Lonely Planet Writer

The Great Dismal Swamp is under new protection as the US moves to restore balance

After centuries of trying to drain it, the US government has decided to start protecting the Great Dismal Swamp in a new move designed to restore some balance to the ecosystem and reverse damage.

The swamp is a popular spot for recreation. Image by USFWS
The swamp is a popular spot for recreation. Image by USFWS CC BY 2.0

The Great Dismal Swamp Refuge stretches from North Carolina to Virginia and over the last few centuries, has shrunk in size from more than one million acres to 112,000 due to a mixture of draining and development.

The ditches and dams were originally built in George Washington’s time to enable loggers to come to chop down the trees for fuel. These structures are preventing the natural distribution of water, creating problems for the wildlife and the nearby inhabitants, who are at more risk from flooding.

A new federal project wants to restore some of the swamp’s natural landscape and attempt to reverse some of the damage caused by humans. Communities have now settled in around the perimeter so it’s impossible to fully remove the ditches but efforts are now being made to protect it from any further changes.

The project is also good news for visitors, who flock to the wildlife refuge to go hiking, canoeing, bird-watching, bicycling and hunting in the proper seasons. Entry to the refuge remains free and some hiking trails have been made wheelchair-accessible.

What is the Great Dismal Swamp?

Despite the pessimistic name, the Great Dismal Swamp is a unique ecosystem with more than 200 species of birds and 47 different mammals making their home there. It’s also got a fascinating history. Archaeologists have found that the swamp was once a refuge to thousands of people.

The new federal program will try and reverse centuries of damage. Image by Rebecca Wynn/USFWS
The new federal program will try and reverse centuries of damage. Image by Rebecca Wynn/USFWS

In the early 1600s, the swamp became home to a band of Native Americans fleeing the encroaching colonial frontier. Soon after, they were joined by fugitive slaves who formed the bulk of the hidden communities up until the American Civil War in 1861. White indentured servants were also believed to make their home there after running away. These communities began to be known as the Maroons and lived in freedom for at least ten generations.

The communities had a permanent, communal way of existence almost totally removed from the rest of the United States and were in control of their own destinies. In 2011 a permanent exhibition opened in the park to commemorate those communities and extensive archaeological work is still ongoing to discover more.