The First Survey in the Dismal Swamp

Author: William Byrd  | Date: 1729

The First Survey in the Dismal Swamp

SOME borders, too, had a great mind to know where the line would come out, being for the most part apprehensive lest their lands should be taken into Virginia. In that case they must have submitted to some sort of order and government; whereas, in North Carolina, every one does what seems best in his own eyes. There were some good women that brought their children to be baptized, but brought no capons along with them to make the solemnity cheerful. In the mean time it was strange that none came to be married in such a multitude, if it had only been for the novelty of having their hands joined by one in holy orders. Yet so it was, that though our chaplain christened above an hundred, he did not marry so much as one couple during the whole expedition. But marriage is reckoned a lay contract in Carolina, as I said before, and a country justice can tie the fatal knot there, as fast as an archbishop.

None of our visitors could, however, tell us any news of the surveyors, nor indeed was it possible any of them should at that time, they being still laboring in the midst of the Dismal.

It seems they were able to carry the line this day no further than one mile and sixty-one poles, and that whole distance was through a miry cedar bog, where the ground trembled under their feet most frightfully. In many places, too, their passage was retarded by a great number of fallen trees, that lay horsing upon one another.

Though many circumstances concurred to make this an unwholesome situation, yet the poor men had no time to be sick, nor can one conceive a more calamitous case than it would have been to be laid up in that uncomfortable quagmire. Never were patients more tractable, or willing to take physic, than these honest fellows; but it was from a dread of laying their bones in a bog that would spew them up again. That consideration also put them upon more caution about their lodging.

They first covered the ground with square pieces of cypress bark, which now, in the spring, they could easily slip off the tree for that purpose. On this they spread their bedding; but unhappily the weight and warmth of their bodies made the water rise up betwixt the joints of the bark, to their great inconvenience, Thus they lay not only moist, but also exceedingly cold, because their fires were continually going out. For no sooner was the trash upon the surface burnt away, but immediately the fire was extinguished by the moisture of the soil, insomuch that it was great part of the sentinel’s business to rekindle it again in a fresh place, every quarter of an hour. Nor could they indeed do their duty better, because cold was the only enemy they had to guard against in a miserable morass, where nothing can inhabit.

We could get no tidings yet of our brave adventurers, notwithstanding we dispatched men to the likeliest stations to inquire after them. They were still scuffling in the mire, and could not possibly forward the line this whole day more than one mile and sixty-four chains. Every step of this day’s work was through a cedar bog, where the trees were somewhat smaller and grew more into a thicket It was now a great misfortune to the men to find their provisions grow less as their labor grew greater; they were all forced to come to short allowance, and consequently to work hard without filling their bellies. Though this was very severe upon English stomachs, yet the people were so far from being discomfited at it, that they still kept up their good-humor, and merrily told a young fellow in the company, who looked very plump and wholesome, that he must expect to go first to pot, if matters should come to extremity.

This was only said by way of jest, yet it made him thoughtful in earnest. However, for the present he returned them a very civil answer, letting them know that, dead or alive, he should be glad to be useful to such worthy good friends. But, after all, this humorous saying had one very good effect, for that younker, who before was a little inclined by his constitution to be lazy, grew on a sudden extremely industrious, that so there might be less occasion to carbonade him for the good of his fellow-travelers....

The surveyors and their attendants began now in good earnest to be alarmed with apprehensions of famine, nor could they forbear looking with some sort of appetite upon a dog that had been the faithful companion of their travels.

Their provisions were now near exhausted. They had this morning made the last distribution, that so each might husband his small pittance as he pleased. Now it was that the fresh colored young man began to tremble every joint of him, having dreamed, the night before, that the Indians were about to barbecue him over live coals.

The prospect of famine determined the people, at last, with one consent, to abandon the line for the present, which advanced but slowly, and make the best of their way to firm land. Accordingly they sat off very early, and, by the help of the compass which they carried along with them, steered a direct westerly course. They marched from morning till night, and computed their journey to amount to about four miles, which was a great way, considering the difficulties of the ground. It was all along a cedar-swamp, so dirty and perplexed, that if they had not traveled for their lives, they could not have reached so far.

On their way they espied a turkey-buzzard, that flew prodigeously high to get above the noisome exhalations that ascend from that filthy place. This they were willing to understand as a good omen, according to the superstition of the ancients, who had great faith in the flight of vultures. However, after all this tedious journey, they could yet discover no end of their toil, which made them very pensive, especially after they had eat the last morsel of their provisions. But to their unspeakable comfort, when all was hushed in the evening, they heard the cattle low, and the dogs bark, very distinctly, which, to men in that distress, was more delightful music than Faustina or Farinelli could have made. In the mean time the commissioners could get no news of them from any of their visitors, who assembled from every point of the compass.

However long we might think the time, yet we were cautious of showing our uneasiness, for fear of mortifying our landlord. He had done his best for us, and therefore we were unwilling he should think us dissatisfied with our entertainment. In the midst of our concern, we were most agreeably surprised, just after dinner, with the news that the Dismalites were all safe. These blessed tidings were brought to us by Mr. Swan, the Carolina surveyor, who came to us in a very tattered condition.

After very short salutations, we got about him as if he had been a Hottentot, and began to inquire into his adventures. He gave us a detail of their uncomfortable voyage through the Dismal, and told us, particularly, they had pursued their journey early that morning, encouraged by, the good omen of seeing the crows fly over their heads; that, after an hour’s march over very rotten ground, they, on a sudden, began to find themselves among tall pines, that grew in the water, which in many places was knee-deep. This pine swamp, into which that of Coropeak drained itself, extended near a mile in breadth; and though it was exceedingly wet, yet it was much harder at bottom than the rest of the swamp; that about ten in the morning they recovered firm land, which they embraced with as much pleasure as shipwrecked wretches do the shore.

After these honest adventurers had congratulated each other’s deliverance, their first inquiry was for a good house, where they might satisfy the importunity of their stomachs. Their good genius directed them to Mr. Brinkley’s, who dwells a little to the southward of the line. This man began immediately to be very inquisitive, but they declared they had no spirits to answer questions till after dinner.

"But pray, gentlemen," said he, "answer me one question, at least: what shall we get for your dinner?" To which they replied, "No matter what, provided it be but enough." He kindly supplied their wants as soon as possible, and by, the strength of that refreshment they made a shift to come to us in the evening, to tell their own story. They all looked very thin, and as ragged as the Gibeonite ambassadors did in the days of yore. Our surveyors told us they had measured ten miles in the Dismal, and computed the distance they had marched since to amount to about five more, so they made the whole breadth to be fifteen miles in all.

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Chicago: William Byrd, The First Survey in the Dismal Swamp Original Sources, accessed July 15, 2024,

MLA: Byrd, William. The First Survey in the Dismal Swamp, Original Sources. 15 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Byrd, W, The First Survey in the Dismal Swamp. Original Sources, retrieved 15 July 2024, from