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America's Wetland

An Environmental and Cultural History of Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina

Roy T. Sawyer

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

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pp. vii-viii

A book of this kind is a synthesis of the work of many others who have contributed through remarkably diverse disciplines. The challenge has been to integrate these disparate studies into a meaningful story. Any failure to do so in the following pages is mine alone and in no way reflects on the countless scholars without whom this ecohistory would not be...

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pp. 1-6

At one critical period in America’s history the Albemarle region of south-eastern 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...

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1. Ice-Age Enclave

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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 Pleisto-cene). Glaciers and winter ice came close to, but did not encompass, this unglaciated coastal enclave whose relative warmth and abundance of food...

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2. Relict Fauna

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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...

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3. Water’s Environmental Facets

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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 long-term patterns are detectable. Foremost is awareness that these environmental phenomena recur with regularity over the long term. Such themes...

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4. Period of European Colonization

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pp. 56-66

Hunter-gatherers roamed the Albemarle-Pamlico region thousands of years before agriculture eventually supported semipermanent settlements there, from about 1000 ʙc. 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...

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5. Agricultural History

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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 ʙc a fundamental change began to occur in this region that man-...

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6. Sturgeon, Herring, and Other Fisheries

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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, year-round fish (e.g., crappie, perch, sunfish, bluegill and other panfish, black...

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7. Antebellum Golden Age: Transportation Canals

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pp. 102-119

Dugout canoes dating back to 3095 ʙc 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...

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8. African American Experience

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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...

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9. Armed Conflict: A Recurring Theme

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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...

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10. Intracoastal Waterways: War Canals

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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,...

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11. Forests Then and Now

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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...

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12. Droughts and Forest Fires

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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...

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13. From Peat Mining to Wildlife Refuges

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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...

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14. Lost Heritage: Last River Highway

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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...

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15. Urbanization and Depopulation

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pp. 200-207

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 ...

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pp. 209

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,...


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pp. 213


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pp. 231-243


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pp. 245-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780813929699
E-ISBN-10: 0813929695
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813929217
Print-ISBN-10: 0813929210

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 12 b&w illus., 1 map
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Climatic changes -- Virginia -- Atlantic Coast.
  • Climatic changes -- North Carolina -- Atlantic Coast.
  • Atlantic Coast (Va.) -- Environmental conditions.
  • Wetland ecology -- North Carolina -- Atlantic Coast.
  • Wetland ecology -- Virginia -- Atlantic Coast.
  • Atlantic Coast (N.C.) -- Environmental conditions.
  • Drainage -- Environmental aspects -- Virginia -- Atlantic Coast.
  • Drainage -- Environmental aspects -- North Carolina -- Atlantic Coast.
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