Tales from Blackwater Swamp

Boy Scouts canoeing on the Blackwater River, Virginia. Image via  Wikipedia

Boy Scouts canoeing on the Blackwater River, Virginia. Image via Wikipedia


Blackwater, the Place.

This swamp provides Surry County with an ancient and unique ecosystem.

Blackwater Swamp has been part of Surry County for eons before settlement by the English in 1607. While called a river further downstream, it is a swamp throughout the area bordered by Surry County. As it drains south it becomes the Chowan River, which drains into the Albermarle Sound, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean. Because of it, the majority of land in Surry drains, not to the James River, but to North Carolina. Indeed, some areas less than three miles from the James River drain south to the Blackwater.

Many other swamps in Surry ultimately dump their water into the Blackwater. Otterdam, John Shehawkin goes into the Cypress, which goes into the Blackwater. There are Terrapin Swamp, Mill Swamp, Moores Swamp, Passenger Swamp, Golden Swamp, Pigeon-roost Swamp and countless others. These are all fed by literally hundreds of what we call branches, small feeder streams that drain our land and feed our swamps.

This swamp provides Surry County with an ancient and unique ecosystem. I will try to describe its features and give some feeling for the swamp, for indeed feeling is a big part of what we have in the Blackwater.

It is a silent stream, even when at flood stage. There is little or no noise of the movement of water. Surrounded by woodland, low, unlivable and unfarmable, there is little noise from the hustle and bustle of our civilization. Yes, bridges do cross it, and in some places farms are close by. Largely there is silence, a quiet that tells you this is a very special place.

Navigable? Yes and no. You can traverse it and fish it from a small flat bottom fishing boat. These boats, homemade of wood in my youth, are now largely factory made of aluminum. Most fishermen still prefer the wooden ones. They make almost no noise as they are paddled or poled in the silent stream.

Navigation, even for fishing or hunting, is problematical. Trees along the banks and in the swamp are largely cypress, gum, poplar and other long life trees. Cypress knees can bring your boat to a sudden halt. Some pines are close by where the soil is drained enough to satisfy their needs. Largely, these trees have never been harvested by man. They live their lives, often hundreds of years, but ultimately die and fall. Each visit to the swamp is likely to provide you with new obstacles recently fallen. Even further south of Surry, where the swamp becomes a river, navigation by larger boats is scarce, as an open area today may be blocked tomorrow. The early settlers were never able to completely overcome its obstacles.

There is a tranquility here. You fish, hunt or just watch and listen quietly. Open woods of ancient trees surround you, forming an umbrella that largely shields you from the sun. You listen for the wildlife that lives here, the chatter of squirrels, a deer surprised by your intrusion, a fish jumping or rolling as it searches for its next meal, or tries to keep from being the meal of a larger fish. Possums and coons hunt silently. Your only chance to see them is their movement as they go about their lives, not expecting man's intrusion.

Bugs, jeweled and plain, small and large, scurry around the swamp. Small crustaceans leave tracks in the mud flats going down to the swamp. There is a hum in the air most of the time - mosquitoes and other bugs of all descriptions. Like a fog, they surround you, and any exposed flesh is considered a meal.

Often on still mornings there is a fog. As light comes, it hides the line between water and sky. Reflections and fog give a surreal feeling in that period between darkness and daylight.

Your tranquility can be shattered if you are not observant. Snakes are numerous, many harmless, some deadly. All are quiet, like nearly everything in and around the swamp. They swim, they sometimes climb the overhanging branches of trees, and they have been known to fall into boats. They love to rest and sun themselves on sunny fallen trees and the banks of the swamp. You see their meandering track in the soft mud banks going down to the swamp.

Springs contribute much water to the Blackwater and its tributaries. Many flow from the steep banks close to the swamp. Some are boiling springs, bringing a slurry of sand and water to the surface. One such spring off Rt. 603 in the edge of Sussex County was so deep a fishing pole could not touch its bottom.

Some are actually in the tributaries of the Blackwater. One, in the Johnshehawkin Swamp, is bold enough to continue filling the pond in times of drought. With no water entering the pond, or flowing from it, the pond gains water and remains nearly full throughout droughts.

There are strange noises, particularly as darkness falls. The flopping of wings, generally ducks landing, the crash of a spooked deer as it plunges into the swamp to cross. There are unknown noises, birds, fowl, or some animal that seems to follow you, unseen but close by wherever you go. 

Blackwater, the History.

In many areas along the Blackwater you find the relics of their civilization. They could still enjoy the fish, fowl and wildlife along the swamp.

From a million years ago to approximately 25,000 years ago, the Ice Age controlled our area. Ice packs similar to what we see close to the North and South Poles covered this part of the world. What is now Surry County was indescribable. Ocean levels dropped, perhaps 300 feet in coldest times, and rose as the ice melted. It is likely all of what is now Surry County was under water.

The big bang, ca. 33,000 BC. A huge space rock approximately two miles wide, traveling at 60,000 miles per hour, slammed into the Atlantic Ocean where the Chesapeake Bay is today. It penetrated approximately seven miles deep. This formed the beginning of the topography of what became Surry County.

Who were the first humans to view the Blackwater? Traditional wisdom says the Indians migrated from Asia and were the first settlers. The Cactus Hill dig in nearby Sussex County dates back to around 13,000 B.C. Were the first humans from Asia or Europe? Permanent ice packs had covered most of North America. The first humans may have arrived by boat from Europe. This will be argued for many decades, if not centuries, in the future.

Ca. 1507 a tiny Bald Cypress seed falls into the edge of what we now call the Blackwater. The water being low, it germinates and becomes a seedling. More later.

In 1644-46 Chief Opechancanough of the Powhatan Confederacy, old and nearly blind, waged war against the English settlers. Nearly 500 settlers were killed the first day of hostilities, Maundy Thursday. In 1646 a peace treaty between the settlers and Necotowance, king of the Indians, settled [temporarily] relations with the Indians.

I quote Article 5 "and it is further enacted that neither for the said Necotowance nor any of his people, do frequent come in to hunt or make any abode nearer the English Plantations than the lymits of Yapin the Blackwater, and from the head of the Blackwater upon a straight line to the old Monakin town, upon such paine and penaltie as aforesaid". See The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century by Warren M. Billings, page 227.

Thus settlers were banned south of the Blackwater in what is now little Surry and Sussex County, and Indians were banned north of the Blackwater. The Indians, now weakened and with few warriors, depended on the English settlers, with their guns, for protection against other marauding groups of Indians. Tribes, or surviving remnants, combined. They settled along the south side of the Blackwater. In many areas along the Blackwater you find the relics of their civilization. They could still enjoy the fish, fowl and wildlife along the swamp.

The settlers also gained. No longer could the Indians move freely through their settlements. Trade with the Indians probably did not suffer. Most important, the Indians served as the eyes and ears of the settlers. Marauding tribes coming through the areas were discovered by the Indians and fought by the English settlers. It was somewhat an unequal mutual aid society.

The treaty survived until April 25,1701. By this time the English settlers of Surry County had been here for over 90 years. Several generations of settlers had produced many descendants and practically all the land north of the Blackwater was settled. Land had been platted for some years in preparation for the time land patents would be legal south of the Blackwater.

There was immense pressure to allow the settlers to move south. 19,918 acres in 27 separate patents were filed the first day allowed and another 16,858 acres later that year. The presence of the Indians on the Blackwater soon was nearly non-existent. When the treaty was abridged the even smaller group of surviving Indians were moved to and given the round tract and the square tract further south in Sussex-Southampton-Prince George Counties. There, in the English tradition, they were individually given title to pieces of land. They were now farmers or they sold their land.

Behind Shingleton plantation on the Blackwater, this part of the swamp was known [and still is] as Deep Bottom. All of the water had to go downstream, and it could do it through a wide shallow stream or a deep gut cut by nature. Back of Shingleton was the deepest and most narrow part of the Swamp. Dad took me there, and he would take our longest fishing pole and probe the bottom. It was not touched.

On each side of the swamp was a deep gully going down the banks to the Blackwater. Little did I know in my youth that these gullies had been the original road from what is now the Surry side going to the Sussex side. If you think about it, the easiest way to cross the swamp was to cut two or more large trees and lay them across the narrowest part of the swamp, put some planking on them and you had a bridge. The first bridge was built here around 1700. It was better than having to cross hundreds of feet of swamp to get to the stream. From the Surry Side you can still see the remains of the original road as it turns north just as you start down the hill to the Blackwater. A friend of my Aunt Mildred, who fished there regularly until his death around 8 years ago, when told of my recollections, said I must have been there yesterday, that's the way it is.

The land south of the Blackwater, north of Rt. 40, was supposedly first settled by Benjamin Harrison around 1685. He purchased it from the Waynoak Indians. While it was illegal to get a land patent south of the Blackwater, he allegedly was able to bypass the conditions of the 1646 treaty.

In a recent 2001 publication of the Virginia Forestry Association there was a picture of a huge cypress tree found in the Dendron Swamp, a part of the Blackwater off Rt. 614, on the Sussex side. The little seedling that dropped and germinated ca. 1507 is 100 years older than our country. With some luck, it may live hundreds of more years. The history of the Blackwater continues to be lived and written. 

Blackwater, the Tales.

Even fishing, you usually took a gun. After all, you never knew what you would confront, or what would confront you.

These are the tales of the Blackwater, many from my father, who lived all of his life close to its borders, some from other friends who likewise enjoyed the swamp, and some from my youth, visiting the swamp with my father and sometimes alone or with my young friends. I hope my memories are correct.

My father, Edward M. Atkins, was raised as a child at Shingleton Plantation off Rt. 40. His father, Charles David Atkins, was overseer on the plantation. Later as a youth he lived on the Blackwater near Spring Hill. He learned to swim when he was thrown in the swamp by older boys. When he moved to Carsley he would take me to the Blackwater to fish. In the days of Dad's youth, early in the 1900s, a new way of fishing became popular. Rods and reels became available. The moving artificial baits provided a new way of fishing, providing suspense, action and food.

The Blackwater became the premier place to fish in Southeastern Virginia. Its dark tanin-filled waters were filled with pike. These fish loved the new artificial baits and usually provided instant gratification. Dad said he would go down to the Blackwater after church on Sunday and catch a dozen before dinner was ready. Of course, the traditional fishing pole, line, cork, sinker and worm continued to work with brem, perch and other bottom feeders.

Fishermen from around the state came to fish. They needed a guide and a boat. Dad said that most of the money he had as a youth came from serving as a guide. Many were very generous after a successful day of fishing. Even fishing, you usually took a gun. After all, you never knew what you would confront, or what would confront you. Dad generally took his first rifle, a model 62 Winchester pump gun. Once he had a customer who imbibed too many spirits, stood up in the swamp boat, and turned it over. First Dad had to drag him out of the swamp. Next he tried to find his Winchester. This was a deep part of the swamp. He tried swimming down, and later using grappling hooks, but the swamp never gave up his gun. He bought another 62 Winchester. This one was later sold by his brother, but his third 62 Winchester is now the proud possession of his grandson, Mark Sheffield.

Trapping was another source of income from the Blackwater. Dad ran trap lines on the Blackwater. Fur coats were popular, and the Blackwater had more than its share of fur. He looked for tracks and then hid a trap. His favorite was a partially floating log. He would set a trap just under the water on the log. Mud slides of the animals also were favorite spots. The name of the game was to outwit the animals.

There also were sinister fish in the swamp - Carp. Boney with a long snout, these large ancient fish reached a length of up to eight feet. Rarely were they seen. Often from a distance, they appeared as a log, just below the surface. To my memory we never caught one. I don't think anyone ate them. An encounter with them was generally when you were fishing with a rod and reel. You would snag what you thought was a floating log, just under the water. When you tightened the line there was no movement. Then the end of your line would start to slowly move sideways. When the Carp had had enough, it just swam away, breaking your light line designed for Pike. For me as a child, these Carp were fearful unknown creatures.

Local hunters soon learned the places where deer would cross the swamp. If hunters were hunting a certain woods, it was likely spooked deer would cross at a certain point. Often a hunter in his swamp boat would be there.

An article in the Tri County News from Wakefield, Va. dated Aug. 3, 1934 gave a chilling fact. An alligator was killed in Sussex County. While its location was not mentioned, the article reported,

"Alligator Is killed by Sussex Negroes. An alligator was killed in Sussex County a few days ago, Carl H. Nolting, chairman of the State commission of game and inland fisheries, reported today after a visit to that county. 
The alligator was killed by Negroes who say that it attacked them with great fury and without provocation. There are two theories as to the presence of the saurian as far north as Virginia. One of those is that it found an agreeable warmth up this way this summer. Another is that the alligator escaped from some citizen." 


The swamp contains many hidden hummocks, higher ground nearly surrounded by swamp. Often they are adjacent to a branch that drains into the swamp. These became favorite places for a still. Probably most were on these branches away from the main run of the swamp, assuring that there would be no chance a fisherman would discover the still. Necessary were water, fuel, cover and transportation.

Once during a flood when I was a youth, there was a home in the swamp flats just south of Rt. 40 on the swamp. The new bridge and approach road, being well above the flood area were clear of water. There was an old home, small and hopefully uninhabited in the swamp flats. I saw someone row a swamp boat through the building, in one door and out the other. It was a shock. I still cannot believe anyone would have built their home there. Yet a storm like this may not come but once a century. Blackwater's history and tales continue to grow. I welcome your tales and history of the swamp.

Thank you for reading! Help us continue publishing more historical pieces on Surry County, Virginia by contributing a donation to the Surry Historical Society.

James E. Atkins