner, the infamous slave rebel from Southampton, Virginia.

More recently, Robert Frost visited the Swamp in his youth in despair and disappointment over his love’s edicts concerning when they were to marry.

Nature made a long list of plants, mammals, and birds to inhabit the swamp. Spring and summer, the thickets become dense with rattanvine, greenbrier, swamp blackberry, cat brier and trumpet vine. The smell of the jasmine vine fills the air. Everywhere around the water are rushes some call “green sea.”

About 96 species of birds nest in the swamp while a bird count places the number seen at 209. Of special interest are the rare Swainson’s warbler and Wayne’s warbler. Wood duck, pileated woodpeckers and barred owl can also be spotted off the beaten trail.

Animals are bountiful, about 35 species, (many we call varmints) and include river otter, red and grey fox, mink, weasels, white-tailed deer, black bear and bobcat. The species-in-residence have varied with time and hunting practices. Three poisonous snakes and eighteen nonpoisonous inhabit the swamp and the hiker needs a stout stick to help avoid surprises on the trails and roads. Frogs, as well as yellow-bellied and spotted turtles, abound in the swamp. In all, there are 56 species of lizards, frogs and toads, turtles and salamanders.

Lastly but not least are the trees of the swamp: Cypress, gum, pine, maple and juniper were the chief used by the lumber industry for shipbuilding to home products.

Wildlife projects occasionally close off portions of the refuge to the public. At this present time two projects are underway: reestablishment of marshland and tree planting.

Beyond the obvious pleasures of observing nature through birding and hiking, the Dismal Swamp offers camping, biking, fishing, boating on Lake Drummond and on the 22-mile canal. There is a one-mile nature boardwalk at Washington Ditch. And also there is seasonal hunting for the sportsmen.



Brown, Alexander Crosby, THE DISMAL SWAMP CANAL, Norfolk Country Historical Society of Chesapeake, Virginia, 1970.

Davis, Hubert J. THE GREAT DISMAL SWAMP; its history, folklore and science, John Publishing Co., Murfreesboro, N. C. 1962.

Felker, Susan B., THE GREAT DISMAL SWAMP, Virginia Museum History, Martinsville, VA, 1998.

Simpson, Bland, THE GREAT DISMAL: A Carolinian's Swamp Memoir, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1990.

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