There is an old Indian legend about a Firebird who lived in the center of the Great Dismal Swamp, a territory shared by surrounding tribes for thousands of years. The fearsome creature formed its nest (at the site of Lake Drummond) through a vast wildfire, killing countless Indian families as it burned a hole into the ground. According to the legend, an Indian hunter killed the Firebird’s babies within the nest and used their skin, feathers, and claws as a disguise to hunt the Firebird. When the Firebird realized what happened, it abandoned its nest, leaving the swamp in peace. The blood of the Firebird’s babies—the red waters that fill Lake Drummond—are a lasting reminder of the hunter’s success.1
The legend aligns with natural phenomena. Palynologists have discovered corn pollen in the peat surrounding Lake Drummond, which suggests that indigenous people lived and cultivated corn within the swamp before the lake formed.2 Further, peat fires have occurred in the swamp for thousands of years, and many researchers hypothesize that Lake Drummond formed through such a fire—which may have killed indigenous people living there. The red-colored water within the lake is due to tannic acid from Cypress and Juniper trees and Indian hunters, as featured in the story, have been masters of the swamp since time immemorial. Beyond the Nansemond River, the Great Dismal Swamp is the most significant natural site in Nansemond history.
As a descendant of a Nansemond family that migrated around the Great Dismal Swamp, this story fascinates me. The swamp is the geographic center of several Nansemond diaspora communities, many of which merged with descendants of other nearby tribes and free people of color.3 The origin story of Lake Drummond, which sits right at the Virginia-North Carolina state line, is characteristic of indigenous resistance to colonial borders. Our families have always flowed across the boundaries drawn around us, and victory over the Firebird tells us that our ancestors did not fear the swamp but chose to face its dangers and survive in a place where most colonists would not venture.
Despite my fascination, I was surprised to learn how few people knew the story when I started sharing it two years ago. In this article, I will contextualize the Firebird legend by sharing:
- the importance of oral tradition in Native American culture,
- the effects of disruption in oral tradition, and
- how to restore oral tradition.
The Importance of Oral Tradition in Native American Culture
Before anything else, it is important to understand that indigenous people of this region lived for thousands of years without written language. Story, song, and dance were our original forms of knowledge management and were passed from generation to generation. Oral tradition was used to educate youth about the environment, survival, other tribal communities, moral values, and more.4
Captain John Smith’s account from the summer of 1608 describes the Nansemond using song and dance to communicate with his crew.5 Another account from Alexander Whitaker, a clergyman, from the spring of 1611 describes the Nansemond dancing and flame-throwing to produce rain.6 These descriptions are reminders of Nansemond culture before English influence and are evidence of our belief in song and dance as a means to influence the natural world. The English at the time perceived Nansemond spirituality “as witch-like and devilish.”
In addition to its use in education, storytelling was also a form of entertainment. Before newspapers, telephones, motion pictures, radio, television, or the internet, storytellers captivated audiences with their creativity. Stories blended fantasy, reality, and personal and collective tribal memories. In contrast to journalism, in which the goal is to present events as objectively as possible, storytelling can be subjective and evolve through experience. Storytellers often capture a variety of lessons in one story and emphasize points that are meaningful at the moment.
There is evidence of Indian oral tradition within the Great Dismal Swamp. Historical accounts describe the swamp as a refuge for Indians who were displaced from their ancestral territory by colonists. Indians were known for telling “fantastic tales” about the swamp that were “fearful yet beautiful” and “interwoven with mysticism of the area” yet often proven true. These accounts are part of the survival story of Nansemond diaspora communities that continued to use the swamp through colonial displacement.
The evidence is clear that the Nansemond community around the river and those who were displaced into and around the swamp had unique culture and oral tradition. However, the body of early Nansemond research from social, economic, and political perspectives is largely based on English accounts and government-generated records. Similarly, Nansemond genealogy (focused on lineage and migration patterns) has been based on how society and government officials recorded Nansemond people rather than how we perceived and discussed ourselves and our environment.
Disruption in Oral Tradition
The ancestral couple at the core of many Nansemond families is John Bass(e) (b. 1616), an English colonist and minister, and Elizabeth (b. 1618), a “Christianized” Nansemond woman and daughter of a Nansemond Chief. Elizabeth was one of over a thousand Nansemond who was born, lived, and died in settlements surrounding the Nansemond River. Yet, the trajectory of her life changed when she was baptized and married. Many people, including myself, have spent years immersed in historical and genealogical research of Elizabeth’s descendants but far less have studied the unique culture that raised her.
If our ancestors survived through oral tradition—not the written documents we study them through—one must ask, “What is left of Nansemond oral tradition? Where did all the storytellers go?” Through forced assimilation and language loss, indigenous oral traditions were disrupted. Rather than sharing stories, songs, and dances from grandparent to parent to child, many signs of “Indianness” were hidden and replaced with English culture. The disruption has caused immeasurable loss; yet numerous stories have survived, scattered throughout the region like artifacts.
Exploring the Firebird Legend
Just as artifacts are evaluated for authenticity, oral history should be authenticated as much as possible. I approached this by following the documented Firebird legend as far as I could go. I heard the story from elders (within and outside of the Nansemond tribal community) and collected numerous newspaper references to the story from as early as the 1960s. These dates were significant because they preceded the Nansemond Indian Tribe’s 1980s reformation and state recognition. The earliest publication I found was “The Great Dismal Swamp: Its History, Folklore And Science” by Hubert J. Davis (1904-1997).
Davis was a scientist and educator with a long record of innovative methodologies. He taught at the College of William & Mary and was the director of the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory Educational Program. After writing about science and marine biology for several years, he published his first book on the Great Dismal Swamp in 1962. Davis approached folklore from a different perspective than one would while researching a tribal community. He went directly into the swamp and documented stories from people still living there.
Davis’ account of the “The Wicked Firebird of Dismal Swamp” included a forbidden love story between a young Indian man (“Big Bear”) and woman (“White Swan”) of neighboring tribes who shared the swamp as hunting ground. It is possible that a love story was part of the original oral tradition but it is also possible that this was added to increase its appeal to those intrigued by swamp stories, such as the romanticized accounts from poets like Thomas Moore. Both Davis and subsequent authors (like Waverley Traylor7) were open about the fact that they were retelling stories that have evolved over time and they were passionate about protecting the history of the Great Dismal Swamp.
In addition to following the documented Firebird story, I compared it to other stories in both local and distant indigenous communities. I discovered that there was an almost identical oral tradition among the Mattamuskeet Indians, or Machapunga, regarding the formation of the Lake Mattamuskeet. The story did not include the Firebird, but all other components were the same and both describe a local natural event that happened long before colonists arrived.
More broadly, bird-related stories are common in Algonquian and Iroquoian mythology. The Thunderbird8 is known among many tribes as the ruler of the upper world with the ability to create lightning through its eyes, thunder through its wings, and wind through its flight. One has to wonder if the Firebird story is somehow related to the Thunderbird story given the possibility of a lightning strike as the cause of the formational fire in the center of Lake Drummond.
Aboriginal Australians also have an oral tradition of “firehawks” causing wildfires. Similar to the Firebird story, oral tradition about the firehawks has been proven to accurately describe a natural phenomenon in which raptor species use fire to increase their foraging sucess.9 The firehawk story is an example of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) which has recently grown as a field of study.10
Restoration of Oral Tradition
These findings place the Firebird legend in context with other indigenous stories that each reference time before colonial influence. Through my search, I discovered several other legends that are rarely shared despite containing important information about the local environment and tribal communities. In her article entitled “Educating America: The Historian’s Responsibility to Native Americans and the Public,” Angela Cavender Wilson described this as a widespread issue: “Native American oral tradition focuses less on European-Americans, more on Indian–Indian relations, and includes stories of interactions with non-human spiritual beings—all elements which have served to baffle some academic historians.”
After reading these references, I felt compelled to continue restoring lost oral tradition. Along with protecting our natural resources, we must protect the stories our ancestors left as legends, often leading us to medicines and teaching survival skills. Oral tradition shows us a different world than that of English accounts and government records and it serves a different purpose—to educate and build a sense connectedness to each other and to the environment which sustains us.
My journey to restore Nansemond oral tradition is just beginning and, thanks to the world I have discovered through the Firebird legend, I am committed to continue searching, contextualizing, and amplifying our lost voices. As part of that, I created this medallion design in honor of Nansemond women, like Elizabeth, and the diaspora they birthed.
The woman in the center is standing on the Nansemond River (Fishing Point) surrounded by corn and fish. She is facing southeast toward a sunrise, featuring a southeastern Algonquian pattern, over the Great Dismal Swamp. The fearsome Firebird rises in the center, and she is fearlessly venturing out toward it.
This design integrates the Nansemond origin story and survival story. The fires that burned through the swamp have also burned through our settlements, our communities, our records, and our rights as people. We cannot be afraid and—after so much has been lost—we cannot willingly forget anything, especially not the stories of our ancestors.
6Brown, Alexander. The Genesis of the United States ; a Narrative of the Movement in England, 1605-1616, Which Resulted in the Plantation of North America by Englishmen … Collected, Arranged, and Edited by Alexander Brown. Heinemann, 1890.
9Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, and Maxwell Witwer. “Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia,” Journal of Ethnobiology 37(4), 700-718, (1 December 2017).