July 5, 2011

The Great Dismal Swamp

A national park composed of vast acres of swampland, straddling the border of North Carolina and Virginia, was once home to runaway slaves, an anti-oasis of sorts in the South for people to disappear to.

The site was long known as a haven for escapees and members of Indian tribes avoiding European encroachment. Advertisements seeking the return of escaped slaves from the 1700s mention the swamp, and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about it as a place of refuge in the novel “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.” The North Carolina legislature was even petitioned to do something about the settlements in the swamp, said Wanda Hunt-McLean, a local historian who studies the underground railroad.

“Many people were warned about traveling near the edge of the swamp because of stories about blacks living there,” she said.

But the only significant attempt to recapture slaves in the swamp came after the violent slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1831, and that barely reached the fringes of the wilderness, Sayers said. The swamp was simply too dense and treacherous to make sustained efforts to capture slaves or their descendants worthwhile.


  1. Luke Neff on July 5th, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Rob pointed me to a site that asks the question “What is the frontier?” The swamp is a good answer to the question.

  2. Sheila Ryan on July 5th, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Don’t people periodically go searching the Great Dismal for evidence that the settlers of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke passed through? I bet Cece knows.

  3. Carole Corlew on July 5th, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    As a matter of fact… or speculation. There are or were folks looking in that swamp for remains of a boat they say could have been used by the settlers. That the settlers set out from Roanoke for who knows where and got lost in that gawd forsaken place. I mean, they vanished. Some think the most likely scenario is Indian attack. But the houses and fortifications were dismantled as though the departure was unhurried. The most likely scenario is that they were assimilated into the local population, at least the women. Because of credible later reports of blonde hair and blue eyes among those people.

    I became interested in this long ago because of a joke I had with my father. I would ask about the family ancestry and he would insist “we are from North Carolina.” Which led to jokes about The Lost Colony and Native American heritage (which I do have on my mother’s side). But aside from that, what a mystery. And now, add to that the Great Dismal. I could see getting deeply involved in a search and going crazy…

  4. Sheila Ryan on July 5th, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Carole, I can just see you trudging deeper and deeper into the Great Dismal, both literally and in a manner of speaking. Me, however, I am no lover of wetlands Wait. That is wrong. They are wonderful, magical places, and I only wish that the Army Corps and the Father of Our Country and like-minded folk had had sense enough to leave them alone and not go trying to drain them and build canals and all. I only meant that I am not one for vegetal lushness nor the combination of heat and various forms of water. Nor the insects. It is bad enough this summer in Jo Daviess County, Illinois.

  5. Rick Neece on July 5th, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    I may have been there. No, wait, I was farther south. The Georgia/South Carolina border.

  6. Carole Corlew on July 5th, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    Well, I can’t imagine being out in the desert. Or in the Arctic. Or the Great Lakes in winter like that film Shelia posted about. Those places scare me. In the desert you have not just the climate but bad people who would rather kill you than look at you. You can die in the freezing cold in no time at all. The bugs will seem to be eating you alive in the swamp, but eventually you toughen up and don’t feel them anymore. You have to watch for snakes and and maybe gators depending on location, but they don’t want to see you either. You can hide easily. People get so weirded out by the swamp you don’t generally encounter too many there. If you do, you can stand stock still and stare a hole through them and they’ll think you’re a haint and flee. Trust me on this one.

  7. Sheila Ryan on July 5th, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    No, I can’t imagine you in those places either. We are polar opposites in that way. So to speak.

    I think maybe it is all a matter of desire and the direction in which you want to toughen.

    Like the way I ignore the tinnitus that afflicts me continually.

    But for some reason the 47 burning insect bites all up and down my arms and legs after only a few hours outside this entire summer, the ones that still torment me like cigarette burns after it’s been 5 or 6 days — they’re always kind of on my mind, and it’s a challenge not to feel them.

    Insects sense my weakness.

  8. Carole Corlew on July 5th, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I know, Shelia. The way I feel faint to see all that snow you find beautiful. Mr. B. came into the back yard yesterday where I was working. Or maybe I was meditating, it is hard to know sometimes. He was slapping away at the bugs flying into his ears and up his nose. He said, “How do you stand it out here? Why are the bugs not bothering you?” I said, “What bugs?” As you say, desire trumps.

  9. Sheila Ryan on July 5th, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Sometimes I can ignore the bugs. But not this summer. After a few minutes outside, I can feel and taste in my mouth the carcasses of insects that entered my nose and made their way down. Last night I spat out over half a dozen corpses.

    Weird imagining: What if one day the Great Dismal went all Arctic? And the polar regions blossomed and bore fruit?

  10. Carole Corlew on July 5th, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    You have a movie, there, with the Dismal going Artic and the polar regions bearing fruit. Maybe the people who did “The Day After” could look into that, which btw featured Jake Gyllenhall and Emmy Rossum as students at the school where Mr. B. goes, H.B. Woodlawn.

    I have found a good anti-mosquito product that contains Vitamin B. You apply a patch to your arm. They don’t bite me when I have one on. I found them at the health food store. I don’t mind bugs but I don’t appreciate being gnawed on.