Thomas Moore and Great Dismal Swamp
The Great Dismal Swamp has attracted humankind for thousands of years. American Indians hunted and foraged in the swamp long before the English settled on the shores of the New World. The tribes in the area of what are now Virginia and the Great Dismal Swamp were of the Algonquian Nation and under the independent Powhatan confederacy.
The individual tribes in the area consisted of the Chesapeake, Nansemond, Chowan, and Warrasqueoc. The Nansemond Indian Tribe lived in the northwest region of the swamp and frequently took advantage of the plentiful game within its depths. The Chowan and Weapemeoc tribes lived in the south near the Sound of the Albemarle.
Prior to the arrival of the English colonist, the tribes (both North and South) had moved to the perimeter of the Dismal Swamp and had settled their villages on the banks of the rivers emanating from the quagmire. All of the tribes shared the swamp as hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds bequeathed to them by their gods for all to share. These tribes lacked a strong friendship but did respect the others right to the game in the wilderness. Although their villages remained on the outside borders, many hunting and fishing camps were established deep within the swamp.
A multitude of stories, legends, and Indian Fables were accurately passed down orally through the tribes generations to explain the sights, sounds, and events that had been witnessed in the swamp. The stories grew over the years to explain the greatness found there and were passed to other tribes within, and beyond, the great Powhatan Alliance. Many of the stories have been lost, even to the tribal elders of today, but a few of the more notable legends and fables have survived.
The next most familiar Swamp legend is that of the Deer Tree, one of the gnarled, bald cypresses along the edge of Lake Drummond, which is said to have been a deer that changed into a tree to escape its pursuers. Other versions claim the deer was actually a witch who taunted hunting dogs Having run into the lake, she turned herself into a tree to avoid drowning and couldn't turn herself back into deer or witch.
The stories may have suffered contamination over the years as their telling passed through the English settlers and were reproduced from the original Indian story telling as best interpretation would allow.
In 1728, William Byrd II, while leading a land survey to establish a boundary between the Virginia and North Carolina colonies, made many observations of the swamp, none of them favorable; he is credited with naming it the Dismal Swamp.
A dark description of the Great Dismal Swamp is attributed to Colonel William Byrd during the 17th century. While he was in the swamp, he wrote his feelings, which also expressed the general feelings of early America had concerning swamplands.
(In the Great Dismal Swamp) “…the horrible desert, the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the air and render it unfit for respiration … never was rum – that cordial of life – found more necessary than in this dirty place."
--Colonel William Byrd
In 1763, George Washington surveyed the area, and he and others founded the Dismal Swamp Company in a venture to drain the swamp and clear it for settlement,
That very year he gathered a group of investors, most of whom were his relatives, and formed two syndicates: Adventurers for Draining the Great Dismal Swamp and the less romantic Dismal Swamp Land Company. Shortly thereafter the Company bought 40,000 acres of the Northwestern swamp for the equivalent of $20,000 and began digging the five-mile Washington Ditch, connecting Lake Drummond to the outside world.
Later, giving up on plans for settlement, the company turned to the more profitable goal of timber harvesting there.
Before the Civil War most of the men who cut timber or shingles for the Company were slaves. They poled slim rafts up the canals or drove two-wheeled mule carts along corduroy "Gum Roads" made of gum tree logs sunk in the peat. Many of these men had dug the canals they now worked, and lived in semi-autonomy in shantytowns deep in forest where white men rarely ventured. The Dismal Swamp became their domain.
There was an understanding between the whites and the blacks. Charles Royster, professor of history at Louisiana State University explains, “The blacks would live in the swamp several days a week, and when they provided a certain quota of logs or shingles, the whites were satisfied and left the blacks alone.”
But not all blacks who worked in the swamp were slaves. Some saved up and bought their freedom, while others may have been escaped slaves in hiding. According to Tommy Bogger, a historian at Norfolk State University’s archives, slaves had been running away to the swamp since the late 1600s.
Herbert Aptheker in "Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States" (1939), stated that likely "about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives" lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp.
It is recorded that a militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. And, the only significant attempt to recapture slaves in the swamp came after the violent slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1831, and that barely reached the fringes of the wilderness. The swamp was simply too dense and treacherous to make sustained efforts to capture slaves or their descendants worthwhile.
In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp. However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.
"Freedom in the Swamp: Unearthing the Secret History
of the Great Dismal Swamp," Physorg, May 16 2011)
"What you find with places like the Dismal Swamp is that there were oases within the South for people," said Michelle Lanier, a curator at the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties. "When you start to look at these communities that kind of created a safe haven or safer haven, it really explodes our simplified notion of what the underground railroad was."
Wanda Hunt-McLean, a historian who studies the underground railroad, said "Even the atmosphere is different out there," she said. "It's thick, it's muggy. It's dangerous. For anyone to prefer that environment to the plantation tells you what life must have been like for people who weren't free."
While there is heated debate among scholars as to whether colonies of these runaways were able to survive independently in the swamp, Bogger is convinced that there were small groups that secretly hired themselves out to shingle crews in exchange for food and provisions. No one has any hard evidence either way about independent communities, but truth or fiction, the idea of escaped slaves living in maroon communities in the swamp seized the imagination of Americans.
It is evident that the Great Dismal Swamp has a mysterious allure for good reason. It is a place of tangled undergrowth, tall strange cypress trees, wild creatures, and a green glow that is never penetrated by direct sunlight.
The historic swamp contained apex predators such as the American alligator, the gray wolf, the cougar, and, of course, the mighty black bear. Today, many animals still call the Great Dismal Swamp their home and add mystery to the environment. The screams of the Virginia Bobcat and the screech owl mimic the sounds made from a terrified woman screaming. Other night creatures combine to make a chorus of sounds that can make the swamp appear to be a place of haunts, demons, and other devilish things.
Travelers have long feared the wilderness. These fears, along with a variety of unexplained happenings, have inspired many myths and wild stories about the place. Since the arrival of the European colonists, men have visited the swamp and returned with distorted imaginations.
Also, here fled wanted men, be they criminals or runaway slaves. Many of these fugitives may have very well been the source of many of the swamps myths. This method was very effective in frightening and preventing bounty hunters from entering the grim wilderness and discovering the truth of many of its dark secrets.
The imagination of the public has been stirred by the stories, songs, and poems set within its ghost-friendly habitat. Some were ghost stories, some focused on the runaway slaves who hid there, and some were related to the Civil War.
One tale of a slave who had escaped to the Dismal Swamp before the Civil War was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His poem of 1842 titled "The Slave in the Dismal Swamp," envisioned a tragic, hunted being living "like a wild beast in his lair." The poem uses six quintain stanzas to tell about the "hunted Negro," mentioning the use of bloodhounds and describing the conditions as being "where hardly a human foot could pass, or a human heart would dare."
"On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!"
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1842)
In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Dismal Swamp (1856), her 1856 sequel to Tom’s Cabin, the fictional son of real life insurrectionist Denmark Vessey escapes slavery and takes refuge in the Great Dismal, venting rage and moral righteousness at whites before he is tracked down by slave hunters.
The Best-Known Great Dismal Swamp Tale
Irish poet Thomas Moore visited the swamp in 1803, before the drainage canal into Chesapeake Bay was completed. He wrote his poem, "A Ballad - The Lake of Dismal Swamp," the best known of the Great Dismal Swamp folk legends, spreading this local tale throughout the English-speaking world. The ghost ballad sparked a tourist boom to the area in the early nineteenth century. Lake Drummond, a moss-green tarn that lies in the very center of the swamp, was the setting for this ballad.
Based on legends about an Indian maid who died just before her wedding and who is periodically seen paddling her ghostly white canoe across the waters of Lake Drummond "by a fire-fly lamp," Moore's poem tells how her bereaved lover came to believe that his lost love had departed her grave and taken to the swamp. He followed her and never returned but ultimately was reunited with his Lady of the Lake in death.
Like all good legends and mysteries, the Lady of the Lake is rooted in reality. Eerie lights in the middle of the night are not uncommon and have been attributed to ghosts, pirates, madmen, or flying saucers. But, foxfire (a luminescence given off by the decaying of wood by certain fungi), burning methane escaping from decomposing vegetation, or smoldering peat are likely causes for these lights.
Through the years, many a hunter and fisherman has claimed to have sighted the ghostly white canoe with its fire-fly lamp. Today, people often come back with stories of strange lights seen on the lake at night. Many have tried to go out on the lake, following the lights, but they seem to move, like someone with a firebrand, going around the shore, searching.
Moore heard the story, or said he did, in Norfolk, Virginia, and wrote his famous poem there in a tavern which still stands in Norfolk's main street. It's interesting to note that the local black guide, whom Moore hired for a day's boating on Lake Drummond, had never heard the legend.
A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp
Written at Norfolk, in Virginia
“They made her a grave, too cold and damp
For a soul so warm and true;
And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.
“And her fire-fly lamp I soon shall see,
And her paddle I soon shall hear;
Long and loving our life shall be,
And I’ll hide the maid in a cypress tree,
When the footstep of death is near.”
Away to the Dismal Swamp he speeds—
His path was rugged and sore,
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds,
Through many a fen where the serpent feeds,
And man never trod before.
And when on the earth he sunk to sleep,
If slumber his eyelids knew,
He lay where the deadly vine doth weep
Its venomous tear and nightly steep
The flesh with blistering dew!
And near him the she-wolf stirr’d the brake,
And the copper-snake breath’d in his ear,
Till he starting cried, from his dream awake,
“Oh! when shall I see the dusky Lake,
And the white canoe of my dear?”
He saw the Lake, and a meteor bright
Quick over its surface play’d—
“Welcome,” he said, “my dear one’s light!”
And the dim shore echoed for many a night
The name of the death-cold maid.
Till he hollow’d a boat of the birchen bark,
Which carried him off from shore;
Far, far he follow’d the meteor spark,
The wind was high and the clouds were dark,
And the boat return’d no more.
But oft, from the Indian hunter’s camp,
This lover and maid so true
Are seen at the hour of midnight damp
To cross the Lake by a fire-fly lamp,
And paddle their white canoe!
A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads derive from the medieval French chanson balladée or ballade, which were originally "dancing songs." Ballads were particularly characteristic of the popular poetry and song of the British Isles from the later medieval period until the 19th century and used extensively across Europe and later the Americas, Australia and North Africa.
Many ballads were written and sold as single sheet broadsides. The form was often used by poets and composers from the 18th century onwards to produce lyrical ballads. In the later 19th century it took on the meaning of a slow form of popular love song and the term is now often used as synonymous with any love song, particularly the pop or rock power ballad.
Thomas Moore's ballad features elements of two popular styles of the time -- Gothic horror and Victorian love-tragedy. He sets the poem in the eerie Great Dismal Swamp as he colors it with vivid description and great imagination.
In the poem, a young man suffers the death of his true love. Maddened by grief, he becomes convinced that she is not dead, but lost in Dismal Swamp, so he goes searching for her amid a rugged, virgin landscape near the Lake of the Dismal Swamp (believed to be inspired by Lake Drummond).
The man plans to hide his true love in a cypress tree where Death can't find her.
"The cypress tree of the Mediterranean is named for Cyparissus, a youth beloved of Apollo who lived in Greek mythology on the Aegean island of Chios. On Chios lived also a sacred stag, with great antlers of gold and adorned in silver and precious stones. The stag was loved by all the island's inhabitants, who fed him and stroked his neck and welcomed him into their homes. The stag was especially loved by Cyparissus, who would lead him through the hills and meadows to springs of fresh water, adorn his horns with garlands of flowers, climb onto his back and ride him laughing through the valleys and across the plains.
"One hot day, however, Cyparissus was out hunting and saw the sacred stag lying in the distant shade among the leaves. Failing to recognize him, Cyparissus shot and killed the stag with an arrow. Grief-stricken upon learning what he had done, the youth prayed to Apollo to be allowed to grieve forever.
"Apollo reluctantly agreed, and turned his beloved friend into the cypress tree so that his place would be to always preside over the grieving of others. From the story of Cyparissus, the cypress came to be known as a tree of mourning, standing over cemeteries and associated with death, eternity, and the underworld.
"In Roman funerals, cypress branches adorned the body while it lay in state and were carried by mourners as a sign of their grief and respect, and to this day when a pope of the Roman Catholic Church dies, he is buried in a casket made from the wood of a cypress tree.
"The Muse of Tragedy, Melpomene, wore a crown of cypress twigs, as did Venus when mourning her lover Adonis."
(Cypress mythology: http://www.mceades.com/jerusalem2/cypress.html)
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was one of the princesses of Troy, daughter of Priam and Hecuba. According to the Myth, Cassandra was astonishingly beautiful and blessed with the gift of foreseeing the future. Her curse was that no one believed her, a fact that weighed heavily on the destruction of Troy during the Trojan War.
There are several different versions explaining the gift and curse of Cassandra. According to one version, Cassandra went to the Temple of Apollo in Troy and his little Temple Snakes licked her ears, allowing her to listen to the future.
This theme is not unknown in Greek Mythology, as the snakes of Apollo have appeared in different myths and versions, allowing people to foresee the future and understand the language of animals.
Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy by the Greeks; when the Trojans found the big wooden horse outside the gates of their city Cassandra told them that Greeks will destroy them if they bring the horse in the city. The historical facts are not clear but the famous phrase “Beware of Danaos (Greeks) bearing gifts” belongs to her, although there are also different versions about this phrase as well, since it was stated by different persons in tragedy “Ajax” and Virgil’s “Aeneid”. No one in Troy believed her, and the horse was admitted in the city, with the known results for Troy.
The Cassandra Syndrome is a modern syndrome and metaphor recognized by experts; the Cassandra syndrome or complex, which is applied in cases of valid alarms which are disbelieved.
Waking from a dream, the man cries out an anguished plea for help. A meteor lights up the lake he has been seeking and "the dim shore echoed for many a night the name of the death-cold maid." Of course, the symbol of the meteor and its connection with the guiding "fire-fly lamp" are indications of the whereabouts of the "death-cold maid."
Shooting stars in particular hold a special place with the cosmic mythologies of most ancient civilizations. For the falling star represents an interaction between man and the divine. It represents something moving from a heavenly cosmic plain to the mortal, earthly world.
Falling stars have traditionally had a myriad of metaphysical and spiritual meanings behind them as well. Stars are, in particular, frequently associated with the idea of the human soul. In the Teutonic mythology of central Europe, it was believed that every person was represented by a star which was attached to the ceiling of the sky by the threads of fate. And when Fate ended your story on earth, she would snip the thread attaching your star and it would fall, presaging your death.
The falling star represents the soul’s final journey to the afterlife as it is being blown out and across the sky by the divine candle keepers.
Some Native American tribes thought that a meteor falling to the horizon meant death to someone close to them like the chief. The Shawnee believed that it was a warrior being released or running away from danger. While other tribes believed that it was a person's soul going onto the afterlife.
Many cultures venerated meteor rocks as powerful magical talisman, sent from the sky gods to the denizens of earth. The ancient Greeks believed that finding one would bring you a year’s worth of good luck and a wish; and it is from them that we have ultimately inherited the idea of wishing upon a star. Native American medicine men have been known to wear them as protective amulets, passing them down through generation after generation of shaman as symbols of their power.
Even in the modern world, a meteorite is one of the most venerated objects in contemporary monotheistic religious practices: the Black Stone of the Ka’baa. Believed to have been sent from God to Abraham and then passed down to Mohammad, the Ka’baa stone is technically a relic of all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and is the centerpiece of the holiest of holy Mosques in Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia, a former temple to the local Moon/Water God.
The ballad ends with proliferation of the ghost story and legend of The Lake of the Dismal Swamp. Since the disappearance of the "lover and the maid," people who dare spend a night at the "Indian hunter's camp" often see the midnight vision of the two paddling a white canoe and its strange fire-fly lamp.