The Great Dismal Swamp is a geological wonder. For millions of years before the Swamp was formed, it was under the sea. It is viewed by naturalists and other scientists as one of the best outdoor laboratories in the world! This natural treasure emerged as a landform when the Continental Shelf made its last significant shift.


William Byrd II by Hans Hysing – Virginia Historical Society

Just who discovered the Great Dismal and when is unknown. Colonel William Byrd II was a member of the commission that surveyed the North Carolina/Virginia state line through the Swamp in 1728 and provided the first extensive description of it. In May 1763, George Washington made his first visit to the Swamp and suggested draining it and digging a north-south canal through it to connect the waters of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. Joining with several other prominent Virginians and North Carolinians, he formed two syndicates known as the Dismal Swamp Land Company and the Adventurers for Draining the Great Dismal Swamp. This group hoped to drain the Swamp, harvest the trees, and use the land for farming.

The company purchased 40,000 acres of Swamp land for $20,000 in 1763. Washington directed the surveying and digging of the 5-mile long ditch from the western edge of the Swamp to Lake Drummond, known today as Washington Ditch. In the late 1700’s, Riddick Ditch was completed. Together these ditches provided a way to transport logs out of the Swamp and drain it as well. The Adventurers soon realized, however, that the task of draining the Swamp was enormous and gave up that part of their plan to concentrate on lumbering. They cut much of the cypress trees for use in shipbuilding and the cedars for shingles and other products.

By 1796, Washington had become disappointed in the management of the Dismal Swamp lumber business and contracted to sell his 1/12th share to “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, who never was able to come up with the purchase price. So Washington’s share passed on to his heirs upon his death in 1799.


Map is titled “Dismal Swamp Canal connecting the Chesapeake Bay with Currituck, Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and their tributary streams, by D. S. Walton, Civil Engineer, 1867.” Courtesy of http://www.learnnc.org

Camp Mfg. Company, a predecessor of Union Camp, acquired all the Dismal Swamp Land Company’s property in 1909. Lumbering continued in the Swamp and by the 1950’s the last 20,000 acres of virgin timber were removed. In 1973, Union Camp donated its Virginia swamp holdings to the Nature Conservancy which, in turn, deeded it to the Department of the Interior for creation of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge consists of 107,000 acres of forested wetlands surrounding Lake Drummond, a 3,100 acre natural lake located in the heart of the swamp. William Drummond, the first Governor of North Carolina (1663-1667), discovered the oval lake which still bears his name.
Even though the average depth of the lake is only six feet, its unusually pure water is essential to the swamp’s survival. The amber-colored water is preserved by tannic acids from the bark of the juniper, gum and cypress trees, prohibiting growth of bacteria. Before the days of refrigeration, water from the Swamp was a highly prized commodity on sailing ships. It was put in kegs and would stay fresh a long time. People spoke of the magical qualities of the Swamp’s tea-colored water and how, if it were regularly drunk, it prevented illness and promoted long life.


Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia, by David Edward Cronin, 1888

African-American History and the Dismal Swamp

The Underground Railroad was at its height between 1810 and 1850 with over 30,000 people escaping enslavement, mainly to Canada, via the network.  The U.S. Census figures only account for 6,000. The Great Dismal Swamp was a known route for runaway slaves.  This route was the most rugged and treacherous route where insects, snakes and wild animals were abundant. In the nineteenth century, the Great Dismal Swamp was a morass of huge trees towering over dense underbrush and delicate ferns, inhabited by black bears, wildcats, wild cattle and hogs, and poisonous snakes. It was to this inhospitable place many slaves came.  The foreboding swamp provided a natural refuge for runaways and fugitives.

Maroon Colony

Following the American Revolution, there were numerous instances of slave resistance.  While some runaways were able to blend in with free blacks, many chose to seek refuge among a colony of runaways (called maroons) in the Great Dismal Swamp.  The very nature of the swamp made it possible for a large colony to establish a permanent refuge.  It was difficult to capture a slave once they reached the swamp although occasional forays were made into the swamp to recapture runaways with specially trained dogs. Colonies were established on high ground in the swamp where slaves build crude huts.  Family life evolved, and the abundant animal life provided food and clothing.  Some earned money by working for free black shingle makers, who hired the maroons to cut logs, playing them with small amounts of food, money or precious clothing. Sometimes runaways were betrayed by the Negro lumbermen.  Renegade fugitives often raided nearby towns or preyed upon travelers along the stage road.  Others stole from boats anchored along the canal.  These violent rebels were a dreaded menace to the whole swamp community.  Slave disturbances in the early 1800’s caused much alarm among residents living near the swamp.  Tidewater Virginia residents were greatly concerned about reported unrest among slaves in nearby Camden, Elizabeth City and Currituck County, North Carolina.  In the spring of 1823, the situation was so serious a large militia force with dogs was sent to wipe out the colony of slaves in the swamp.  Even though some were captured or killed, most of the maroons escaped. A brutal slave uprising in 1831 resulted in the butchering of 13 men, 18 women, and 24 children in Courtland, Virginia.  Following the Southampton County slave rebellion, it was feared that many of the insurgents planned to flee to the swamp.  The leader of the rebellion was Nat Turner, a powerful Baptist preacher with a large loyal following, who remained at large for several months, causing speculation he was hiding in the swamp.  Expeditions searched for him, capturing a number of maroons.  Nat Turner was eventually caught.

Dismal Swamp in Literature.

Many authors and historians have written about the swamp’s role as a hiding place for slaves and fugitives such as Nat Turner. It has provided inspiration to abolitionist, Harriett Beecher Stowe’s 1856 novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp which captured the imagination of thousands of  early American readers, as did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp.”  and Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States: with Remarks on Their Economy.  Still, the secretive nature of its inhabitants meant that little was truly known about life in the swamp. More was known about the lives of the enslaved workers who worked in and around the swamp. The Dismal Swamp Canal, which borders the Swamp, was hand dug by slave labor. Moses Grandy, an enslaved waterman who worked in the swamp and on the canal, told of his experiences in Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy. Grandy and others managed to earn enough money working on the canal to buy their freedom. In more recent times fictional writers William Styron and Jeffrey Deaver have also set stories here.

Chronology of the Great Dismal Swamp

c1665    Lake discovered by William Drummond
1728     Dismal Swamp Canal proposed by William Byrd
1763     Lake Drummond charted by George Washington’s surveyor


A Young George Washington. With no existing portraits of Washington before the age of 40, Mount Vernon convened a team of experts who used imaging, documents, clothing and likenesses of Washington to create life-size models of him as a 19-year-old surveyor, a 45-year-old general and a 57-year-old president. These life-size models are displayed in three of the 16 galleries of the Mount Vernon Education Center.

1764     Dismal swamp Land Company chartered
1787     Dismal Swamp Canal authorized by Virginia Legislature
1790     Dismal Swamp Canal authorized by North Carolina Legislature
1793     Work on the Dismal Swamp Canal began
1802     William Farange builds first hostelry in Camden County, N.C.
1803     Thomas Moore wrote “THE LAKE OF THE DISMAL SWAMP”


A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp from The Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music ~ Johns Hopkins University

1805     Dismal Swamp Canal began limited through navigation for flat boats
1810     Jericho Canal completed
1812     Feeder Ditch completed
1814     First recorded passage of a vessel other than a shingle flat
1818     President James Monroe visited the Dismal Swamp


James Monroe, Fifth President of the United States – Courtesy of the James Monroe Museum

1819     First Lottery held to raise funds for improving the Canal
1820     Second Lottery held
1822     Cross Canal completed
1823     First passage of completely loaded schooner “Rebecca Edwards”
1825     Erie Canal completed
1826     U.S.Congress purchased 600 shares of Dismal Swamp Company
1826     Dismal Swamp Canal enlarged as a shoal draft ship canal
1829     Third Lottery held
1829     Lake Drummond Hotel built
1829     President Andrew Jackson visited the Dismal Swamp Canal


Andrew Jackson Daguerrotype-crop – Public Domain Mathew Brady – http://www.picturehistory.com/product/id/29729

1829     Federal Government purchased 200 additional shares of stock
1830     “Lady of the Lake” first steamer designed to ply the canal
1830     North West Canal completed

1842 Moses Grandy, a former Camden County slave, dictates his autobiography in London.

1856     Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp is published.

1862     Confederate troops prevented the destruction of the Dismal Swamp Canal Locks

1867     State of Virginia’s 600 share holdings sold at auction
1871     North West Canal closed by dam built to conserve water
1878     Congress sold its shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal
1888     Last sale of lumber harvested from the Dismal Swamp
1890     Emma K – Dismal Swamp’s favorite vessel – was built
1899     Dismal Swamp Canal enlarged in substantially its present form
1923     Largest Forest fire ever raged for 3 years consuming 150 square miles
1929     United States Government purchased the Lake Drummond Company                                              1952    Lake Drummond dried up there was no water in the Canal.
1974     Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge created
1989     Dismal Swamp Welcome Center opened
2004     Dismal Swamp Canal was included in the National Park Service’s
2005     The 200th anniversary of the  Canal & 65th anniversary of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway 2005      Dismal Swamp Canal Trail opens to the public
2008     Dismal Swamp State Park opens to the public
2011     Largest fire in recent history. 9 square miles consumed


2011 Dismal Swamp Fire – Satellite Photo: NASA