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Nansemond Indian Nation: Looking for Ancestors in the Great Dismal Swamp

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The Nansemond Indian Nation has a deep connection to the Great Dismal Swamp. Oral histories date back to the late 1800s but then disappear from colonial pressures to assimilate.

Still, tribal members who grew up by the Swamp maintain ancestral hunting and trapping traditions. But there is someone who has discovered ancient Indigenous artifacts in the Great Dismal Swamp, some dating back 8,000 years.

Ancestral Hunting Grounds

"My great-grandfather, Jesse Bass, he would take hunting parties and go up in them canals and they would camp and stay in the Dismal Swamp and hunt for weeks at a time because it was so hard to get up in there," Phil Hatton remembers.

"And back then, they didn’t have automatic shotguns all they had was single barrels or double-barrels. And they say my grandfather could shoot a single-barrel shot gun just as fast as anybody could shoot an automatic. He kept shotgun shells between his fingers when he walked through the woods. And he could take a single-barrel and throw them shells in there and shoot just like an automatic shotgun - it was a single barrel. Cuz you didn’t get many opportunities to get a shot on something, so when you did, you made sure you did everything to kill it."

"My great-grandfather was known for having connections in town and all and they never worried about getting in trouble. About during that time they started having game laws and game wardens and all and they would start limiting your season and you couldn’t shoot does and all that. But my grandparents and all they didn’t believe, they were hunting for food. They didn’t care about no laws. You killed because you needed it to eat, you know," Hatton says.

Phil Hatton is sitting by the fire in the great room of his house, surrounded by hunting trophies. His blaze orange hoodie has his hunt club insignia, a grey ponytail descends from the back of his ball cap. Up on a wall is a portrait of his grandfather, my uncle, former Nansemond Chief Earl Bass, holding a peace pipe and dressed in regalia. The portrait is flanked by two black bearskins.

Like me, Phil is an avid deer hunter, a survival skill instilled in us when we were little, passed down from generations of Basses. Chief Earl learned how to hunt from his father, my grandfather, Chief Jesse Bass.

"They used a cow horn and would blow that cow horn like a trumpet," Hatton says, "and that how they called the dogs back out of the woods."

The Great Dismal Swamp was our ancestral hunting grounds. It’s where we learned to hunt.

Chief Emeritus Sam Bass talks about the Great Dismal Swamp during a walk in the woods at his Tribe’s headquarters at Mattanock Town in Suffolk, Va.
Pamela D'Angelo
Chief Emeritus Sam Bass talks about the Great Dismal Swamp during a walk in the woods at his Tribe’s headquarters at Mattanock Town in Suffolk, Va.

If you haven’t heard of the Nansemond Indian Nation, it’s probably because Indigenous communities in Virginia were nearly wiped out, our lands stolen and, for a time, we were erased from state records. We lost most of our history. But we’re preserving and building on what’s left. Part of that is our strong connection to The Great Dismal Swamp.

In this episode I’m going to tell you about the Swamp from the stories we have preserved and history we are still learning. And we’re going to hear, for the first time, about artifacts discovered in the Dismal Swamp that will reveal an important story in our history.

I’m Sam Bass, Chief Emeritus of the Nansemond Indian Nation, and this is Tribal Truths.

The Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp used to be a little bigger than the size of Rhode Island. One million acres stretching from southeast coastal North Carolina up to our ancestral towns in Virginia along the Nansemond River. Early maps show it as vast unexplored territory. Today, all that’s left is a 14,000-acre state park in North Carolina and the 115,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

Click here to learn more about the Great Dismal Swamp

Chris Lowie has been managing the Refuge for 17 years. He drives on logging roads that are centuries old. "This particular piece of land was all owned by former timber companies because the swamp has always been a forested wetland," Lowie says, "and timber companies would log the Atlantic white cedar, bald cypress and other forest products out of the swamp."

When timber operations started here, it was enslaved people who were forced to drain the swamp and harvest ancient trees for shipbuilding and shingles. And it was our country’s first president, George Washington, who had the idea to do it. The land passed to new owners and eventually a large piece to Union Camp Corporation in 1909. When the land was exhausted, Union Camp handed it over for conservation. It became a refuge in 1974.

"One of the things we know about the Indigenous peoples, particularly the Nansemond Tribe, is over on the Chesapeake Virginia side of the refuge that they lived in that area of Deep Creek, Chesapeake and have a lot of history there," Lowie notes.

The Great Dismal Swamp started out under the ocean, millions of years ago. The sea retreated, eventually becoming the Atlantic Ocean. That left behind lush marsh and green hills where ancient people migrated. Then, some 12,000 years ago, it became a swamp. But keep those hills in mind, because we’re going to come back to them later.

Our Tribe passed on our history through storytelling, but colonists made us assimilate to their way of life. So, our stories were lost.

Helen Rountree helped us to find out about our past. On a recent visit to our tribe at Mattanock Town, she described our tribe’s settlements. "The Nansemond Tribe originally had as their townsites some of the better agricultural sites along the Nansemond River on both sides. And away from the river, which was the center of their territory, not the boundary of it. They were foraging," Rountree says. "Men and women both had things they were getting in the forest and also in the swamps because there’s a surprising number of edible things, and also quite a few animals including deer, living in the swamps."

Our fight with colonists began in 1609, when they burned our temple and stole our food. In retaliation, our warriors left their dead with bread stuffed in their mouths, to signal our contempt. But more colonists kept coming.

Helen Rountree continues the story: "And by about 1648, this is after the third Anglo-Powhatan war, things were so difficult that they simply abandoned what little land they had left in the Nansemond Valley and headed out. It is a fairly common thing for Indian people, if they want to retain a reasonably traditional way of living but they don’t want to go too far from their original territory, so not going to 'head West young man' at all. They are going to head to the nearest swamp. You want a good big one. And the Dismal Swamp would be that. There are not only animals and plants that you can eat but there are also things called hammocks in swamps where the land is a little bit higher and you’re going to get your deciduous trees there’s your nuts. And they can actually clear a bit and they can raise corn in the swamp, that’s possible. That’s how come you can get Maroon, as it’s called, Maroon refugee colonies in swamps. And the Dismal Swamp has always said to have those. That’s an area where nobody in their right mind, if they’re English, is going to try to bother you."

Modern-day Warriors

As Helen said, some of us fled to the Swamp. Some traveled through it to other places like North Carolina. But we don’t have those stories. My uncle, Chief Earl Bass, said his father Jesse would never talk about it. Some of us who were able to stay, settled in a community called Bowers Hill where we had our own school and church.

Colonists described our warriors as tall and imposing. You can see those features in some tribal members today. Phil and I are reminded of Chief Jesse Bass who towered over the men around him.

 An old newspaper clipping retells the time Lindsey Bass, a renowned Virginia boxer, staggered champion Jack Dempsey.
An old newspaper clipping retells the time Lindsey Bass, a renowned Virginia boxer, staggered champion Jack Dempsey.

We like to tell the story about Jesse’s son, Lindsey Lee Bass, a modern-day warrior.
He was renowned in the local boxing circuit during the 1920’s. They called him “the Portsmouth Thunderbolt,” and he beat marines, sailors, soldiers and drifters. He even sent heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, the “Manassa Mauler” reeling and dazed to the corner during a training camp sparring match. Dempsey recovered and gave my uncle a shellacking. Still Lindsey remained a threat. Again, here’s my cousin Phil Hatton. "He was to fight for the championship in New York. For World Championship Boxing. And they poisoned him. They always ate a steak before the fight, and somebody poisoned his steak. He was fighting Jack Dempsey. That’s how he didn’t get the Championship because of that."

Click here to learn more about Nansemond Tribal history

My uncle recovered and went on fighting. But this was a time of white supremacy and Virginia went a step further by stripping Indigenous people of their identities with a law called the Racial Integrity Act. None of the newspaper articles mention his Nansemond heritage.

"To be an Indian wasn’t something that you promoted back in the days when my grandfather and great-grandfather were, because they treated them just like they do the Black people. They shunned them," Hatton relates. "They had a lot of laws back then you know, Black people couldn’t use the same restrooms, the same restaurants and all that. Even sitting on the bus my grandfather said when they got on the bus they had to go to the back of the bus. They weren’t allowed to sit up there. Because of that, being put in that category, they suppressed themselves as being Indians they didn’t promote it like they do now. They didn’t let people know they were Indians, you know. So that’s kind of why they disbanded and they didn’t stay as a good group anymore. And once times changed and everything and that wasn’t an issue anymore, then that’s when the Nansemonds all got back together and started the Tribe back up."


In 1985 we got our state recognition and federal recognition in 2018. With federal recognition we’ve been able to acquire some of our ancestral lands. Tribal members scattered from Virginia to North Carolina and beyond are finding their way back home. Some say their ancestors used the Dismal Swamp to hide and to escape to North Carolina.

Desmond Ellsworth, an award-winning artist, has brought traditional basket making back to his Tribe.
Pamela D'Angelo
Desmond Ellsworth, an award-winning artist, has brought traditional basket making back to his Tribe.

Desmond Ellsworth’s family always knew they were Native but didn’t know their history. Desmond used genealogy to discover his Nansemond roots. But it wasn’t easy. He was attending our Pow Wow when he talked about what he found in the research. "So, my family moved from Granville County to Halifax County North Carolina, which is home to the Halawa-Saponi. And my family integrated to the Halawa-Saponi community," Ellsworth relates. "And along with that, other Bass descendants are in Occoneechee Tribe. Occoneechee-Saponi Nation of North Carolina you have those and the Lumbee Tribe, today. The Wacamaw. We are in all these different Tribes and this just shows they went to other Native communities and intermingled with them and integrated and created their own identity."

Desmond is an award-winning basket maker who brings an ancestral tradition back to our Tribe. He talked about baskets that would have been made and used in the Swamp. "So, traditionally baskets would have been made out of either hemp for like a twine basket or either like a twill basket. Twill baskets are done out of river cane or white oak. The oldest known basket I have seen from a Nansemond person is a white oak basket. So, say if I was going out there collecting berries and things, cuz you do have a lot of berries in the Dismal Swamp. I literally would just make a nice little pouch basket and put my blackberries in there, which is a way to bring food back. You also can use the baskets to wash the things you bring in because the baskets don’t hold water. You can literally put your food in there, drop it in, bring it up, just like a colander we have now. So basketry is more like our modern-day plastic."

Hunting in the Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp is defined by thousands of acres wrapped in a tangle of forest, reeds and vines. Woods are pooled in shallow water made dark by the peat underneath it, though occasionally underwater holes can sink an unsuspecting wanderer. At the heart of the refuge lies the largest of only two natural lakes in Virginia – Lake Drummond. Here too the water is shallow and rust-colored from the trees and peat.

Historic canals and dirt logging roads scar the once pristine peat bogs and forests, drained and denuded of ancient juniper and bald cypress trees. Animals were affected too. Including native wolves, which were wiped out by colonists.

Today, there are deer, turkey, and raccoon. And there are residents of the swamp you likely won’t see. Water moccasins, snapping turtles and bobcats along with the largest concentration of black bears on the East Coast.

What will get you, depending on the season, the endless buzzing of bloodsucking insects.

People can, and still do on occasion, get lost.

Unless, like Phil says, you know the swamp. "In the Dismal Swamp, everything is flat, everything looks the same. My grandfather, he would tell me as a young kid driving dogs going through the woods, 'follow that ridge and go through that ridge.' I’d say, 'Grandaddy, there’s no ridge. It’s all flat.' He said, 'No that’s higher land, you’ve got to look at the plants that’s growing there, different plants grow in those areas where the lands are a little higher and not as wet and that’s what I’m calling a ridge.' So he showed me what plants to look for. He said, 'You just follow them kinda plants. When you don’t see those plants any more, you’re getting off the ridge. Get back on that ridge.' And you follow that ridge and that’s where most of the game were on them high ridges where it wasn’t wet. And that’s how I learned how to hunt was in the swamp doing that."

Chief Jesse Bass at the bow of a john boat loaded with hunting dogs. He often guided groups of hunters for longer trips on a barge up canals in the Great Dismal Swamp. (circa 1930s)
Chief Jesse Bass at the bow of a john boat loaded with hunting dogs. He often guided groups of hunters for longer trips on a barge up canals in the Great Dismal Swamp. (circa 1930s)

Back during the 20s when they lived beside the Swamp, the Basses’ were often hired as hunting guides. "The railroad tracks was right beside the house," Phil Hatton remembers. "Where the Norfolk and Suffolk Railroad that goes through the swamp. So we lived right there and that was their main corridor to get them up into the swamp was the railroad. They had what they called 'putt putt cars.' See they had three wheels on them and they were light enough where they could just pick up the two wheels and spin it around to get it back on the tracks to go in the opposite direction. And they had little motors on them that 'putt putt putt' when they go up and down the track and that’s what they used a lot of times you know to get the game in and out. They would give them some meat for helping them transport and get the game out of the woods, the guys that worked on the railroads."

During the 60’s, my father’s brother, Earl Bass, wanted to know if I wanted to go raccoon hunting with him. I did go.

We went into the Dismal Swamp, it was dark, it was night time. So my uncle handed me a battery-powered light and said, “look, when this raccoon gets up in the tree and the dogs are running him, and he gets up on the tree, you point the light at where you see eyes up the tree.” And he or someone else, would shoot the raccoon out of the tree.

So, with that journey into the Dismal Swamp, tripping, falling, briars hitting me in the face, catching the whole of my ear, suddenly falling behind my Uncle Earl. He says, “Look boy, shine that light up in the tree until you see some eyes looking back at you.”

“Yes sir,” I said.

I shined the light, started at the base, went on up in the tree to where I could envision a fork up on the tree. And at the point that the light hit the eyes, what was in that tree, jumped towards me, towards the light. I fell back into the swamp, the mud, the water. The bald cypress knees, one hit me on my shoulder. And the animal ran off and got away. My uncle came to my aid, helped me get up. I was wet. He said, “boy, do you know what that was?”

I said, “no sir. I didn’t know a raccoon could jump like that.”

“Oh, it wasn’t a raccoon. It was a bobcat.”

When I got home, in the early hours of the morning. I told my father, “don’t ask me to go raccoon hunting any more. That’s my last time.” And since then, I’ve never been raccoon hunting again and don’t have a desire to.

Nansemond Assistant Chief Dave Hennaman also grew up near the swamp. Dave is an avid hunter and skilled trapper. As he talks he shuffles through old photos of his father who used to fish for snapping turtles in Lake Drummond and in the canals. "Each of these poles would be individually set with a piece of eel on it. Sometimes there would be up to 300. And they would catch snapping turtles. They would be put in this truck and sold for the market. Campbell’s bought turtles and made turtle soup, it used to be marketed."

Small Pieces of History

These stories are how we are passing on our history to our children. Older records were destroyed by wars and fires. But we are finding small pieces of history that tell us that some of the Nansemond spent hundreds of years in and around the Great Dismal Swamp. There are a few written accounts of our Tribe bear-hunting and wolf-trapping as well as our use of dugout canoes. Some ancient Indigenous artifacts have been found by farmers and collectors outside the refuge in the original footprint of the Swamp. But it’s inside the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge that likely holds answers to how our ancestors lived hundreds and even thousands of years before explorers and colonists arrived.

And there is one anthropologist who has been to some of the hills or as he calls them islands inside the Swamp. He was there to find the remnants of escaped enslaved communities and other people known as Maroons who lived deep in the Swamp. But he made another discovery.

It’s just after dark when our chief, Keith Anderson, walks into a lab in the Anthropology Department at American University in Washington, D.C. He’s dressed in a suit, a name tag still strung around his neck from his day at a nearby regional tribal conference. He embodies those historic descriptions of Nansemond warriors we talked about earlier - tall and imposing. Like most of our Tribe, without knowing him, you’d never guess his culture.

He’s meeting with Dan Sayers, an associate professor of anthropology. Dan is the only person who's ever been granted permission to do an archeological survey of some of the islands inside the Great Dismal Swamp. Here’s our Chief Anderson with Dan.

"So what do you think as far as if you are not an enslaved person, would the quality of life for a person living in the Swamp be better than say, being at Jamestown," Anderson asks?

"Yes," Sayers responds. "Let’s put it this way. I think that the people who lived out there stayed out there because of that fact and others. It was a better life."

Dan’s work began back in 2001 as a graduate student. Since then he’s written a book and lectures about the communities that lived in the Swamp from 1607 up to just after the Civil War. He’s spent a lot of time in the Swamp.

"So, the swamp is really...it’s an amazing place. And it is kind of what you’d expect from a swamp but at the same time it’s really unique, I think, compared to some of the other swamps we’re very used to seeing in photos. The tree growth is very thick," Sayers explains. "You don’t have ten or 20 feet of standing water in between two giant trees. It’s very, very like a, it’s almost like claustrophobic in some places because you’re just kind of walking barely shoulder-width between trees. And even then you have the vines and all the undergrowth so. But you have the standing water, usually. It’s an intermittent swamp, so sometimes the water is lower, sometimes it’s higher. But in any case, so you’re walking through this – at least in my experience – let’s just call it knee high water. If you’re lucky it only stays knee high. And you’re walking on peat. So the peat is it’s own unique form of peat in the world, it’s called Dismal Swamp Peat and it’s as thick as 20 to 30 feet in places of the swamp. But you’re walking on top of it. There’s water on top of it, the water is real dark brown because of the peat. And so there’s this amazing feel. And I’ve gone out there all seasons of the year now across my life. Summer, well, it’s actually worse than you’d actually expect. In terms of the heat, the humidity, the bugs, so on and so forth, but it creates a different feel because of all the leaves that are on the trees and so on, but once you go out in the winter you know it’s a much more, it’s almost haunting in its way, the feel of it."

"Yeah, it’s one of my favorite places," Chief Anderson adds, "especially going to Lake Drummond, that’s a whole spot in itself, you know. Just seeing the color of the water and all. And again I always wonder when I walk down Jericho Ditch or Washington’s Ditch, sometimes I take these trips and just wonder, you know the people who were there, regardless of European or Native, the Maroons and what they went through and you know was it a good life, was it a bad life? Every time I go there, I just feel like, not a bad vibe but you just feel that, they did something special. And I’ve taken walks and just seen like just bundles of butterflies just come out of the woods and I just say, wow, that’s pretty unique. It’s just got, just a very unique vibe to it. I just think there’s a strong spiritual connection."

Dan’s initial work focused on finding artifacts left behind by people escaping enslavement known as Maroons who began moving into the swamp in large numbers around 1680. But with research he realized there were other refugees living in the swamp, including Indigenous people. "Yes, it’s possible that you had separate communities of Maroons. And over here in the Swamp you had indigenous people. It’s possible, but the way humans are, I don’t think so. I think this would have been, at least eventually most of the period I’m looking at, it would have been people of mixed backgrounds coming and forming communities. New people coming in, sure, but they’re meeting and joining people that are already a couple of generations in."

Along a wall in the lab is a wooden cabinet. The drawers are filled with thousands of ancient artifacts from long before colonists arrived.

"So I wanted to show you this first. All this material. These are all artifacts in bags. So a lot of it’s air, is what I’m getting at ultimately. It’s artifacts in bags within bags within bags. Still, in all of these we probably had something, I have to look at my inventory, something like 8,000 artifacts," Sayers notes.

Dan Sayers hands an artifact to Chief Keith Anderson.
Pamela D'Angelo
Dan Sayers hands an artifact to Chief Keith Anderson.

On hills that rose from the ancient ocean when it receded, Dan found Indigenous artifacts dating back 8,000 years. "That’s what I think these islands are in many cases. It’s these old hills that the swamp rose up around but never rose quite as high as the hills are. So now they look like islands when you walk around in the peat and the brown water."

Those islands, we know as hills are the places we talked about earlier. Where my cousin Phil we learned to hunt. And where Chief Earl Bass and his father hunted. And while those skills have been passed on there’s very little we know of our ancient ancestors and their connection to the swamp. Again, here’s Chief Anderson. "Unfortunately, we don’t have any elders that can kind of relate stories and that type of thing. We just don’t have an influx of that. Which is sad and I wish we did have more of it."

Dan has laid out a few dozen bags on a long table and opens one for Chief Anderson to see. Some artifacts were found in the roots of trees toppled by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, others at excavations of former Maroon communities.

"One of the things we know about the Dismal and the islands in the Dismal is generally we can be sure that if you find stone, rock bigger than say your pinky or thumbnail, a human brought it in. It might have been 8,000 years ago, or whatever, but stone much bigger than that doesn’t occur naturally. So we know therefore that this was brought in," he explains.

He hands what looks like an ordinary stone to Chief Anderson. "I happened to find all these deeper in the soils and I think almost all of these from tree falls, most of them. These are going to be ancient stone tools and ceramics that just sitting there, I find them. They were they were dropped by the original makers."

Dropped by the original makers. Until they were picked up by Dan. But most of them, the Maroons found first.

"What we found out there in excavations especially in the Swamp interior, they were going to these islands and finding a way to live out there and thrive but one of the key aspects of how they did that was by finding ancient tools reviving them, so to speak, in their own lives. And they might find an arrowhead from the ancient ones and then 'oh I don’t need one, I need a knife blade,' so they’d chip away one edge. And that day in 1680 they now are using it as a knife blade. They might chip it a couple of more times to sharpen it up," Sayers explains.

On one island Dan located where Maroons built cabins. He also found some ancient tools. But not where you might think. "Basically, they were put in intentionally in the cabin foundations. Dig a hole to put a post in and in one case they’ll drop in a reworked tool. So if you find an old biface or arrowhead you’re going use that and keep chipping away at it until there’s really not much left. Those bags over there, most of the artifacts in them are smaller than your pinky now."

Given there was no rock on the island, the tools may have been used to help support the foundation posts. But Dan has a different interpretation. "I think in this case that intentionally depositing stones tools are like an inch, inch-and-a-half, I think there’s more of a symbolic dimension to it. It had a meaning. Because otherwise they’re using everything down to little nubs. The people who came to these islands in the swamp interior and they were resisting that outside world, they were forming these communities, they were finding ancient one’s tools and things, they understood that those ancient people were helping them. Now, I’m not saying they were historians and had a calendar date in mind, but they knew ancient people left behind the hammer stone or this old arrowhead. And they kind of just basically put a little bit of themselves into it."

"This was a process of a kinship and acknowledging the people who were there and to give them the resources to build," Chief Anderson adds.

"And the house was their home," Sayers says. "And it was very important and so I can totally see it where it becomes part of a community tradition that when we first put a cabin in this location we’re going to deposit something that has a little bit of the ancient ones and a little bit of us and it connects our house and our life here."

"That’s awesome," Chief Anderson adds.

It is awesome. But this led to another question.

"Have anyone found cemeteries or grave sites that you know of in those areas," Chief Anderson asks?

"No, no. We found nothing like that," Sayers answers. "Not even anything that made me think of it in a sense, out there. I’ve no doubt they’re out there, but we just didn’t find it."

There have been a few other surveys but the thousands of artifacts Dan found represent just a peek into in a vast, rich area once occupied and used by many Indigenous communities.

"I’ve done the equivalent of pick up one grain of sand in a whole beach or shoreline of knowledge that you could have of people there," Sayers says.

Still Searching

It’s early spring and the wind is blowing cold and hard as a trio of archeologists survey a freshly plowed farm field at the Jericho entrance to the Dismal Swamp refuge. Chris Lowie, the Great Dismal Swamp refuge manager, who we met earlier, watches as they push soil through a screen to find artifacts. Most are pieces of brick and glass from the turn of the last century.

"This is where people inhabited the area, the outskirts of the Swamp," Chris Lowie says.

Outside the refuge, on the original footprint of the Swamp, land has been plowed or developed. And that disturbs potential archeological sites. So, whatever artifacts that may have been found like here at this farm field, were likely picked up ages ago, vanishing into private collections.

"The islands that were once inhabited here in the Swamp are inaccessible," Lowie notes. "We don’t promote where these islands are. Because of the artifacts, we don’t want looters. But we just try to tell that they’re here and that’s where we know people lived."

As important as logging was to the local economy, the industry left the Swamp vulnerable to huge wildfires and flooding that goes into nearby neighborhoods. Assistant Chief Dave Hennaman remembers a particular day in the early 1960s when he was visiting his Aunt Sadie Bass in Franklin. "She was working in the garden and had been hoeing and she stood up and looked around and stretched her back and smelled the air. And she told me, 'Well the Swamp’s on fire,' because she could tell from the smell that that’s what it was instead of just a woods fire or something else she could tell that was the peat moss burning."

Big fires that sent smoke into other states happened on a regular basis.

"And the ditches, that’s what the intent was, to drain out the swamp to where the timber could be gotten out," Dave Hennaman says. "When the swamp levels would go down and the water levels would back away, the peat moss would go a long depth in the ground, it would be very, very deep. And if it caught on fire, which was typical of lightening strikes, possibly hunters, and it would set the swamp on fire. And the peat would burn for long periods of time until the water levels came back in and saturated it because it would be burning so deep in the ground."

The refuge is working to slowly heal the swamp. There are new water control systems. There’s also an effort to restore habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker population that once thrived here. Still, the Swamp will never be what it was.

For the Nansemond Indian Nation, the Great Dismal Swamp remains an important part of our story, that we are still piecing together. And it needs protection. You see, even though it’s a refuge, the Swamp is never truly safe. In 1991, after the Great Dismal Swamp was made a federal refuge, President George Herbert Walker Bush made plans to open it to possible development. Today, development and industry is pressing in on all sides, bringing a low hum of nearby traffic into parts of it and fighter jets overhead.

Just as our ancestors were pushed from their lands by settlers, my cousin Phil experienced the modern version. "I really wanted to stay there but development. There was a housing development going to be moving in right next to me and we lived in the country, like I said, right next to the Dismal Swamp. So we had no neighbors, no nothing, besides family you know and a big farm. So once a development was going to move in right next to me we made the decision to sell that place to retire. And that’s what we did."

The Swamp holds so many secrets that we are only just beginning to learn.

Our hope is that more archeological explorations will be conducted on some of the islands in the swamp to help us learn about how our most ancient ancestors lived there. We’ve been asked to participate in the exhibits at the wildlife refuge’s new education center, telling our own stories to visitors.

Like how we learned to live in the swamp with people of different backgrounds. We had a common goal - wake up the next morning and live.

Back in 1995, my uncle Chief Earl Bass stood at our ancestral cemetery and said, “My people are still here. Those that passed away a long time ago, those that have gone only yesterday, those here now and those yet to come. We are one people. We are the Nansemonds.”

Tribal music is by the Warpaint Singers of North Carolina featuring “The Flag Song."

Tribal Truths is reported, written and sound designed by Pamela D’Angelo. Kelley Libby is editor. Additional editing by Nansemond Chief Emeritus Sam Bass and David Seidel.

Support was provided Virginia Humanities, the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources and WVTF/Radio IQ.
Other music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.