17 December 2008

The Great Dismal Swamp, Part Deux: The Swamping

As I was saying...if you are curious about the History of the GREAT DISMAL, read on. But I must worn you, is not for the faint of heart!

No one is sure what (or whom) made the giant black water swamp. "Non-pseudoscientists," AKA "scientists," claim that the Dismal was created the continental shelf last shifted, thousands upon thousands of years ago, the true scholar knows that the Earth is only 6012 years old and that this "continental shelf" business cannot possibly be accurate.

Also under dispute is the genesis of Lake Drummond, the evil lake at the black heart of the swamp. (I mean, a swamp with a giant lake in it! Really!) Some claim that this murky pond was the result of a "peat burn" around four thousand years ago. But we all know that no Irish lived in America until the nineteenth century, when they pirated boats to invade our country with three specific goals: monopolize our menial jobs, steal our American potatoes, and fight in our Civil War.

The United States' constant friends, the Native Americans, have an even less convincing theory. They believe that a Firebird created the lake. Even if they aren't talking about the late, great Pontiac muscle car, friend of those weird guys that graduate high school and keep hanging around the parking lot, I can't really see how a bird made of flames could create a watery lake.

At any rate, the lake was not discovered until Englishman and non-Indian white guy William Drummond stumbled across it in 1665. Since the Native Americans living around the lake for "13,000" years hadn't noticed it, I don't think they have much room to theorize about its creation.

But let us move on. I promised to tell you about the sex-crazed colonial gentleman whose history is intertwined with the Dismal. Well, here he is:

Fancy, no? This dandy is none other than William Byrd II, of Westover Plantation, Virginia. Byrd led a surveying expedition of the border between North Carolina and the Old Dominion in 1728. He writes about the Dismal in his account of the trip, entitled The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, a title whose brevity is not appreciated by modern, non-eighteenth-century readers. Byrd and his party felt that the GDS was completely devoid of life. Their definition of "life" obviously did not include: mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and Native Americans. But maybe he was too busy thinking about groping his serving wenches and flourishing Mrs. Byrd on the billiard table to notice. It happens.

Then there's the George Washington Ditch, perhaps our country's greatest tribute to the Founding Father most dedicated to ruining nature.

In 1763, Washington, after personally negotiating a peace to the long war between the French and Indians, started the Dismal Swamp Land Company, Ltd.. A venture capitalist, GW used the elite team of trained beavers that he kept at his Mt. Vernon home and his giant axe (see above) to harvest hundreds of acres of virgin timber which he used, in part, to craft numerous sets of wooden teeth.

1867 map of the Dismal Swamp Canal

Our next tale involves Harriet Beecher-Stowe, the crazed author who, according to Abraham Lincoln, personally started the Civil War from her uncle's Connecticut cabin.

After inciting the entire nation with her first novel, HBS decided to write a book about fugitive slaves hiding out in the horrible Great Dismal. Although a great author, she was not a good speller, and Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856) captured neither the essence of the awful feeling Stowe felt when she first gazed upon the GDS nor the reading audience that Uncle Tom's Cabin enjoyed.

An escaped slave in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1856, from Harper's.

The final chapter in our tale brings us up to today. Although a great deal of what remains of the Swamp is now protected by the government, much of the adjacent land is owned by Erik Prince and his private miliatry company Blackwater Worldwide. Prince is descended from German royalty who fled to the area after Napoleon's abolition of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 to become the Electors of the Great Dismal. 

These shadow rulers presided over a meager realm of escaped slaves, Native Americans, and Lutherans. Although they lost their sovereignty during the "roaring"1920s, the family, now called "Prince," retained its land holdings through the Great Depression. Erik, the family's heir, has made it his personal mission to restore his family's principality, setting up an elite private military operation in 1997. His special ops forces, unsightly creatures captured from the darkest interior of the swamp, coerce local landowners to sell their acreage for way more than it's worth with bags of money given to them by the U.S. government.

So, the greatest threat to the Dismal today is not deforestation through beaver armies, angry Indians, or bad writing by suicidal poets -- it is a disinherited German prince's army of Swamp Creatures! Now that's irony (Alanis-style)!

Well, I hope that you have been inspired by these tales of America's Favorite Interstate Tidewater Swamp. Until next time, the Curiosity Cabinet is closed.

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