Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
America's Wetland

America's Wetland: An Environmental and Cultural History of Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina

Roy T. Sawyer
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    America's Wetland
    Book Description:

    The geologically ancient Tidewater region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina rests precariously atop millions of years of erosion from the nearby Appalachian Mountains. An immense wetland at near sea level, it is host to every conceivable body of fresh water, ranging from brooding swamps and large hidden lakes to sluggish blackwater rivers and brackish sounds (one of which was so large an early explorer thought he had found the Pacific Ocean). In this engaging book, biologist and Tidewater native Roy T. Sawyer delivers an ecohistory of this unique waterland whose wind-driven tides cover a rich human and natural past.

    Jutting prominently into the Atlantic, this wetland is the final stop for the warmth of the Gulf Stream before it is deflected from the American mainland. At the top of a narrow, warm coastal strip, it provides an ideal home for a vast array of animal and plant life, including prodigious numbers of reptiles (such as the world's northernmost population of alligators) and overwintering waterfowl. It is also home to the oldest known living trees east of the Rocky Mountains. The climate and geography made the area a natural choice for very early human habitation--as far back as the last ice age, when the region was a rich oasis just south of a veritable tundra.

    In examining the impact of humans upon this environment, and vice-versa, Sawyer reveals how our alarming shortsightedness has produced a fragile and endangered present. Although human manipulation started here as early as ten thousand years ago (coinciding with extinction of mammoths and other megafauna), the environment has been altered most radically over only the last one hundred years, particularly in regard to land drainage, deforestation, overfishing, and pollution.

    The author provides an authoritative overview of the human impact on these wetlands and suggests ways in which we might still salvage them. In so doing, he explores the effects of hurricanes, droughts, forest fires, and ice ages of the past--and anticipates, in this age of global warming, natural events that may be still to come.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2969-9
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    At one critical period in America’s history the Albemarle region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina was the absolute center of the non-Spanish New World. It was here in the 1580s that England chose to locate its first colony in the Western Hemisphere. This “lost colony” disappeared under mysterious circumstances, still one of the unsolved questions of the Age of Exploration. Nonetheless, this was just the beginning of the successful Jamestown era of English colonization. Migrating from the expanding Virginia colony, settlers soon returned to the Albemarle region. It was the earliest region of both North and South Carolina...

  5. 1 Ice-Age Enclave
    (pp. 7-13)

    The Albemarle region holds a unique place in prehistory of the Americas. Just as this region today is the northernmost warm strip along the Atlantic coast, it was also a thermal strip during the last ice age (late Pleistocene). Glaciers and winter ice came close to, but did not encompass, this unglaciated coastal enclave whose relative warmth and abundance of food was amenable to early human habitation. Its nearest ice-age counterpart across the Atlantic, near the other end of the Gulf Stream, was southern France, where a cultural enclave renown for Clovis-type tools is well documented at about the same...

  6. 2 Relict Fauna
    (pp. 14-43)

    The Albemarle-Pamlico region is one of America’s most remarkable wildlife habitats. Where else in the world could a tundra swan be attacked by an alligator? Where else could seals, dolphins, or indeed sharks be found in a blackwater river? Where were terrapins hunted commercially with specially trained dogs? Where has the oldest known pond cypress in America lived for fourteen hundred years? Where is the northern limit of the alligator, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Carolina pigmy rattlesnake, marsh rabbit, Venus flytrap, Spanish moss, and so many other animals and plants?¹

    Why is the Albemarle ecosystem so biologically unique? The answer lies...

  7. 3 Water’s Environmental Facets
    (pp. 44-55)

    For thousands of years the Albemarle region has experienced a multiplicity of significant environmental events, including storms, droughts, floods, and freezes. Over the past 450 years of recorded history some longterm patterns are detectable. Foremost is awareness that these environmental phenomena recur with regularity over the long term. Such themes are undetectable over short periods such as twenty or even fifty years.

    A closer examination reveals that water in its various forms is most fundamental in understanding the ecohistory of this region. Water (or lack thereof) takes disparate forms and time frames, such as rising water from melting glacial ice,...

  8. 4 Period of European Colonization
    (pp. 56-66)

    Hunter-gatherers roamed the Albemarle-Pamlico region thousands of years before agriculture eventually supported semipermanent settlements there, from about 1000 BC. The moist, rich soil was especially conducive to the growing of corn (maize). These more sedentary, “modern” Indians cleared land for planting corn and other crops, utilized a surprising amount of underbrush to fuel cooking, intentionally (and also, no doubt, accidentally) set local forest fires, and organized group hunting and fishing expeditions using traps and nets. Finally, the most recent Indians to live in the Albemarle wetland, the Carolina Algonquins, were the first Native Americans to come in intimate contact with...

  9. 5 Agricultural History
    (pp. 67-82)

    In early prehistory the native peoples of the Albemarle region were hunters and gatherers, living off game and edible plants that abounded in this wetland. They tended to move about seasonally in search of food, such as waterfowl in winter and migratory fish in spring. Starting about 1000 BC a fundamental change began to occur in this region that manifested itself in artifacts associated with more permanent settlement, most notably pottery (Woodland Period). Coinciding with these changes was the rise of agriculture, particularly maize, or “Indian corn.”

    Maize (Zea mays) was the first nonnative grain to be introduced into the...

  10. 6 Sturgeon, Herring, and Other Fisheries
    (pp. 83-101)

    The Albemarle region once constituted the richest resource of nonmarine fish in the United States. Since early prehistory the native peoples relied on food from these waterways to make a significant annual contribution toward their very survival. A wide range of residential, yearround fish (e.g., crappie, perch, sunfish, bluegill and other panfish, black bass, bowfin, garfish), shellfish, and turtles formed a major portion of a subsistence diet.

    Then, like celestial clockwork, each spring these waterways became alive with unimaginable numbers of anadromous fish migrating from the sea to freshwater breeding grounds. For the indigenous people of the region, the crucial...

  11. 7 Antebellum Golden Age: Transportation Canals
    (pp. 102-119)

    Dugout canoes dating back to 3095 BC have been found in the pocosin lakes at the center of the Albemarle peninsula. Nearly five thousand years later, dugouts of the same time-tested design were still being used here. When the Roanoke colonists arrived in 1584, the native Algonquins were described as exceptionally skilled watermen who routinely crossed the precarious Albemarle and Pamlico sounds in large dugouts. Thus, the record shows that for millennia the Albemarle tidewater was far better suited for travel by water than by land. This continued to be the case until only about eighty years ago, when the...

  12. 8 African American Experience
    (pp. 120-135)

    The first Africans in the English colonies of America arrived in the Albemarle region in June 1586. Francis Drake had taken on about a hundred “Negroes” during his skirmishes with the Spanish at Santo Domingo and Cartagena. It is said he planned to use them to strengthen the incipient English colony on Roanoke Island. However, what actually happened to these people remains a mystery, and it is unclear if they were off-loaded when Drake arrived at the ill-fated colony on Roanoke Island.¹

    After a hiatus of nearly seventy years, Africans returned to the Albemarle region. They came overland from Virginia...

  13. 9 Armed Conflict: A Recurring Theme
    (pp. 136-145)

    In these days when American wars are fought in some vague place halfway around the world, we need to be reminded that for most of human history armed conflicts took place near home. The Albemarle region is no exception. In fact, wars have been a recurring theme in the long history of this region. Disparate Indian tribes battled intermittently among themselves throughout prehistory until confronted by a common enemy, invaders from Europe. Then, various colonial powers competed for local dominance, settlers fought for independence, and bloodiest of all, Americans fought among themselves on the same home territory.

    The people and...

  14. 10 Intracoastal Waterways: War Canals
    (pp. 146-155)

    The Outer Banks is called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for good reason. At no other point along either coast of America has shipping been so hazardous literally for centuries, from shoals, storms, pirates, and other hostile attack. Little-known events during World War I reexposed this vulnerability in a modern world. Few people are aware, for example, that between 5 June and 17 August 1918 a total of ten ships were sunk by German submarines off the Outer Banks.¹

    The need for a more secure inland waterway system was conceived in the nineteenth century, and work toward such an ambitious...

  15. 11 Forests Then and Now
    (pp. 156-166)

    When humans first arrived in the Albemarle region thousands of years ago the most superlative feature here was the hundreds of thousands of acres of primeval forest, unsurpassed in the entire eastern United States. The rich, damp soil and warm climate created a canopy of trees of truly gargantuan size and age. The virgin hardwoods, bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), and Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), interspersed with pond cypress, black gum, red maple, loblolly bay, pond pine, and loblolly pine, constituted a temperate forest ecosystem supremely rich in wildlife.

    Cypress trees of the North Carolina coastal plain are truly remarkable...

  16. 12 Droughts and Forest Fires
    (pp. 167-176)

    For tens of thousands of years forest fires occurred naturally in what is now northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, independently of human disturbance. Such fires were linked to the juxtaposition of two naturally recurring phenomena, droughts and lightning. The significance of lightning in starting fires in the past can be extrapolated from contemporary studies. Forestry research over recent decades has demonstrated that lightning-induced forest fires are surprisingly common, especially in summer.

    Throughout North Carolina in the thirty-four-year period between 1970 and 2005, there were a total of 2,657 forest fires that were ignited by lightning, an average of 74...

  17. 13 From Peat Mining to Wildlife Refuges
    (pp. 177-190)

    The Albemarle region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina holds some of the largest deposits of peat in temperate North America, comparable in area to that in Ireland. The Albemarle peninsula in particular “has the largest and deepest peat soils in North Carolina” and contains nearly half the peat for the entire state. Similarly, the Great Dismal Swamp north of the Albemarle Sound also has rich deposits. In both regions the depth of the peat generally ranges from one to seven feet, but it can be up to fifteen feet, or more, in certain areas.¹

    These pocosin peatlands are...

  18. 14 Lost Heritage: Last River Highway
    (pp. 191-199)

    Much of the Albemarle region was virtually inaccessible by road until relatively recently. The vast swampy Albemarle peninsula was particularly isolated, especially the remote communities along the Alligator River. Indeed, one of these, Kilkenny, was described as late as the 1930s as “one of the most isolated villages in North Carolina.” Although indeed isolated by land, these communities had good communications by water for hundreds of years, a river way of life that disappeared in the twentieth century with ascendency of the motorcar.¹

    The farmers and fishermen of these communities along the Alligator River depended fundamentally on the water highway...

  19. 15 Urbanization and Depopulation
    (pp. 200-208)

    In March 1540 the de Soto expedition observed the Apalachee Indians of northwest Florida (Tallahassee) making fine cloth spun from the bark of mulberry trees: “And they know how to process it and spin it into thread and to prepare it and weave it.” The women wore white cloaks from this cloth and made a fine appearance.¹

    Some forty years later the Roanoke colonists were first to report the presence of mulberry trees in the Albemarle region, and they were quick to propose that the area would be ideal for silkworm cultivation. As early as 1711 settlers already had ambitious...

  20. Epilogue
    (pp. 209-212)

    The journey through the tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina in the preceding chapters has recorded environmental and human events over some fifteen thousand years, the approximate period that people have lived here. From this history, we can safely predict that well into the future this region will continue to experience periodic megastorms, droughts, and forest fires. However, superimposed on these events will be an intrusive rise in sea level that will eventually inundate much of the current Albemarle peninsula.

    Regarding the “tidewater culture” unique to this region, the future is much less certain. To maintain the integrity of...

  21. NOTES
    (pp. 213-230)
    (pp. 231-244)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 245-260)