A Story of George Washington's Times

By Charles Royster

Knopf. 622 pp. $35

The story begins with the elder Col. William Byrd, famed surveyor and historian of the Colonial boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. It was he who first proposed the idea of draining the Great Dismal Swamp, which lies in the borderland between northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. The colonel's notion was that this roughly 200 square miles of damp, dense and beautiful wilderness could be drained for the cultivation of tobacco and other cash crops. Col. Byrd, this reviewer should say by way of confessing a mild bias, is not a favorite among North Carolinians; for it was he who portrayed the early eastern settlers of my native state as lotus-eating no-accounts who fled across the border to lubber land because they failed to qualify as proper Virginians.

Byrd's vision of the economic potential of the Dismal Swamp was equally flawed, though for a long while it looked very good on paper. Indeed, by 1763, that vision had led to the formation of the Dismal Swamp Company, with 12 charter shareholders, a roster of great Virginia names including none other than George Washington's. In time the Dismal also attracted satellite enterprises, including a canal company aiming to link the estuarial sounds of coastal North Carolina with the port of Norfolk and the open sea. Those who in time shared, acquired or inherited some fractional interest in the various Dismal projects form a who's who of the early Virginia gentry. The reader who would follow all the cousinly links needs either a fathomless command of Virginia genealogy or, if an outlander, some Virginia equivalent of the "Almanach de Gotha" or a racing studbook.

It is a historical commonplace that land speculation, and various schemes of enrichment based on it, have been constants of the American story. What set Virginia somewhat apart, however, aside from its size and wealth, was the development of the Cavalier myth, a legend of social ease, hospitality and civility celebrated (for instance) in W.J. Cash's evocation of the Virginians in "The Mind of the South." Charles Royster appears to be out to show that one precondition of the myth of ease and generosity (which is far from false) was land and hard cash and the manipulation of the two.

Land was plentiful, especially in the west if the Indians and the British government could be squared. Hard cash was often hard to come by, especially after the Revolution devastated paper currencies.

One prototype of the greedier species of Dismal Swamp investor was Samuel Gist, one of the 12 original shareholders. Gist decamped to England well before the Revolution, where he became a figure of importance among the shipping insurance tycoons at Lloyd's coffeehouse. Having acquired a small fortune, Gist, like so many other Colonial nabobs of the era, set himself up as a country gentleman, complete with church advowson and family burial vault. Following the Revolution, he pressed extravagant claims before the royal commissioners who were making loyalists whole. He initially sought more than 23,000 pounds sterling but got far less in the end when the commissioners discovered sloppy bookkeeping and, worse, a sly representation of ordinary business losses as revolutionary expropriations. Gist's story ended sadly. Having devoted his life to the accumulation of wealth, he left no close male heir and eventually left his fortune to a remote and unlettered second cousin of a different name.

George Washington, as usual, behaved with exemplary honesty and circumspection. But even he was not averse to exaggerating the prospects of swamp drainage. The fertility of the Dismal's peatlike soil cannot be exceeded, he declared. It would be easily drained and would then be equal to the richest rice land of South Carolina. None of this was true, though the pater patriae was not alone in his delusion--it was shared, from a distance, by both Thomas Jefferson and the economic sage Adam Smith. When Washington left the presidency, he was relieved to sell his four quarter shares to Henry Lee, an old comrade in arms. Lee's failure to pay the debt became part of the lingering financial embarrassment of the Lee family, amid which the great Confederate captain of the next generation was to spend his boyhood.

And what did Col. Byrd's vision come to in the end? There were modest successes. A small boat transited the swamp via canal in 1814. Some dividends were paid in the early decades of the 19th century. But by then terraphobia, as someone called it, had cooled the land fever of an earlier day. As late as 1806 the most striking event in the Dismal was a great fire that raged through it after two years of prolonged drought. A sort of honeymoon hotel was built in the depths of the swamp by the shores of Lake Drummond. It straddled the dividing line, and there Virginia sweethearts could marry under the laxer North Carolina laws by simply moving from the Virginia end of the hotel to the other without leaving the premises.

Beyond that, the project came to little. The swamp, now a national wildlife refuge, is still swampy.

Charles Royster is a seasoned stylist, and he tells this colorful story in rich detail, making it the focus of a larger study of 18th-century Virginia history. He has resolved to let this tangled tale tell itself almost entirely without authorial prompting or thematic guidance. That is a tall order for a tangled tale, and it doesn't always work. The chronology is often jumpy, as if the author had shuffled his note cards and followed them as they fell. And is it a fabulous history, as Royster's title declares? In the end, it seems indistinguishable from many other alluring financial bubbles that popped.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., professor of journalism and humanities at Washington and Lee University and the author of "The Historical Present."