Throughout my years of Great Dismal Swamp research, one of my greatest goals has been to find my ancestor William Bass’ (b. 1755, a free man of color) homestead in Camden County, NC. I analyzed all his deeds and studied his community connections but failed to locate his land. He lived among several prominent families with property in multiple locations, and he sold all his land before the end of his life. This left my family landless for a generation and created the genealogical challenge of having to study those who bought his land to find his homestead.
Last December, while researching River Bridge (a frequent reference in my family’s history), I reached out to fellow researchers to learn more about the uninhabited island at the head of the Pasquotank River. I have always assumed it was vacant in the past as it is in the present. Through our discussion, I learned this manmade island was not only a missing piece of my story but the focal point. In this article, I will add geospatial clarity to several of the stories I have shared about River Bridge and the adjoining area known as River Swamp.
Place names give a glimpse of people’s evolving interaction with space over time. For those who lived in upper Pasquotank and Camden Counties throughout the 1700s, the Pasquotank River Bridge marked the regional shipping and trading center. Although I have written about River Bridge for years, I gained a new appreciation for the area with the opening of the Museum of the Albemarle’s “River Bridge: Sunken Secrets” exhibition in 2018. The researchers who created the collection through underwater archaeology (Philip Madre, Eddie Coddington, Martha Williams, and many others) emphasized that River Bridge was an economic center long before the Dismal Swamp Canal existed.
River Bridge: Sunken Secrets immerses visitors in this forgotten place, and I loved experiencing the world they reconstructed. As I searched the exhibition for a section on families (and did not find one), I realized that might be my story to tell. I have studied the people of River Bridge for YEARS, and countless details have coalesced through my new understanding of this powerful place. In its natural form before the canal, this site was connected to Camden County by land and Pasquotank County right across the water. Descendants of this nexus often have 3 counties (and 2 states) of records to search.
My family was first recorded at this site around the end of the Revolutionary War, and trade-related transformation was well underway. Ocean-going vessels moved imports and exports through the Pasquotank River, and newly constructed roads moved products inland. The Pasquotank River Bridge and Old Swamp Road were integral to the local transportation system, with many landings, stores, and warehouses built nearby. Over the years, I have studied each of these features to contextualize deed findings and connect people to precise places in the community.
“Three Hundred Years Along the Pasquotank : A Biographical History of Camden County” by Jesse Forbes Pugh brings some of River Bridge’s infrastructure investors and major merchants to life:
After years of my own research, there is little I can add to Pugh’s detailed descriptions of these early settlers—however, I can introduce and elaborate upon the lives of important people he missed. The Halls and Basses were free families of color who migrated from the Nansemond homestead at Deep Creek to River Bridge, following the same economic development the Olds followed. David Hall and William Bass were strategic landowners with waterfront property at River Bridge (on the Pasquotank/Camden County line) and Old Swamp Road (on the Camden/Currituck County line). These men and their descendants had close connections to the Joneses, Olds, and other prominent families in the area but they have been left out of narrative history.
River Bridge Households: Fanny Bass*, Lovey Bass*, Miles Brite, Salley Gregory, Allen B. Jones, James P. Marchant, Elizabeth McCoy, Jesse McCoy, Jaque Dunkin*, Timothy McPherson, Solley Nash, Devotion Overton, Griffith Overton, Jeremiah Sanderlin, Alex D. Sawyer, Dolly Sawyer, Edmund Sawyer, Thomas Sawyer, William Sawyer, William Sawyer, Sr., Archie Wilkins, Elizabeth Wilkins
River Swamp Households: John Chamberlin, Jesse Douglas, Jacob Gregory, Abram Hewit, Jane Kelley, Hester Sawyer, Willoughby Sammons*, Nancy Spence, Samuel Spence
*Free People of Color
Continued development transformed the region and affected families who lived near the Dismal Swamp Canal. In the 1840s, the Gilmerton Canal was dug to avoid Deep Creek, which had a history of causing significant delays in canal navigation. In the 1850s, Turner’s Cut was dug to avoid the “Moccasin Track,” bypassing 7 miles of Joy’s Creek known for similar delays.
When I left the River Bridge: Sunken Secrets exhibition that day, I drove toward South Mills, turned down River Bridge Road, and continued around the curve in Bingham Road to one of my family’s old houses. It was my father and grandfather’s favorite place, full of memories and the setting of so many family photos. The site has always been meaningful to me for those reasons alone.
Returning to it, with clarity and countless records of my ancestors’ relationship with this specific site spanning more than 200 years, radically changed my perspective and will be reflected in my writing from here on. The stories of our ancestors are not lost. They are there—not dependent upon permanent structures, not dispersed across shifting county and state lines—but in the specific spaces, nurtured by our ancestors, waiting for us to return.