The Indian Trail That Became “Old Swamp Road”

Recently I stumbled upon a newspaper article so valuable I had to share it here (as an image and with full transcription). I have written extensively about several of the references within this article so I have added hyperlinks to related content.

The Weekly Economist (Elizabeth City, North Carolina), Friday, 11 January 1901

Old Swamp Road in Camden County

Editor Economist,

Dear Sir: I have been requested by my neighbor, Mr. J. S. McCoy, to write you a short account of the “Old Swamp Road,” situated in the upper part of Camden and Currituck counties.

The Old Swamp Road was originally an Indian Trail, or supposed, from the fact that it crosses this part of the Dismal Swamp at its narrowest part. It became the first highway into Camden, or the section which is now Camden county, from the country North of it and a connecting link, in the route from the southeast section of Virginia to Edenton, N.C.

The road was the first mail route from the Norfolk section of Virginia to the old Lebanon mill, it being the first post-office in this section, and distributed mail to a large part of country now known as “Pasquotank and Camden counties.” This mail route was established about 1734. I think you can find something of this among the records in Edenton, N.C. It was continued by way of Joppa, now River Bridge, in Camden county, through the adjoining county to Edenton.

The Intersection of Connor Farm Road and Old Swamp Road in South Mills, NC.

The road was used as a toll road as far back as 1800, and how much further I cannot tell. The first settlers that came into what is now the upwoods section, of Camden, came through that road and settled on the ridge lands bordering on the Dismal Swamp, before North Carolina became a state. David Pritchard, my wife’s great, great grandfather, who settled on what is now the D. L. Pritchard farm, obtained his grant from Lord Clarendon when he owned North Carolina and the land has ever since been in the family. The Conners are descendants of the Pritchard family. The old Lebanon mill was located between South Mills and Pearceville ceased to operate about 1818, after the Dismal Swamp Canal cut off its supply of water from Lake Drummond. This road is yet to become the pass way from upper Camden and Pasquotank counties to Norfolk, Va.

This road was fortified at the time of Col. Fordyce, the British commander and Gen. Gregory the American commander, fought the Battle of Great Bridge, Va. If the British had been successful, they would have attempted to pass through to Edenton, N.C. There is said to be two pieces of ordinance still buried where this fort was located. I have seen the foundation work of the old fortification.

McBride Church on Old Swamp Road in South Mills, NC.

It was about 2.5 miles from South Mills, and near McBrides church, that the first Baptist church ever established in North Carolina was erected. It was established by Rev. Paul Palmer, who was several times whipped and otherwise badly treated by the established church, which was only a few hundred yards distant, and at last he was driven away and his house burned. He then went to Shiloh, Camden county and established Shiloh Baptist church in 1727.

Yours Truely,
J. G. Huges

Bass Lake Road
The Intersection of Bass Lake Road and Old Swamp Road in South Mills, NC.

I have discovered bits and pieces of the information within this article over time but it was fascinating to see it all together as a story. In my earliest articles about the origin of the Basses of upper Camden County, I associated their migration with the construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal which began in the late 1700s. However, I soon learned that William Bass (b. 1755) and his wife Ann Sammon moved into a small community of free people of color that was established before the Dismal Swamp Canal was conceptualized. This letter from J. G. Huges provides invaluable insight into early connections between Norfolk County, VA and Camden County, NC that can be used to further investigate migration patterns.

New Old Swamp Road
Other articles from the same time period support Huges’ statements: “This old swamp road was opened up first by the Indians and the present road is built on the traces of the old Indian trail.” The Independent (Elizabeth City, North Carolina), Friday, 22 October 1920

These articles establish an important timeline for the evolution of Old Swamp Road:

  • Prior to colonization “Old Swamp Road” (also referred to as “Great Swamp Road”) was part of an Indian trail. The trail crossed areas that were historically inhabited by the Nansemond (in Norfolk County, VA) and the Weapemeoc (in Pasquotank and Currituck Counties, NC).
  • In the 1730s it was part of the King’s Highway and it was used for the mail route from Norfolk County, VA to Pasquotank and Currituck Counties, NC.
  • In the 1770s the road was fortified for use in the Battle of Great BridgeFort Murray was located in eastern Norfolk County on the border of Princess Anne County. Multiple members of the Deep Creek Nansemond community served in the Revolutionary War at Great Bridge.
Great Bridge Map
The Battle of Great Bridge occurred on December 9, 1775. Note the proximity of Great Bridge to Princess Anne County (where the Sammon family lived).
  • In the 1780s the causeway was in frequent use by residents of the area and a toll was established by Gideon Lamb (b. 1741) to maintain it. Almost 100 years later, David L. Pritchard (who became a part of the Lamb family through his marriage to Sarah Elizabeth Lamb) continued the effort to improve the quality of the road.
David L Pritchard Old Swamp Road
Public Laws of the State of North Carolina, Passed by the General Assembly” noted that David L. Pritchard was granted authority to build a road from “the foot of the Old Swamp, in Camden County, to some point at or near John Cox’s corner, in Currituck County, on the Great Swamp Road” on 19 January 1872.
  • In the 1790s construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal began. As the canal was dug, dirt was thrown up to form the road that has become the Camden County, NC section of U.S. Route 17.
Migration Routes
The blue line indicates the location of Old Swamp Road (and connecting roads). The red line (which did not exist prior to the early 1800s) indicates the present location of U.S. Route 17 which is parallel to the Dismal Swamp Canal and connects Deep Creek in Norfolk, VA to South Mills in Camden, NC.

This chronology provides new context for the migration of my ancestors and their extended family who lived across the Norfolk County, VA / Camden County, NC line. In subsequent articles, I will explain more about the role that the Old Swamp Road would have had in their lives.

3 Comments on “The Indian Trail That Became “Old Swamp Road”

  1. Great work. I found this interesting artifact. Have you seen this? I am a Nic[image: Inline image 1]kens Descendant from Lancaster, Virginia. We spoke online briefly before.

    *“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”* – Charles Dickens

    On Tue, Dec 19, 2017 at 4:41 PM, Descendants of the Great Dismal wrote:

    > Nikki Bass posted: ” Today I stumbled upon a newspaper article so valuable > I had to share it here (as an image and with full transcription). I have > written extensively about several of the references within this article so > I have added hyperlinks to related content. The ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really interesting. I just ran across this web site, and now will probably stay up half the night reading everything on it. some of this fits in with what I have heard and some is new to me.

    I have always heard that Old Swamp Road was originally an Indian trail. From what my father told me, Old Swamp Road was still passable by buggy in the very early 1900’s, but some of the merchants at South Mills did not want the people from Pearceville, Tar Corner, and Up Woods going to Moyock where they could buy from the stores at more reasonable prices, so they got someone elected to the Camden County Commissioners who would block upkeep on Old Swamp Road. From what I heard, one could get thru on horse back, but not with a wheeled vehicle. It was good to see THE INDEPENDENT article that confirms this.

    I think J. G. Huges’ information about the first Baptist church is mistaken. That was at Cisco, in Chowan County, about 30 miles from McBrides. However, I have heard that there was a Baptist church in the vicinity of Johnson’s Corner, about a half mile from McBrides, but I was under the impression that it was there in the 1800’s.


  3. Pingback: Thomas Lurry (b. 1745) | Descendants of the Great Dismal

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