NORTH CAROLINA — The oppressive heat, venomous serpents and boot-snatching muck that made the Great Dismal Swamp a barrier to European settlement ever since colonial times also made it a haven for thousands of people escaping slavery before the Civil War.
This fall, a permanent exhibition will open to provide some detail about those lives, part of an expanding effort by the National Park Service and other agencies to recast the experience of pre-war slaves. Scholars are using sites like the Great Dismal Swamp, straddling the line between North Carolina and Virginia, to highlight a little-known side of history, in which the freedom trail for slaves didn’t always run to the north.
“What you find with places like the Dismal Swamp is that there were oases within the South for people,” said Michelle Lanier, a curator at the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties. “When you start to look at these communities that kind of created a safe haven or safer haven, it really explodes our simplified notion of what the underground railroad was.”
The swamp is still an inhospitable place. Carefully edging his way along a path dotted with hip-deep patches of mud, a machete swinging by his side, American University professor Dan Sayers has been retracing the paths taken by some of those people for more than a decade. Sayers’ research has led to the creation of the permanent exhibit, and to a greater understanding of people who left behind very few testaments to their lives.
“They were creating their own world, and when you think about it, not many people have that opportunity, even in the present day,” said Sayers, who spends summers in the swamp with students and other researchers, piecing together a picture of life in the area from fragments sometimes as small as fingernail parings.
Hunched over carefully dug holes, the researchers look for signs of human habitation. They’ve found dozens of artifacts, ranging from pot shards to musket balls to pieces of flintlock from a French gun made sometime between 1650 and 1800. The work requires a forensic level of attention, with signs that would pass without notice to the untrained eye sparking excitement from the students. Different shades of soil in a particular pattern, for example, could indicate a post hole for a wooden cabin, or perhaps a fire pit.
“This isn’t the archaeology that any of us are used to,” Sayers said. “In some ways, we were really starting from scratch.”
Today the Great Dismal Swamp covers about 112,000 acres. Its size, thick tree cover and uncertain terrain make it a difficult place to get around in, which must have been even truer before the Civil War, when it was about 10 times larger. Logging, canals and the growth of nearby towns shrank the swamp starting in the early 19th century, with the remaining portion donated in 1973 to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service as a nature preserve.
The agency has embraced Sayers’ research, building a pavilion to host the exhibit, which they hope will tap into public interest in the pre-Civil War history of the swamp. The exhibit, which will include photographs, illustrations and descriptions of the lives of settlers in the swamp, will serve as an easy way to learn about the work being done, since the archaeological digs themselves are in the swamp’s remote interior. And with the hot, moist environment acting like a vast digestive system, there isn’t a whole lot to see: Wooden cabins, old clothing and even the bodies of escapees who settled there have long since been absorbed into the ecosystem.
“People call us and say, ‘Where can I go to see this?’ But it’s not like there’s a house or something,” said Deloras Freeman of the fish and wildlife service.
For Sayers, the point isn’t to find sensational artifacts, it’s to establish a history of settlement in the swamp stretching back to American Indian tribes whose stone tools and pottery were reused by the runaway slaves called maroons who permanently settled there. The hope is that the tiny remains of these communities, which left virtually no written documentation of their existence, will be able to establish how they lived and how long they stayed.
“Thousands of people lived here, and for the most part, those lives went unrecorded,” Sayers said.
From the evidence Sayers has found so far, people likely lived in small communities of several wooden buildings clustered together. Children were born and raised there, and the settlers likely hunted game and had limited dealings with people living on the fringes of the swamp.
The site was long known as a haven for escapees and members of Indian tribes avoiding European encroachment. Advertisements seeking the return of escaped slaves from the 1700s mention the swamp, and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about it as a place of refuge in the novel “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.” The North Carolina legislature was even petitioned to do something about the settlements in the swamp, said Wanda Hunt-McLean, a local historian who studies the underground railroad.
“Many people were warned about traveling near the edge of the swamp because of stories about blacks living there,” she said.
But the only significant attempt to recapture slaves in the swamp came after the violent slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1831, and that barely reached the fringes of the wilderness, Sayers said. The swamp was simply too dense and treacherous to make sustained efforts to capture slaves or their descendants worthwhile.
Partly as a result of that, so little documentation existed on the communities there that Sayers was largely on his own when it came to looking for artifacts. Starting with the knowledge that people lived in the swamp and assuming they would have found dry ground on which to settle, once he found some of those dry patches, he began to dig. Soon, he uncovered artifacts of human habitation from the 1600s through the early 19th century, and even traces of prehistoric settlement.
The discovery is helping change the understanding of what life was like for slaves before the Civil War, said Deanda Johnson, program manager at the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom initiative, which has so far designated 400 sites in 30 states as integral to the history of pre-war resistance to slavery, including the swamp.
“It really is the first civil rights movement, if you think about it,” she said. “There were people willing to take huge risks in escaping slavery, and in helping others escape.”
Sayers’ project recently secured a $200,000 grant that will help bring experts from other disciplines to the study, ranging from a geographer to a folklorist. He’s hoping to find more evidence of humans living there after 1800 or so, but the project has already put into perspective the agony slaves must have experienced, Hunt-McLean said.
“Even the atmosphere is different out there,” she said. “It’s thick, it’s muggy. It’s dangerous. For anyone to prefer that environment to the plantation tells you what life must have been like for people who weren’t free.”