The Great Dismal World Outside the Swamp

The Smithsonian magazine recently published an article about the Great Dismal Swamp. I picked up the book that the article is based on, but the article does a better job of telling the story; I don’t recommend the book.

The Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina appears to have been a place where African, European, and Native Americans found refuge from slavery, indenture, and genocide — and not just momentary refuge, but permanent settlement that lasted for centuries with little interaction with the outside world — but also little written record or record of any kind.

Daniel O. Sayers has been digging into the ground of the Great Dismal Swamp since 2003 and bringing out tiny specks of evidence. His conclusion that “some of the most successful and transformative social radicals of the modern era have gone unnoticed and unrecognized for centuries,” is based on one very brief second-hand comment that people worked together and treated each other well in the Swamp, plus a good deal of circular reasoning: Because a small group separated from modern enterprise would likely behave as most small groups do and would lack modern enterprise, or because a group of African-Americans would likely rely on some African traditions, Sayers can conclude that the Swamp dwellers lived more communally than did those on the outside.

Fundamentally, we just don’t know. Did these settlements resemble Occupy encampments with more mosquitoes but fewer FBI infiltrators? We really do not know. People vanished from the rest of the world into a nearby but unreachable alternative dimension. A good question for students of U.S. history might be: How would you have lived in the Great Dismal Swamp? Such a question might create a useful critique of today’s society as well as of that of the British colonies and the early United States.

What would cause people to choose to isolate themselves in a water-soaked world full of thick vegetation, panthers, bears, giant snakes, and swarms of mosquitoes too thick to see through? What would they flee for that? Why, the glorious world of the Founding Fathers, of course.

Yogi Berra’s “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” was foreshadowed by Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood in 1714 who called the Swamp “a no man’s land” to which “loose and disorderly people daily flock.”

George Washington, future first president of the United States, worked enslaved people to death digging a canal known as “Washington’s Ditch” into the Swamp. That was the culture from which people fled. What did they flee to? What stories was someone born in the Swamp told about the world beyond it? When some or all of the residents apparently came out after the U.S. Civil War, were they glad they did? Did they have any regrets about leaving behind the world they’d created in the Swamp?

What would you flee today? Apart from climate change and nuclear apocalypse, which you cannot flee, what would you flee? What would you replace it with? Putting this line of thinking into our heads may be, for better or worse, the primary legacy the people of the Great Dismal Swamp pass down to us. Let’s make the most of it.