No telling what compelled John Lawson and his gang to strip naked and wade through tangled underbrush and into the murky water, but we know with the benefit of three hundred years’ hindsight that if he’d moved north or south a bit, he might have avoided the unpleasant plunge altogether.
The famed Lawson party, exploring the wilderness of the Colonial Carolinas, happened upon a Carolina Bay—an elliptical depression on the otherwise flat expanse of the coastal plain deep enough to collect and hold rain and groundwater. With the advent of aerial photography and, later, satellite imagery, researchers got a sense for just how prevalent these bays are—tens of thousands of them stretching from Florida to New Jersey. Some are just a few feet long, others nearly half a mile.
Above: John Lawson’s account of his trek through Colonial Carolina and some of the creatures he encountered there. Images courtesy North Carolina Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. The full text of Lawson’s narrative and many other primary resources are available from Documenting the American South.
Above: An image from Google Earth around White Lake, NC showing the prevalence of Carolina Bays. Below: An image from Google Earth showing the faint outline of bays (called Delmarva Bays up north) that were long ago filled in and farmed. Here is a Google Earth aerial tour of Carolina Bays on YouTube.
There are competing theories on the origin of Carolina Bays. The wildest hypotheses been debunked over the past century or so: artesian springs; the erosion of underlying limestone; schools of millions of fish fanning massive nests with their tails (when the sea level was higher); and, most outlandish of all, patterns from the motion of giant beavers or turtles.
A committed group of researchers clings to an extraterrestrial theory of origin. Not aliens, but rather the impact of one or more meteors over what’s now the Midwest, showering the prehistoric east coast with chunks of the exploded rock big enough to gouge out the bays. Among the evidence offered for this is that the axes of the bays all converge at a couple points in the Midwest.
Measurements of Carolina Bays’ axes that furnish evidence for a Midwestern cosmic impact. Image courtesy of Michael Davias, cintos.org
But the generally accepted theory holds that the bays were windblown depressions that filled with water. They date, the evidence says, to 15,000 years ago or more when glaciers were fast retreating northward and the daily weather conditions were harsh. Conditions were bitter cold. The Laurentide Ice Sheet was only few hundred miles north. Hurricane-force winds blew for weeks on end. These were no dainty breezes; the gales were strong enough to move earth.
Flash forward to the (relative) present, and a calmer climate, and the Carolina Bays proved themselves nurseries for all manner of life, both animals and plants. In fact, the bays take their name not from the fact that they hold water but from the bay trees that flourish on their sandy southeastern rims. Native Americans visited bays often for the water, food and other resources they offered.
Above: LiDAR imagery of Carolina Bays in eastern North Carolina. Below: LiDAR imagery of Delmarva Bays on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Images courtesy of Michael Davias, cintos.org
Cintos.org has dozens more LiDAR images of Carolina Bays, in addition to printed research about this phenomenon.
Of course, such an intricate tangle of wetland life was of little use for farmers and quite often hardscrabble homesteaders drained and cleared these bays so they could put them to the plow. All that’s left of many bays is the light streak of their onetime rim, visible from satellite imagery or on the ground as sandy soil crumbles in one’s hand. In other places bays have been co-opted for recreation, and rims that once abounded with bayside habitat now sports houses, docks and boats.
At most of these places, there’s little reflection on what bays once were.
But quite a few yet remain, from North and South Carolina up to the Delmarva Peninsula. At Bladen Lakes State Forest in North Carolina, trails meander around peaceful ponds— a peek into the fading remnants of a prehistoric world, a pleasant vista formed by a violent climate tens of thousands of years ago.
Scenes from Bladen Lakes State Forest, home to several Carolina Bays.
Scenes from White Lake, North Carolina, a Carolina Bay turned into a resort.
Above: Ground level on the sandy rim of former Carolina Bays. Top: Eastern Shore of Virginia. Bottom: N. Carolina
Ubiquitous bay trees give Carolina Bays their name.