A richly historic man made waterway, the Great Dismal Swamp Canal MegaSite  is dedicated to the enslaved and free men that built the oldest  made waterway in America.  Now recognized as part of the National Underground Railroad, this historic waterway is a national treasure and the basis of this website.

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The Lure of many men
DismalSwamp Article - Author Unknown

The Great Dismal swamp is comprised of nearly 107,000 acres of cypress swamps and other trees on the North Carolina and Virginia Border.   There is an assortment of wildlife that includes bears, bobcats, deer, otters and maybe even Alligators when the warm season is extra long!

Today it is a historic waterway,  full of beauty, history and lore.  But in the late 1700's it was a land speculator's dream where a scheme to drain the swamp for farmland promised investors a 900% profit in 10 years.

Few of the colonial gentry who were lured into this land of promise got rich and many of them went bankrupt.   The initial scheme involved transporting hundreds of slaves into camps in the swamp where they would clear the land and cut drainage ditches even thought it was known the swamps many "vapours" could and would kill many of them.


In 1764, George Washington, acting for the company, had the task of "collecting slaves" from company members. But suggesting the skepticism of even its investors, many sent slaves whom one observer called "the worst collection that was ever made-they seemed to be the refuse of every one of the estates from whence they were sent." Work moved slowly, with the only income coming from the felling of ancient white cedars for shingles.

Washington was one of a number of men, including such leaders of the American revolution as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, whose reputations survived their involvement with the Dismal Swamp Co.

The most intriguing figure who emerges from the story is one whose primary interest was not getting rich. Dr. Thomas Walker had studied in Williamsburg and married into wealth but was a man, writes Royster, "whose blue eyes looked across many western vistas" as surveyor for land companies.

He strides in and out of the story, a true frontiersman, dwarfing the planters and politicians for whom he worked. He celebrated his 65th birthday, Royster writes, on an extended surveying mission during the winter of 1780. It was the coldest winter in 40 years, and Walker's party was snowbound for weeks, burning fires night and day. "Dr. Walker, lover of tall stories and practical jokes, allowed no gloom" even if the weather prevented him from pulling "one of his favorite stunts: boiling a rattlesnake in a coffeepot, serving coffee, then pulling out the dead snake."

But the real action was miles away from the swamp, in London trading houses and on Tidewater plantations where members of the status-seeking gentry were transplanting the excesses of English aristocracy-and losing fortunes in the process. And this, the story behind the story, is fascinating.

Consider the case of William Byrd, the originator of the swamp scheme. His estate, Westover, boasted a naked Venus that the family claimed to be the work of Titian. When his son's widow died in 1813, an observer noted that while Byrd was "a magnificent prince himself, his children and grandchildren [had become] beggars." Another speculator, Mann Page, boasted a house whose checkerboard floor was composed of "tiles of English Purbeck white stone and black Belgian marble." He, too, died in debt.

The vast expanses of land that fueled this social economy are beyond comprehension today. Before the Revolution, land companies and individual speculators obtained royal charters granting them land that was measured in the tens of thousands of acres in Virginia and the Carolinas.

But if there was to be a Land of Eden-as early investors believed the Dismal Swamp would be-it lay to the west. And that is where many of the company's investors and their heirs headed in the years after the Revolution, leaving disappointment and debt behind.


Copyright © 2009  William Agreste