The Dismal Swamp lies thirty miles west of the Atlantic Ocean, between the James River in southeastern Virginia near Norfolk and the Albemarle Sound near Edenton, North Carolina. To eighteenth century colonists it was the "Great Dismal Swamp", seen as a vast, dreadful, bleak and impassible region.
The Dismal Swamp was an important refuge for those fleeing warfare between the English and Native populations of Virginia and North Carolina in the early years of the colonies. By the eighteenth century, many of the swamp's inhabitants were fugitive Africans who had escaped their bondage and formed temporary Maroon communities, successfully maneuvering into the heart of the swamp where they lived off the land and took whatever they could to survive.
In 1728, William Byrd III was commissioned to head a group that surveyed the Dismal Swamp, settling the controversy over the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. Throughout his journey, Byrd kept a diary noting the difficulties of traversing what he called the "dreadful swamp" and the people he encountered there, including a family of fugitive slaves. Byrd also expressed concern that enslaved runaways used the obscure parts of the swamp as a refuge.
Nineteen years later, a group of prominent Virginia speculators formed the Dismal Swamp Land Company with the intent of preparing the area for farming. George Washington, one of the Company's founders, led a crew of men to survey the region with proposals to use slave labor to drain and section off the land and to dig ditches. However, an economic downturn, combined with internal problems and the start of the American Revolution, brought these ambitions to a sudden halt.
It wasn't until 1793 that the Dismal Swamp Land Company began work on the construction of a series of canals linking the Chesapeake Bay to Albemarle Sound. The first major canal, "Causeway Road" (now Route 17), opened in 1804. Included in this operation was a narrow canal, known as "Washington's Ditch", dug to Lake Drummond. Later, the "Grand Canal" was constructed, connecting the Elizabeth River in Deep Creek, Virginia to the Pasquatunk River in North Carolina. By 1805, the Dismal Swamp Canal was officially open for business.
Eventually, twenty-two miles of canals created a major internal highway generating revenue for merchants and producers who could now bring their goods quickly and cheaply to market. Beginning with the Jericho and Washington ditches, the presence of these canals stimulated an increased demand for timber and shingles.
Soil from these canals would be used to develop farming on the fringes of the swamp. However, the land surrounding this strip would be marshy with the bulk of the swamp remaining impenetrable, making efforts to spur farming difficult. The only industry that succeeded was timbering, especially the extraction of cedar and cypress trees, which supplied the Norfolk port markets with staves, shingles, naval stores, and planking.
Throughout the antebellum period, business interests stimulated further expansion and reconstruction of the canals, with the widening and deepening of channels creating a navigable passage for larger vessels traveling from Albemarle Sound to Norfolk ports. Key to these improvements was the employment of enslaved men, both to develop and expand these canals and to harvest the swamp's timber.
Numerous first-hand accounts discussed life in the Dismal Swamp. Willis Hodges, a free black man, and Moses Grandy, an enslaved waterman, each wrote accounts of their experiences working on the Dismal Swamp Canal as, respectively, a laborer and a flatboat operator, and of the fugitives they encountered who lived on its fringes.
Once a marshland that spanned one million acres, the Dismal Swamp now serves as a wildlife refuge of approximately 110,000 acres. In 2003, the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program established the refuge to commemorate the importance of the Great Dismal Swamp as an escape route and place of safety for fugitive slaves. Many used the canals throughout the swamp as a path to the ports of Portsmouth and Norfolk and safe passage aboard vessels headed to points north, while some few made a home in the swamp for themselves and their families.
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