Monsters of the Great Dismal Swamp

A Great Dismal Swamp Maroon, by David Hunter Strother (1856)

Situated largely in southeastern Virginia, separating the cities of Suffolk and Norfolk, the Great Dismal Swamp has inspired countless legends and spooky stories for literally thousands of years.  The area was home to the Nansemond and Chesepiooc tribes, who told stories of a terrifying monster they called the Fire Bird- a prehistoric-looking beast with an enormous wingspan, razor-sharp teeth, and claws strong enough to carry away humans.

According to archaeologists, the swamp has been inhabited by humans for about 13,000 years and virtually every group of people who have called the Great Dismal Swamp home have told stories of mystery monsters and terrifying creatures said to inhabit its waters, bogs, and woods.

Apainting of Dismal Swamp Maroons by David Edward Cronin, 1888

By the 19th century, the swamp was home to hundreds of fugitive slaves, which inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's second novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.  These slaves inhabited the high and dry areas of the swamp, and around countless campfires these "Great Dismal Swamp Maroons", as they have come to be known by history, told tales of monsters and ghosts they had encountered in the murky waters of the swamp.  Surely most of these stories were told for the purposes of entertainment; however, there are numerous credible accounts which seem to suggest that the Great Dismal Swamp harbors a wide variety of mysterious creatures.

Perhaps the most famous monster said to inhabit the local waters of the Great Dismal Swamp,  Lakes Drummond and Kilby, and the Chesapeake Bay (all linked together by several languid murky rivers such as the James and Nansemond), is "Chessie"-- America's best-known version of the famed Loch Ness Monster.  While numerous books have been written about Chessie, the common consensus among researchers is that the creature made its first appearance in 1994, in Deep Creek near Hampton Roads.  One of these slow-moving creatures attracted the attention of scientists who, after attaching a tracking device to the animal, identified it as a West Indies manatee, who had evidently lost its way during its annual migration.

While Chessie may be nothing more than a sea cow with a bad sense of direction, historical records indicate that other mysterious creatures have been lurking in the nearby waters.  Reports of these sightings seemed to peak in the early 20th century.  One such account is recorded in the March 20, 1901, edition of the Richmond (VA) Dispatch

Suffolk, VA., March 19.-- (Special)-- Beautiful picturesque Lake Kilby, which supplies water for two cities, has beneath its surface a strange monster.  It made its first appearance yesterday afternoon in the main body of the lake and was seen by a prominent citizen, who was accompanied by one of the city fathers, but disappeared before the latter saw it.  The former gentleman says they were rowing leizurely (sic) along when his eyes became riveted upon the monster, and he at first thought it was a log, but as he approached closer he found it was alive.

The body was eight feet and a head that resembled a mans, with huge black eyes, heavy brows long, with a tail extending six feet, yellow hair covering the face of whatever it was, weighed at least 300 pounds, he says, and has no legs.  As he approached nearer and just as the discovery was made he called the attention of his friend to it.  At that time the monster rolled over and disappeared beneath the surface with a splash.
The citizen does not know how to account for it, as there is no way in which it could have gained entrance to the lake, for a dam disconnects it from the Nansemond River, which adjoins it.  They watched for the reappearance of the strange being, but it never rose again.

The following year, another local newspaper (perhaps not to be outdone), published a story beneath a headline which read: The Strange Monster That Eats Dogs In Nansemond.  From the February 15, 1902 edition of the Richmond Times:

The strange Dismal Swamp monster, which one day this week killed seven of Ed. Smith's dogs, ate two of them, and later attacked Mr. Smith himself, has been seen again.  Mr. Smith lives about twelve miles from Suffolk.  Last night L. Frank Ames, a merchant, who lives near Bennett's Creek, saw the same thing and suffered from its ravages.

Hearing a strange noise, Mr. Ames went out with a pistol.  He thought at first it was a strange dog.  When he learned it was the much-sought monster Mr. Ames shot several times, but without effect.  The thing growled savagely.  Being sent after it, six dogs refused to have a conflict and fled in terror.  They could not be induced to make an attack.  The unknown animal escaped without being harmed.

Afterward it appeared at the home of Henry Jordan, colored, and sat defiantly on a covered well.  The description is like the one furnished by Mr. Smith- a large, gaunt form, long yellow hair and vicious eyes.

Today, much of the swamp is a wildlife refuge, harboring an astounding variety of plant and animal species.  The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge contains nearly 107,000 acres, many of which are inaccessible to vehicles, hikers, and boats- making the Great Dismal Swamp the ideal breeding ground for all manners of mysterious monsters.