The Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina was the site of an extensive fugitive community from at least the early 18th century. It functioned as an autonomous region, immune to outside interference because of the twisting trails and waterways of the swamp. Trade, in the form of shingles cut from swamp Cyprus, was even conducted with outside communities. Its status as a refuge for fugitives led such a prominent figure as George Washington to recommend its draining and conversion to farmland. Washington and a number of other Virginia planters paid $20,000 for 40,000 acres of the Great Dismal. This happened in 1763, the same year as the Slave Revolt in the South American Dutch colony of Berbice (Guyana). It seems more than a coincidence that Washington and other slave owners should decide to eliminate the Great Dismal Swamp, a noted haven for runaway slaves, in the same year as the largest slave revolt in the Americas to that date. This was also the year after the suppression of a slave revolt in the Crown Colony of Bermuda. It was widely believed by slave owners that the existence of maroon communities made slave revolts all the more likely, so much so that in 1671 Virginia specifically offered a bounty on the heads of maroons. The root of the word maroon is the Spanish Cimarron, for runaway livestock that had gone wild. In any case, being at the time in excess of 2000 square miles, draining the swamp was beyond the 18th century capabilities of Washington and his partners, though they did succeed in cutting down a lot of trees, and did oversee a number of wild fires that burned large sections of swamp. Unable to turn a profit, Washington eventually gave his share in the Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp to Lighthorse Harry Lee.
In the years prior to the Civil War the fugitive community of the Great Dismal
Swamp became a major stop on the underground railway. Harriet Beecher Stowes
novel Dred: A Story of the Great Dismal Swamp, told of runaway slaves hiding
in the depths of the swamp, yet never mentions the permanent fugitive community
that existed there, perhaps because she was unaware of it, or perhaps because
she didnt want to tip their hand. No doubt many of the runaway slaves
decided to remain in the swamp. During the war, the Great Dismal Swamp was an
area which confederate forces stayed clear of.
The swamps of Florida gave refuge to thousands of runaways in the years of
Spanish rule. In 1738 the Spanish offered freedom to any slave who fled the
English colonies and came to St. Augustine. This wasnt out of any anti-slavery
sentiment on the part of Spain. They disputed English ownership of Georgia and
South Carolina. Inciting slaves to run away was an effective way of disrupting
those colonies. The British copied this tactic during the War of Independence
(Dunmores Proclamation), with the same success. Once in Florida the fugitives
encountered the refugee remnants of the southeastern Indian tribes who had also
fled to the Florida swamps. They also found maroon communities that had been
there since the 17th century. The fugitive communities they established in the
Florida swamps became the strongest in the country. The Seminole Wars (beginning
1816) pitted United States military forces against irregular units of Indians,
fugitive whites (renegades or border ruffians) and runaway
slaves. Runaway slaves and other fugitives fled to these strongholds throughout
the Spanish colonial period and after 1819, when the United States took Florida
The early colonial period was the heyday of the fugitive communities in North America. Europeans usually only occupied a small portion of a colonies available land. This left vast expanses of wilderness open to the fugitives. By the beginning of the 19th century expanded settlement and increased European populations had pressed the fugitive communities (with a few exceptions) ever further into the wild. The Melungeons were driven from their farms in the Shenandoah Valley by the mid 18th century. Other tri-racial groups were driven deeper into the mountains and swamps. In the period prior to the Civil War, tri-racial people were classified as free persons of color, a classification which has led many researchers to erroneously identify tri-racials as freed slaves. After the Reconstruction period, with the rise of the Eugenics movement of scientific racism, tri-racial groups were classified as African Americans in many locations (based on the one drop rule: if you have ANY Negro ancestry, you are a Negro). These measures did much to destroy many tri-racial communities, since those who could pass for white eagerly did so to avoid the racist restrictions placed on Negroes. Those tri-racials who exhibited the most prominent Negro features were forced to dissolve into the African American community, where they became mulattos. Those that exhibited the most prominent European features dissolved into white society, where they explained their dark features by various acceptable means. Tri-racial communities still exist, and many occupy lands that their fugitive ancestors settled generations ago. Their story is an important example of the determination and resilience human beings can achieve, as well as of the many complex possibilities that presented themselves in the early colonial period.
Posted on Wed, Feb. 18, 2004
Dismal Swamp may reveal secret history of escaped slaves
BY KIMBERLY LENZ
SUFFOLK, Va. - The Great Dismal Swamp is exactly what its name promises.
Its tangle of razor-tipped thorn bushes encircles a determined swarm of insects
that survive on the flesh of mammals, birds, deadly reptiles and a relatively
small number of humans on brief forays to see what this place is all about.
This was not always so.
Black men and women - escaped slaves - once scratched out lives, maybe even
raised families, in what was once a 2,000-square-mile swamp. They took their
chances in a harsh wilderness rather than spending another moment under their
The National Park Service recently added the swamp to its National Underground
Railroad Network to Freedom.
The slaves established what historians call "Maroon Communities,"
secret places locked tight inside an untamed swamp.
Some local historians believe the experiences of the Maroons... are laced with
other enslaved laborers who worked for the canal companies that tried to drain
the swamp beginning in 1793. When they failed at that, they used these canals
to barge out Atlantic white cedar and cypress, which often ended up as shingles
on the roofs of houses and buildings across the eastern seaboard.
Maroons worked under the radar to prop up the always-shorthanded canal companies,
earning food or clothing.
Or so go the stories. Lore and the written accounts of white "adventurers"
who toured the South in the 1700s and 1800s tell breathlessly of spotting the...
fugitives from slavery. Masters eager to reclaim their living property from
the swamp placed newspaper ads, often decorated with a cartoonish slave on the
There is one widely known drawing of a fugitive slave, hastily sketched in
pencil after a close encounter. He crouches in a web of tightly knit brush...
cradling a gun.
"About 30 paces from me I saw a gigantic Negro, with a tattered blanket
wrapped around his shoulders and a gun in his hand. His head was bare, and he
had little other clothing other than a pair of ragged breeches and boots,"
author and illustrator David Hunter Strother wrote in September 1856.
Until recently, those stories, advertisements and that single drawing were
all the present had to craft a portrait of the past.
A handful of historians such as Norfolk State University archivist Tommy Bogger
have spent their lifetimes collecting narratives that fill in the picture of
slavery in southeast Virginia. Bogger bolsters the stories with bits of broken
pottery produced during a graduate student's underfunded dig some 20 years ago
and with a hunch that so many stories must be based in truth. But without some
proof, something to hold in the hand, there is a great distance between a tale
and the truth.
Dan Sayers also has no doubts that escaped slaves lived in the swamp.
"Many American historians have a hard time conceiving of such things.
I believe Maroons were a natural part of the resistance to slavery in America,"
says Sayers. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in historical archaeology at the College
of William and Mary, targeting the undiscovered cultural history of Maroons
as his goal.
Sayers wants to bring the slaves into the historical narrative of the place.
"What did it mean to be a Maroon? Did they even think of it that way?"
he asks. He'll try to fill in that missing piece with the oral traditions he's
sure must have been passed down from Maroons to their free descendants.
He has good reason to believe. "Maroon" has become an American euphemism
for escaped slaves, but it originally referred to an organized African resistance
to slavery by running away and setting up isolated, large-scale communities
throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.
"The pattern you see in virtually every other country with Maroons is
an elaborate community and social structure, with largely African customs of
social hierarchy. Supposedly you get to America and suddenly nothing is going
on," says Sayers.
He doesn't buy it.
He wonders if researchers have shied away from searching for the Dismal's Maroons
because they believe such a settlement couldn't exist in an era where the government
and slave owners hunted down slaves who escaped.
Sayers has spent the last couple of years combing through the lore and reports
to set up an educated search for proof of where the Maroons dug in.
Last fall he began to find it.
Sayers and a few volunteers surveyed likely settlement spots that took advantage
of higher, drier ground and proximity to known ditch-digging camps. Then, every
16 or so feet, he dug a careful hole no more than a foot wide and about 25 inches
deep. The going was slow. Each hole took about 45 minutes to excavate through
a deep layer of gritty soil eventually replaced by wet clay.
Above that clay, Sayers found his quarry.
He measures success in the palm of his hand. One of the very first pieces,
of dozens so far, is the size of a quarter. Make that a very exciting quarter.
Its color and texture points to ceramic from the late 1500s, which could mean
it's a Native American relic. Except Sayers hasn't found the projectile points
or scrapers he'd expect to be scattered at a Native American site.
So he starts thinking: Could this be a pre-canal Maroon occupation? Could it
be that Maroons had hooked up with disenfranchised Native Americans and traded,
or learned pottery-making skills? He hopes the context of this tiny piece will
build and widen as he excavates more of the site.
What Sayers is not finding gives him and those whose stories may be verified
"If I was digging holes and finding Milky Way wrappers say, 10 centimeters
down, I'd be thinking, `Well, gee, this site probably isn't worth too much.
It's too disturbed.' "
But Sayers hasn't found anything that was made after 1860-1870.
He hopes to find evidence of Maroon structures, reduced by the years to discolored
earth in the shape of post holes. Beyond that, he hesitates to say exactly what
he's looking for and won't say where. Today's adventurers, he says, tend to
devour those tidbits, grab a shovel, head to the site and start digging. He
cannot risk destruction, no matter how well-intentioned.
Those who would dare to look would first have to conquer the Dismal.
In winter, with the proper modern clothing no slave's cloth could compete with,
it is a lovely place. Bare treetops and a smear of clouds don't obscure the
orienting sun. A pair of vultures circle overhead, and most southbound birds
have already passed through. The ground is soaked, but recent freezing temperatures
cut back on the spring and squish that accompany warmer weather. It is quiet
but for the snap of a far-off twig. It is cold and bearable.
Still, a web of vegetation blocks many routes into the likeliest hidden encampments.
Just a week ago Sayers' group took machetes to the brake of vines that lay between
them and a suspected camp. They hacked for about six hours, their machetes glancing
off thorns that slice skin and sting for days afterward. When they finally gave
out, the group had gone about 500 feet.
The next day they tried again, this time from another angle and to better results:
about 1,000 feet in six hours.
"If the motivation is proper or strong enough, it gets done," says
Elaine Nichols, referring first to the Maroons, then to Sayers' effort to make
a path through the brush. Nichols is now curator of history at the South Carolina
State Museum in Columbia. Before that, she was the student who attempted the
first archaeological dig at the Dismal.
Nichols believes the slaves developed ways of getting by that gave a regular
life rhythm to unending hardship.
"Like the gospel song says, `You make a way out of no way'," she
says, eager to see what that way will be, both for the long-lost Maroons and
Thirty years after he did some of the first studies on Tidewater slavery, Norfolk
State's Tommy Bogger is glad someone is "trying to tie it all down."
Come spring, Sayers and his crew will brace for the critter arousal that vexes
their efforts but has worked to keep the Maroons' secrets safe for more than
Deadly snakes - the canebrake rattler, the copperhead and aggressive cottonmouth
- will shake off winter and twist again through the swamp. Black bears will
emerge, and flying, biting insects will beat their wings in such dense numbers
as to render a person 15 feet away a blur. Ticks will sink into unsuspecting
And a secret history may be discovered, much in the way it was made.
© 2004, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).
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