“An interesting letter from the Old Dominion” (1858)

The Great Dismal Swamp Canal, October 24, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton. All rights reserved.

“In obedience to promise, I drop you a few lines relating to that portion of the ‘Old Dominion’ of which I am now an inhabitant.

This is generally styled the ‘Sunny South,’ but, had I named it, from my short experience, I should deem ‘Rainy South’ much more appropriate. I have been here fourteen days, and the sun has shown during two days and a half of that time. If is too warm for fire, and too damp without, consequently one is kept in a continual perspiration.

Suffolk contains a population of about 1,500, but nevertheless has recently been incorporated a city, electing a Mayor, etc. It was one of the first settlements in Virginia, as I learned to-day by reference to the records in the County Clerk’s office. The courteous clerk gave me ample opportunity to gratify my curiosity, in looking over the old deeds and papers—the earliest of which bear date in the year 1666. I have often seen fac simile signatures of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry—but was gratified to-day in viewing their originals, appended to documents while they respectively held the office of Governor of Virginia.

One often sees, in ancient graveyards, epitaphs that appear ridiculous, and not unfrequently cause us a hearty laugh, at the plain expressions of earlier days. Even so was I amused by a record, which I took from one of the books that contained the proceedings of the Circuit Court. It is as follows, verbatim et literatim:

‘At a Court held in Nansemond County, January 12th, 1699, Daniel Sullivan, the Clerk, being ill of ye Gripes, which makes him incapable to attend this Court, therefore ye Court adjourns to ye 22d instant, in hopes he may be then able to give his attendance. Adjourned.’

By turning to the next sitting of the Court, held on the 22d instant, I was happy at receiving that Mr. Sullivan had so far recovered from the gripes as to be present—consequently the Court proceeded with its business.

Distant from Suffolk, only two miles, lies the great Dismal Swamp, rendered somewhat famous by the writings of H. B. Stowe, and the drawings of Porte Crayon, the latter appearing in a recent number of Harper’s Magazine. Its name is proper in every respect, as it is the most dismal place I ever saw. In it abound deer, black bears, some of the latter of which are taken weighing over four hundred pounds, wild cats and rattlesnakes. Neither the bears or wild cats are dangerous, unless by wounding one his cries bring others to the rescue. On the contrary they are very shy, and at the sound of the human voice beat a speedy retreat. After you get some ten miles into the interior of the swamp, a sheet of water, beautiful and romantic in the extreme, called Lake Drummond, suddenly bursts upon the view.

Lake Drummond, as it appeared to David Hunter Strother, aka “Porte Crayon.” Harper’s Magazine, 1856.

It is seven miles long and five miles wide. In it abound fish of most excellent quality, which are taken in abundance, thereby rendering it a favorite resort from excursionists, some of whom often spend weeks there. The water taken from the springs adjacent to the lake resembles very much French brandy, being highly impregnated with the Juniper berry. Large quantities are sent to the Richmond, Norfolk and Baltimore markets—it being recommended for its remedial properties.

The swamp is also a great, as well as safe, resort for runaway slaves, and I am told it is full of them. They are seldom caught, though frequently seen, as they are generally of a desperate character, and the whites do not care to risk their lives in attempting their apprehension. Sometimes they come out in the night and drive off cattle, which they kill for their sustenance—consequently planters on the borders suffer keenly from their depredations. I am told they are sometimes met and recognized, but as the trees are so thick you cannot see ten feet ahead, disappear, undisputed sovereigns of the dismal locality.

Maroon Osman, as depicted by David Hunter Strother, “Porte Crayon.” Harper’s Magazine, 1856.

As much as I can learn from the political world, I should judge Mr. Letcher to be quite unpopular—being considered, an Abolitionist—which is sufficient to warrant his defeat, should he be proved such. 2 This is no place for Abolitionists, the sentiment in favor of Slavery here being very strong and decided. Yours truly, Invalid.”

Additional images from David Hunter Strother’s trip through the Great Dismal Swamp, written for Harper’s Magazine, 1856.


Sources consulted: Harpers’s Magazine, 1856. Hathitrust.org; The Times Union (Brooklyn, New York), 18 December 1858, p. 2, c. 2; image copy, Newspapers (https://www.newspapers.com : accessed 5 May 2020).

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