While researching The Stolen Bride, the forthcoming installment in the Adam Fletcher Adventure Series, I’ve spent some time researching the history of the Great Dismal Swamp.
I was curious about a few things:
- When and how did it get its name?
- What was it like in the colonial era?
- Would travelers have been able to traverse the swamp, or would the inhospitable conditions make it necessary to skirt around the place?
I’ve learned quite a bit about it, but one of the most interesting things is a letter that I found in the Colonial Records of North Carolina that was written by William Byrd II, who is one of the most well-documented planters from the colonial era. He’s known for founding the City of Richmond (between 1737-1742), but a decade earlier, in 1728, he surveyed the border between North Carolina and Virginia. (His findings were reported in The History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, Run in the Year of Our Lord 1728.)
Byrd was Virginia’s version of Edward Moseley (the Surveyor General who came after John Lawson in North Carolina, famous for the Moseley Map of 1733).
Being thus appointed, we sat out on the 27th of February 1727/8 to Corotuck Inlet, where we met the Commissioners on the part of North Carolina and having concerted the place of beginning the allowance to be made for the variation and other necessary Preliminarys we entered on the Business the 27th of March following. T’is not easy to conceive, My Lords how much difficulty and fatigue we encountered in the low marshy grounds that lay near the sea, our course being right forward, thrō thick and thin and leading often through swamps and miry places not practicable for horses for many miles together. Our way lay through the widest part of the Dismal which is a dreadful swamp of vast extent not less than 30 miles long and 15 in breadth. No humane creature ever had the Resolution to pass over this inhospitable Bogg before, and we found it so intolerable that I believe no man will ever be so hardy as to pass it again Your Lordships will incline to the same Opinion when I assure you that with the utmost diligence we cou’d use it took us up full ten days to mark and measure that small distance. However we had patience enough to overcome this and all other difficulties that stood in our way. We carried on the business with very great alacrity and success til the begining of April when the weather grew warm enough to give life and vigour to the Rattlesnakes. This obliged us to discontinue our work til the return of the cool season, which could not happen til September
Accordingly we met again on the 20th of that month at the place where we had left off and pursued the line with all the Industry we were able.
And now My Lords for variety we had quite different hardships to undergo, which were however as discouraging as those in our former Expedition. Great part of our journey lay through wild woods without path and without any Inhabitants except only Panthers, Bears, Wolves and other savage beasts. In many places we were forced to scuffle through Thickets so intolerable that it was as much as our hands cou’d do to save our Eyes in our heads. At other times our line carried us over steep hills & stony Precipices to the no small hazzard of our Necks. Nor was this all our danger but we were constrained to ford very often over unknown Rivers, where the stream was rapid, and the Bottome paved with Rocks as slippery as glass so that t’was hardly possible for horses to keep their feet. Foreseeing the difficulty of these ways for Baggage horses we carried no provisions with us but Biscuit, depending entirely on Providence for other subsistance. Our lodging was in the open air, and our Drink water: but what was worse than all the rest by the time we approached the mountains our horses were so jaded that we were obliged to walk great part of the way home on foot and that in Boots for fear of Bushes and vermine. However we bore up against all these Inconveniences not only with constancy but cheerfulness determining that nothing should discourage us from obeying his Majestys order in the fullest extent. And we endured it all with the more Patience because our endeavours were blest with very uncommon success. We had no Distemper no Disaster of any consequence befell any of the Company during the whole time, and we brought all the people back in better health than when they went out Nay for 16 weeks no man that was with us ever wanted a meals meat so bountifully did Providence supply us day by day in the barren Wilderness. Our Governor has had the honor to write to your Lordships upon this subject and to transmit the Map and the Journal of our Proceedings by which you will be the better able to judge of the service we performed and of the Fatigue we underwent. But as this has happened by his Majesty’s special direction he is unwilling to determine what pay we ought to have, but desires to be directed by your Lordships both as to the Quantum and by which of our 2 Revenues this Charge ought to be defrayed whether by that of the Quitrents or by that of the Two shillings per Hogs head?
As to the first of these Questions, how much the Commissioners ought to have for the trouble and expence of this Expedition your Lordships have a Precedent to go by which we humbly hope will guide your Opinions in this case. In the year 1710 two Commissioners Phillip Ludwell and Nathaniel Harrison Esqrs were appointed by our Governor and Council to do this very Business. These Gentlemen went to Corotuck Inlet in order to begin from thence: but not being able to agree with the Commissioners of North Carolina they returned without performing any thing. However they having been out 4 weeks and it not being their fault that nothing was done they were paid by an order from England one hundred pounds sterling each. Now if those Commissioners were allowed £100 for 4 weeks without enduring any hardship or doing any service I humbly submit it to your Lordships how much we ought to have, who were 16 weeks out, underwent all manner of fatigue and performed the Business faithfully & effectually which we had the honour to be imployed upon. The surveyors likewise hope they may be considered in the same proportion that the former surveyors were, namely 20 shillings a day which I think they deserve for the great fidelity & exactness with which they discharged their duty. And our Chaplain Mr Peter Fontain hopes he may have as much as the surveyors, having been very diligent in his Function & having christened above an hundred children among the Gentiles of North Carolina.
Then my Lords as to the second Question out of which Revenue this money ought to be paid I humbly conceive your Lordship will think it most reasonable that it be paid out of the Revenue of 2 shillings per Hogshead since that was given to defray both the constant and accidental charges of this Government. And the rather because this Fund is now in very good condition having several Thousand Pounds in Bank and in no danger of being deficient. Indeed formerly when this Revenue happened to fall in arrear (which was the case when the Payment was ordered to the Commissioners above mentioned) such services have been defrayed out of the Revenue of Quitrent. But at present the case is quite otherwise and there is a large summ in Bank of the Two shillings per Hogshead and consequently the present charge may be more naturally born by that Revenue and the rather because the Quitrents have lately been reserved for more important services.
This my Lord is a faithfull state of our case nor can I imagin that our Pretentions can be at all prejudiced by the purchase that has been since made of Carolina by the Crown Since what we did was by his Majesty’s express commands. And notwithstanding such Purchase this work will still prove very advantagious to the Publick by discovering a fine Country which will soon be taken up as far as the great mountains whereby the strong Barrier will be secured to his Majesty’s subjects. Besides our line will remain a lasting Boundary between the 2 Colonys which can never conveniently be united into one Government.
And now I ought to ask your Lordships ten Thousand Pardons for giveing so long an interruption to your attention to the Publick service. But as I could not make my case shorter without prejudicing the Justice of it I hope you will be pleased to excuse me, and to believe that I am with all the Respect in the WorldMy Lords Your Lordships most obedient humble servantW. BYRD.