The Great Dismal Swamp

Between moving from two apartments and a storage unit into a single house, attending three weddings in three different states, revising and submitting one article manuscript and working on another, writing a conference paper, and creating/revising syllabi, I didn’t make my way to much in the way of historic sites this summer, which had been a goal. Alas.

However, in visiting friends who live only a couple of hours away but who I hadn’t seen in over a year, I did manage to get out to Virginia/North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp. That wasn’t on my travel itinerary when I moved to Virginia, but a student in my American Wilderness class last spring wrote a fantastic paper about the swamp and its history, and so it was added to my itinerary.

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In my perfect world, we’d have headed somewhere remote and buggy and notably devoid of people, but my friends weren’t sure how to get to such a spot, it was hot, and we took the dog with us, so we instead walked along the canal, which itself has an interesting history. Apparently hoping to drain and farm the swamp, the Dismal Swamp Land Company instead found itself resorting to logging and shingling. Forced to hire labor rather than sell land, it found a workforce that would work at reduced wages: runaway slaves, or maroons, who hid in the swamp . To ease the transport of timber products, the DSLC also hired maroons to work on the construction of several canals. The combination of intensified industry and easier tourist access in some ways demystified the swamp, though its image as a romantic, haunting wasteland persisted in popular fiction.

Maybe that image explains the canal-side signage warning of bears–somebody’s trying to maintain a sense of danger, even if the wildest life I saw was a dragonfly.

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