Located between Norfolk, Virginia and Elizabeth City, North Carolina along the eastern seaboard is a somewhat foreboding and mysterious place called the Great Dismal Swamp. It has long been thought of as a place where people could easily get lost, and never be found.
This southern swamp is but one of many such swamps along the Atlantic coast of the country. Other swamps include the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp in Florida, as well as several other swamps. At one time, the swamp covered over one million acres. Due to logging and human encroachment, it is now just 112,000 acres in size.
The swamp lay under the waters of the sea for millions of years, until the last major shift of the continental plate. On rising from the sea, Lake Drummond was formed. Located almost in the middle of the swamp, this 3,100 acre lake is nearly circular and is one of only two natural lakes in Virginia.
Only 6 feet deep, The lakes amber-colored waters are essential to the survival of the swamp. Native American legend tells of a great firebird that came down from the sky to make a nest of fire. On rising back into the heavens, the nest filled with water, forming the lake.
No one knows for sure who discovered the swamp first. Early people living around the swamp knew of its location, but it had never been explored. It wasn’t until 1728 that the first description of the area became known when Colonel William Byrd II, a member of the commission that surveyed the North Carolina/Virginia state line through the Swamp released the information.
Byrds description of the swamp only added to its mystery:
“Tis remarkable that, towards the heart of this horrible desart, no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile. This must happen not so much from the moisture of the soil, as from the everlasting shade occationed by the thick shrubbs and bushes, so that the friendly warmth of the sun can never penetrate them to warm the earth. Nor indeed do any birds fly over it…for fear of the noisome exhalations that rise from this vast body of dirt and nastiness.”
The Maroons of the Dismal Swamp
The first slaves were brought to the Virginia colony in 1619 aboard a Dutch ship. At that time, the black slaves were treated as indentured servants, becoming free after a certain length of time. Some slaves accepted Christianity, thereby obtaining their freedom because the English at that time did not enslave Christians.
Even so, slaves escaped captivity in all the southern colonies, hiding out wherever they could. Escaped slaves living in freedom came to be known as maroons or outlyers. The origin of the word maroon is uncertain. In Virginia, most runaway slaves took off for the Great Dismal Swamp.
The slaves living secretly in the swamp had very little contact with the outside world. It was a desolate place to begin with, and while there may have been a few Native Americans still living in the swamp, it can be said that interaction was minimal. The inhabitants often interacted with slaves and poor whites to obtain work, food, clothes, and money.
During the building of the Dismal Swamp Canal, between 1793–1805, many Maroons got work on the construction gangs. These maroons interacted more with the outside world than those who lived in the swamp’s interior, and had more contact with outsiders.
Surprisingly, there are few artifacts left for researchers to put together an accurate picture of life during that time. Some authorities say the acidic waters of the swamp have destroyed any structures, as well as any bones which may have been left behind.
During the Civil War, the United States Colored Troops entered the swamp to liberate the people there, many of whom then joined the Union Army. Most of the maroons who remained in the swamp left after the Civil War, thus ending an interesting segment of the history of the Great Dismal Swamp.
That the Great Dismal Swamp continues to mystify is only natural. Afterall, we all love a mystery, and being a little scared by the unknown makes for a good story. But to think that at one time, people were so desperate to be free that they would hide in the swamp leaves one to wonder, doesn’t it?