Why “Dismal”?

How did the “Dismal” Swamp receive its name?  This is one of our most frequently asked questions at the Welcome Center and we enjoy enlightening others on this topic.  Those who have never visited the swamp often perceive it as a depressing and dreary place.  After spending a few minutes strolling the boardwalk at the Dismal Swamp State Park or paddling the Canal, travelers are pleasantly surprised to find such a beautifully preserved natural area.   We’ve included the two most popular theories to answer this question. 

Colonel William Byrd II, a land surveyor from Virginia, provided one of the first written descriptions of the swamp in the early 1700s.  He and a band of surveyors were tasked with running a dividing line between the disputing colonies of North Carolina and Virginia in 1728.   The group could only travel a short distance each day and were devoured by yellow flies, chiggers, and ticks.  Under these conditions, Byrd is credited with the “Dismal” name.  He wrote, “The Dismal is a very large swamp or bogg” and “…a horrible desert, the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the Air, and render it unfit for Respiration.”  In contrast, George Washington visits the swamp for the first time in 1763 and describes the area as a “glorious paradise” abundant in wild fowl and game.  We agree with Washington, the Dismal Swamp is a must see!

The most likely source for this unique name comes from the Native Americans and Europeans.  Jesse Pugh’s The Hotel in the Great Dismal Swamp mentions the Indian word paquesen, which translates to either swamp or dismal and from which our word pocosin is derived. “Dismals”, as Europeans referred to, were common terms for swamps or areas where water stood for long periods of time.

Visit the Dismal Swamp State Park to learn more about the swamp’s rich history and explore nature through biking, hiking, paddling, birding and photography.  We think you’ll enjoy your visit and realize the swamp is not so “dismal” after all!