History 2018-01-23T16:12:13+00:00

History of the Dismal Swamp

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.

African-American History and the Dismal Swamp

Thomas Moran, Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia, 1862, oil on canvas.

The Dismal Swamp was a known route and destination for freedom seekers. This route was the most rugged and treacherous route where insects, snakes, and wild animals were abundant. It was to this inhospitable place many runaways came.

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 nature of the swamp made it possible for large colonies to establish permanent refuge.  It was difficult to capture a freedom seeker once they reached the swamp, although occasional trips were made to recapture runaways with specially trained dogs.  Colonies were established on high ground in the swamp, where crude huts were constructed. Abundant animal life provided food and clothing.  Some earned money by working for free black shingle makers, who hired maroons to cut logs.

The Dismal Swamp Canal, hand dug by hired enslaved labor, opened to navigation in 1805 after twelve years of backbreaking work under highly unfavorable conditions. This 22 mile long canal allowed trade between the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina.  African Americans made up thirty percent of the waterman in Camden County in the 1790s and were common sights on local waterways.

Learn more about the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom through the following brochures and visiting: 


Moses Grandy

Moses Grandy was born into slavery in Camden County in 1786 and as a youth became interested in maritime occupations.   As a result of his skills as a river ferryman, canal boatman, schooner deck man, and lighter captain, he became known as Captain Grandy.  William Grandy, a prominent slave owner in Camden County was Moses’s first slave master.  Moses was hired out to Enoch Sawyer and George Furley to tend ferry along the Pasquotank River and haul lumber in the Dismal Swamp.

A successful waterman, Moses attempted to purchase his freedom three times, but twice was cheated out of his earnings and release.  Finally in 1827, Captain Edward Minner, purchased Moses and allowed him to live as a free man.  Grandy repaid Captain Minner and eventually settled in Boston, where he did a variety of jobs, but was soon at sea again.

Title Page Image- North Carolina Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

In 1842 Moses sailed to London and met with abolitionist George Thompson, who penned Grandy’s life story.  Proceeds from, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy; Late a Slave in the United States were used to help liberate Grandy’s enslaved relatives.  Grandy’s story and other slave narratives were used by anti-slavery movements in the United States and Britain to demonstrate the cruelty of slavery. Grandy recounted his story throughout his travels and addressed the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London on June 17, 1843.

Dismal Swamp in Literature.

Many authors and historians have written about the swamp’s role as a hiding place for freedom seekers and fugitives.  It has been used as a backdrop in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp”.  Recent archaeological work by Dr. Daniel Sayers, anthropology professor at American University, uncovered several maroon communities located within the Great Dismal Swamp in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Dr. Sayers book, A Desolate Place for a Defiant People:  The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp, examines the complex social and economic systems developed by these communities inhabiting the swamp.

Chronology of the Great Dismal Swamp

1665    Lake discovered by William Drummond

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

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.

1802     William Farange builds first hostelry in Camden County, N.C.
1803     Thomas Moore wrote “THE LAKE OF THE DISMAL SWAMP”
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
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
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 became a designated site and member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program
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                                                                                                                                                       2016      Damage from Hurricane Matthew caused the Dismal Swamp Canal to close October 2016 till present.

Satellite view of Dismal Swamp fire in 2011.