In search of Great Dismal’s slave-refuge islands

“The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.

“We don’t know much about them, but thanks to [Dan Sayers], the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century….

“ ‘I was such a dumb-ass,’ says Sayers. ‘I was looking for hills, hummocks, high ground because that’s what I’d read in the documents: ‘Runaway slaves living on hills….’ I had never set foot in a swamp before. I wasted so much time. Finally, someone asked me if I’d been to the islands in North Carolina. Islands! That was the word I’d been missing’….”

— From “Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom” by Richard Grant in Smithsonian magazine (September 2016)

South of the Border pales beside north of the border

“The Dismal Swamp Canal, on the border between Virginia and North Carolina… was basically a dredged passage through the marshes, and it enjoyed brief fame because of a hotel built on its banks directly on top of the state line.

“Young eighteenth century swells would hold duels here, one man standing in Virginia, the other on the far side of the border, making their crime legally ambiguous — particularly important if one of them died. And gamblers could scurry across the hotel lounge into North Carolina whenever any Virginia marshal arrived to break up their game.”

— From “The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible” by Simon Winchester (2013)

Charlotte to the Great Dismal Swamp perhaps being the cultural equivalent of Murphy to Manteo, I’m only now discovering the notorious Lake Drummond Hotel.  A more detailed description can be found in “The Great Dismal: A Carolinian’s Swamp Memoir” by Bland Simpson (1990).


NCDNER: Famine trumps protection of Great Dismal

“Hoping to cash in on the famine [in countries such as Ethiopia and Bangladesh was] Malcolm McLean, a North Carolina native who’d made a fortune from his trucking business. In 1974 McLean shelled out $60 million for 375,000 acres in eastern North Carolina where he planned to grow corn and feed a million hogs a year. ‘It’s a question of supply and demand,’ explained one of McLean’s employees. ‘People are starving. It’s just like the energy crisis except that people are going to find it difficult to wait in line for food.’

“McLean’s First Colony Farm (named for its proximity to the settlement established by Sir Walter Raleigh) bore ‘the same relation to a farm that a computer does to an abacus,’ observed a newspaper reporter….

“Environmentalists pounced, and rightly so. First Colony occupied a large chunk of the Dismal Swamp, an environmentally complex area between the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds. But no one in state government was inclined to stop the project, because, explained an official with the state’s Department of Natural and Economic Resources, ‘The food crisis is up and coming, and I guess the feeling is that it’s just not good to stop and do an environmental study when it will take so long and cost so much.’ ”

— From “In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America” by Maureen Ogle (2013)


The dangerous game of tracking fugitive slaves

“For slaves in the tidewater regions of North Carolina and Virginia, the Great Dismal Swamp offered a refuge. In the North Carolina swamp counties of Camden and Currituck, a band of fugitives numbering between 500 and 600 made frequent raids on plantations and Confederate supply depots.

“Frightened planters urged authorities to stop the raiders, but rooting them out of their well-defended hideouts was dangerous work….  In October 1862, a patrol of three armed whites went into the backwoods of Surry County, Virginia, looking for an encampment of about 100 fugitives. They found the camp, but… none were ever seen alive again.”

— From “Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War” by David Williams (2008)

What? The sky wasn’t always Carolina blue?

Those industrious elves at Google Books Ngram Viewer must never sleep! Here are their latest offerings for North Carolinians’ provocation and speculation:

Carolina blue was adopted on campus about 1800, but the rest of the world seems to have taken a while to catch on.

— Jimmie Johnson vs. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Maybe if he wins six consecutive championships….

— Great Dismal Swamp vs. Okefenokee Swamp. The 1980s spike coincides with an environmental conflict over the Okefenokee.

— chitterlings vs. chitlins. Of course, when the Ngram measures not American usage but British….

— Don Knotts vs. Barney Fife surprised me — but now that the actor is dead, the immortal deputy is closing fast.