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What is the Green Swamp?

Ben Steelman
Green Swamp

One of the four species of pitcher plant in the Green Swamp. (StarNews file photo)

One of North Carolina’s largest swamplands, the Green Swamp originally covered some 140 square miles in Brunswick and Columbus counties. Some of that land has been taken over by farms, but much of the area is now reserved for logging.

In 1977, Federal Paper Board deeded a large tract of land to the N.C. Nature Conservancy. The Conservancy’s Green Swamp Preserve now covers 15,907 acres. A 5.5-mile hiking trail runs through part of the Preserve’s property, and the 52-mile Green Swamp Scenic Byway loops through the property, in large part along N.C. 211, sometimes known as “Green Swamp Road.”

Part of the Green Swamp is included in Lake Waccamaw State Park in Columbus County.

Although it contains some actual swampland, notably the Brown Marsh Swamp, the Green Swamp is primarily a longleaf pine savanna, punctuated by a number of pocosin bogs (sometimes known as “Carolina bays”). A remnant of the giant longleaf pine forest that once streched across the Southeast from Virginia to Texas, the longleaf savanna has a unique ecosystem that relies on periodic forest fires (once caused by lightning; now, sometimes, the result of controlled burns) to burst the longleaf pine cones, release seeds and bring new growth.

The swamp is home to 14 species of insectivorous plants, including the Venus’ flytrap, as well as a number of endangered animal species. Among these are the red-cockaded woodpecker (which nests in the trunks of dead longleafs) , Henslow’s sparrow, Bachman’s sparrow and Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly. American alligators, fox squirrels, black bear and bobcats can be found here. Among the profusion of wildflowers are a number of notable wild orchids, including the orange-crested orchid and white-fringed orchid.

“In the swamp, the Green Swamp,” wrote local author Robert Ruark, “there were panthers and bears and alligators, wild hogs and cats.” The panthers are believed to be extinct, but the descendants of the rest may still be roaming around.

Among the lowlands are a number of “islands,” or hummocks of high ground, including Kentuck Island and Honey Island. The most famous of these is Crusoe Island, about a dozen miles from Old Dock, home to a unique, long-remote community noted for its unusual accent, which seems to hearken back to 18th century England.

A number of stories have flown about the Crusoe Islanders. Alfred Moore Waddell, in the 1800s, thought they were descendents of French planters who had escaped the slave uprising in Haiti in the 1790s, a theory that Ruark endorsed in “The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older.” Others have claimed they were a colony of pirates (or coastal settlers who migrated inland to escape the pirates). Perhaps inevitably, some sources even try to link them to the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island. Linguistic clues suggest they are a mixture of European and Indian settlers who wandered into the area and intermarried. The islanders — mostly small farmers and hunters — are noted for their handmade wooden boats, often dugouts, in a fashion that seems descended from Native American models.

In the old days, illicit liquor stills were nearly as common as alligators in the area. Before the Civil War, small colonies of escaped slaves were rumored to camp in the swamp, occasionally venturing out to raid nearby plantations. Intensive commercial logging began in the Green Swamp around 1904.

In 2003, the non-profit Friends of Green Swamp (FOGS) formed in Whiteville to oppose plans for the digging of a large commercial land fill within the swamp. FOGS remains active and has partnered with the Nature Conservancy to buy additional Green Swamp acreage in the Cove Swamp area for preservation. The group may be contacted at (910) 646-4672.

“Into the Sound Country” by Bland Simpson and Ann Cary Simpson (University of North Carolina Press, 1997) contains a long section devoted to Green Swamp ecology and folklore.

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3 Responses to “ What is the Green Swamp?”

  1. On June 1, 2010 at 3:30 pm Kelvin Taylor wrote:

    As I was reading your piece “what is the Green Swamp” on myreporter.com, it reminded me of the adventures I’ve had exploring in the Green Swamp. There is a long season in the swamp from early spring to autumn. With the diversity of wildflowers visitors will see many species all during the year. For those who would like to see some of the natural beauty of one North Carolina’s best natural areas, I have photo galleries featuring what makes Green Swamp a valuable treasure.

    Kelvin Taylor

  2. On September 27, 2014 at 1:29 pm Debra Anne Wintsmith wrote:

    I lived in the Green Swamp as a child and I never got over its hold on me. I have written several books that have a Green Swamp connection including CHURCH SCHOOL BLUES, a story of bullied child in Tennessee whose mother wants her to forget her Green Swamp roots; and my most recent book of poems of longing for the Green Swamp area, CAROLINA MOURNING DOVE. Several of the poems including “Green Swamp Man” reference the Green Swamp directly. http://www.amazon.com/Carolina-Mourning-Dove-Debra-Wintsmith/dp/1500557587/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1411838558&sr=8-1&keywords=carolina+mourning+dove

  3. On May 13, 2016 at 9:13 pm charles h. fisher wrote:

    In 1954 while a student at NC State College, Raleigh, NC, I was returning from a weekend at Myrtle Beach. I caught a ride with a young man who worked at a sawmill processing cypress trees. He let me out on a gravel road saying this will take you straight through the swamp to a filling station on a paved road where you can get a ride north toward Raleigh. I walked all night arriving at the station as the sun rose. An old man asked me how I got there and when I told him he said you are lucky to be alive! You must not be from around here. That swamp is full of panthers, alligators, poisonous snakes, bears. etc. The road was full of snakes, some very large, and not being familiar with swamps, many strange sounds.

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