About Us

The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is the largest intact remnant of a vast forested wetland that once covered more than one million acres of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Formal protection of this resource began in 1973, when the Union Camp Corporation (a local forest products company) donated 49,097acres to The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy conveyed the donated land to the federal government, which, combined with additionally purchased land, was used to establish the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in 1974.

The refuge's conservation priority endeavors to restore the biological diversity of the swamp ecosystem through hydrological restoration, forest management, and fire management. The refuge is home to over 200 species of birds, nearly 100 species of butterflies and skippers, many turtles, numerous white-tailed deer, bobcats, otters, and one of the largest black bear populations on the east coast. Special designations for the refuge include:

  • Virginia and Globally Important Bird Area designations
  • National Parks Services National Natural Landmark National Natural Landmark
    The National Natural Landmarks Program preserves sites illustrating the geological and ecological character of the United States. The program aims to enhance the scientific and educational value of the preserved sites, strengthen public appreciation of natural history and foster a greater concern…

    Learn more about National Natural Landmark
  • Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site
  • Virginia Birding Trail

Our Mission

Refuge Purpose

Each unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System is established to serve a statutory purpose that targets the conservation of native species dependent on its lands and waters. All activities on those acres are reviewed for compatibility with this statutory purpose.

The Dismal Swamp Act of 1974 directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to: “Manage the area for the primary purpose of protecting and preserving a unique and outstanding ecosystem, as well as protecting and perpetuating the diversity of animal and plant life therein. Management of the refuge will be directed to stabilize conditions in as wild a character as possible, consistent with achieving the refuge’s stated objectives.”

With a secondary purpose to: “Promote a public use program when not in conflict with the primary objectives of the refuge.”

Our History

Refuge for Wildlife; Refuge for People

Throughout its history, the Great Dismal Swamp has been both a refuge for people and a refuge for wildlife. The unique characteristics of the swamp have made it a destination for both freedom-seekers and adventurers.

5,000 years ago: Indigenous people hunted here.

Indigenous people may have lived on the mesic islands (former sandbars) in the swamp. Archaeological digs have uncovered tools, weapons, and projectile points they made. The Nansemond, Meherrin, Yeopim, and Lumbee people were likely all stewards of the historic Dismal Swamp long before colonists arrived.

The Late 1600s: Fugitives from slavery found sanctuary here.

From the late 1600s through the Civil War, freedom-seekers created free settlements on the isolated islands deep in the swamp. Historians estimate that some 50,000 self-emancipated African Americans, or “maroons” -- as well as free Blacks, Indigenous people, and outsider Europeans – lived here over time. For some, the Swamp was just a stopping point on their way north. For many others, the swamp became home.

The Early 1700s: A Virginia aristocrat puts the swamp on the map.

In 1728, William Byrd II gave the swamp its name (he thought it was dismal). He was here to survey the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina. Byrd later wrote about the journey in a report read by many of Virginia’s elite.  “[W]e found the ground moist and trembling... foul Damps ascent without ceasing, corrupt the Air, and render it unfit for Respiration.” - William Byrd II, 1728

The Late 1700s to the Mid-1900's: Profit seekers try to tame the swamp

In 1763, a young George Washington and other investors create the “Dismal Swamp Company.” Their aim: drain the swamp to create profitable land. Using enslaved workers, they built drainage ditches and roads. The plan failed, but the company’s new idea – harvesting and selling lumber – took off. It set in motion almost 200 years of swamp manipulation and development.

Late 1900s to Today: The End of Lumbering and the Birth of the Refuge

By the 1950s, most of the swamp’s virgin lumber was gone. On George Washington’s birthday in 1973, the Union Camp Corporation (a forest products company) donated 49,097 acres of swamp land to the Nature Conservancy. In turn, it gave the land to the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was born.

Today, the refuge is nestled among a bustling metropolis with a population of nearly 1,000,000 people in the surrounding communities. With 113,000 acres of forested wetlands and over 40 miles of trails, the refuge provides an opportunity for solitude and respite from the hustle of modern day.