The Great Dismal Swamp

Roman: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

On the border of Virginia and North Carolina near the eastern shoreline, stretches a great dismal swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp, actually. That’s the name British colonists had given in by the early 1700s.

Sharif: The swamp covers about 190 square miles today, but at its peak, before parts of it were drained and developed, it was around 10 times bigger, spanning roughly 2,000 square miles of Virginia and North Carolina.

Roman: That’s our own Sharif Youssef.

Sharif: It’s understandable why people called the swamp “dismal.” Temperatures can reach over 100 degrees, it’s humid and soggy, filled with thorns and thickets.

Eric: Oh yes, it is quite dismal. They named it, I think, somewhat appropriately.

Sharif: That’s Eric Shepherd. He lives in Carrollton, Virginia, and he runs a company that leads tourists to the Great Dismal Swamp, which is teeming with all sorts of dangerous and unpleasant wildlife.

Eric: We still have black bear and some of the poisonous snakes, then yellow flies and mosquitoes. You still have the hazards there in the swamp.

Roman: Even if you go in with a compass and a map, it’s easy to get lost.

Sharif: Hundreds of years ago, before the Civil War, the dangers of the swamp and its seeming impenetrability actually attracted a lot of people, including one of Shepherd’s ancestors who was enslaved in the region.

Eric: I’ve read information that approximately 50,000 escaped Africans went through and/or lived in the Dismal Swamp. That’s a lot of people to come through there.

Roman: Despite all its predators and bugs, all its thorns and vines, all its dismal-ness and swampiness, this land was home to generations of people. It was the sight of one of the most remarkable and least told stories of resistance to slavery in the United States.

Eric: African-Americans set up communities in that swamp. They were protected there, but they were also in a state of empowerment that they were not going to let anybody come there and move them out of their community in that swamp.

Roman: References to the Great Dismal Swamp and the escaped slaves who settled there, started appearing in newspapers and other sources in the 1700s, but archeologists have found evidence that people were living in the swamp long before that.

Prof. Sayers: When you look at 1607 all the way to about 1660, I believe that the major group of people that were coming into that swamp interior were indigenous Americans.

Sharif: That’s Professor Dan Sayers, a historical archeologist at American University and a leading expert on the Great Dismal Swamp. Sayers says that these indigenous Americans were seeking refuge from European settlers, who’d started building colonies up and down the eastern coast of America.

Prof. Sayers: As colonialism sort of expanded and intensified and the landscape developed into the ranches and the farms or the plantations and all this stuff we’re sort of familiar with, that swamp, it was just this untamed place.

Roman: Then around 1700 or so, the demographics of the swamp started to shift.

Sharif: By that time, slavery was widespread in the American colonies. When enslaved people escaped, the swamp was an obvious place to hide out. News of the swamp probably spread quietly through word of mouth.

Prof. Sayers: Probably an underground sort of grapevine that people learned this when they were trustworthy enough, they learned the information of how to go into the swamp and then find these resistance communities.

Roman: The escaped slaves who found refuge in the swamp came to be known as “Maroons” from the Spanish word “Cimarron,” meaning “wild” or “untamed.”

Sharif: Unlike some other runaways who headed to northern cities, Maroons lived in the wilderness in difficult to reach places. They were determined to build their own communities with the forces of nature and the landscape serving as a buffer between their new lives and the society that enslaved them.

Prof. Sayers: This is thousands of African-Americans who totally, totally created their own world and successfully gave “the bird,” as it were, to that outside world, that capitalistic world, that enslaving world.

Sharif: Sayers has spent years going into the swamp and surveying it.

Prof. Sayers: It’s quite a journey for participants in this project.

Man on Tape 1: There’s a hole right there.

Man on Tape 2: Oh yeah.

Man on Tape 1: There’s a hole right there.

Roman: This tape is from a short film about the Dismal Swamp called, “Landscape of
Power” by Nina Shapiro-Pearl.

Sharif: Over time, Sayers has come to love this dismal terrain.

Prof. Sayers: It’s all just a wonderful thing, to walk around out there in the thick of it.

Roman: Out there in the thick of it, emerging from the dark brown waters …

Prof. Sayers: All of a sudden, you come upon a little plot of dry ground. Islands, and they’re a pretty good size in many cases, like 20, 30, 40 acres. They just sort of sporadically pop up.

Sharif: It was on these islands that Maroon communities formed, likely a few dozen people on each one with some mingling and trade happening between the islands that were close together.

Roman: Based on archeological evidence, Sayers has pieced together an idea of what their lives might have looked like.

Sharif: To shelter themselves, the Maroons built elevated cabins that they lifted above the moist ground using wooden posts. Sayers knows this because the wood that they used to build the structures has changed the color of the soil.

Prof. Sayers: So the post rots in place and it looks much darker, contrasting with that usually lighter soil around it.

Roman: The Maroons grew food to support themselves.

Prof. Sayers: They probably, almost certainly, cultivated sort of community grain and rice fields out in the swamp. I think they did community labor, communal labor like that, gathering not only what they ate on a daily basis to probably some of the surpluses to store for winter and hard times.

Sharif: Farming this picture of life in the swamp hasn’t been easy, because most evidence of the Maroons has long vanished.

Prof. Sayers: All the organic stuff that these communities used and created out of trees, wood, plant materials, whatever, that’s all long rotted away. So we, unfortunately, lost what probably is about 90% or more of what they used on a daily basis.

Roman: Sayers says that normally at other sites from this period, you’d find a bunch of mass-produced goods like glass containers, lead shot, and tobacco pipes, but there’s not much of that stuff in the swamp. The dirth of these goods speaks to how self-sufficient the Maroons were. There wasn’t much from the outside world coming in.

Prof. Sayers: So what they’re doing is, it’s like, “Okay, no, our goal is to settle the swamp and this is our world.”

Sharif: Instead of a bunch of intact artifacts, Sayers and his team have found tiny bits and pieces of old stone tools, which Maroons found or inherited from previous Native American inhabitants. At one excavation site, for example, they found 5,000 such artifacts. Even though that sounds like a lot, Sayers says he can fit them all into a shoebox.

Roman: Sayers’ research suggests that at its peak, from around 1750 to right before the Civil War, the Dismal Swamp was home to thousands of self-sufficient Maroons, and it also served as a stopping point for other escaped slaves who were fleeing north on the Underground Railroad.

Sharif: But, like most Maroon communities, it was under constant threat of discovery.

Roman: The Great Dismal Swamp is not the only example of a Maroon settlement. Far from it. Wherever slavery existed, there were runaways who escaped to live in the wilderness.

Sharif: That means there were Maroons in the British colonies and Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and then in the newly independent countries and states that those colonies gave birth to. In some cases, Maroons clashed with colonial forces, like in Jamaica where they fought wars against the British and negotiated treaties to stay in their communities.

Roman: In fact, there’s a settlement in Jamaica where descendants of Maroons still live, a place called Moore Town tucked away high in the country’s eastern mountains.

Sharif: In the US, Maroon communities existed all across the south, in the north, and even in western states like Texas.

Laura Smalley: (singing)

Sharif: This is from an interview with a former slave named Laura Smalley. It was recorded in 1941. She talks about what it was like growing up and working on a plantation in Bellville, Texas. The interviewer asks-

Man on Tape 3: Did the slaves every try to slip away? Did they ever try to run off?

Sharif: And she replies-

Laura Smalley: No. His mama say when she was a girl that one of those women run off, and every night she slips home, somebody have her something to eat. She get that vittles and go on back in the woods, go on back and stay in the woods. There once this man stayed in the woods so long until he just hair on him long like a dog. He go and stay in the woods, stayed in the woods, and they couldn’t get him out. (singing)

Roman: Every Maroon community across the country was unique. Some Maroons lived in the woods like the woman and man described by Smalley. Others lived in the mountains or swamps. Some even lived in underground shelters that they dug out in wild areas near plantations.

Dr. Diouf: In those little “caves of dance,” as they sometimes call them as well, you sometimes had a real house. Some had furniture, some had stoves.

Sharif: This is Dr. Sylviane Diouf, a historian of the African diaspora and author of “Slavery’s
Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons.” She says that these subterranean Maroon shelters were often ingeniously constructed. Some had timber-supported roofs complete with trap doors that hid all traces of their presence.

Dr. Diouf: That trap, which opened on the outside and to be camouflaged to the point that it would be invisible, but it would also be sturdy enough so that if somebody would stand on it, they wouldn’t cave in.

Sharif: Some shelters even had systems of wooden pipes that transported the stove smoke away from the Maroons’ dens so it wouldn’t give away their location.

Roman: Broadly, Diouf has found that most Maroons tended to live in one of two types of places, each with its own advantages: some resided on the borders of plantations-

Dr. Diouf: Where their family and friends lived, and so they would go back at night just to be with them to get news and also to gather intelligence.

Roman: Other Maroons chose to live more removed from civilization in the hinterlands

Dr. Diouf: The hinterlands, the main feature is that they were secluded. They were difficult to access.

Sharif: Wherever they were, the Maroons all had something in common. They wanted freedom, yes, but even more, they wanted autonomy, a kind of control over their lives that wouldn’t be possible even as free black people in the north.

Dr. Diouf: The Maroons were self-ruled, whether as individuals or families or community, they felt safer in the woods and the swamps, even though it was a hard life full of danger, but they felt safer among alligators than among white people.

Roman: In the late 1700s, white people were rapidly becoming a greater threat than the reptiles of the Great Dismal Swamp. As more and more Europeans arrived in the area, land grew scarce and more valuable.

Sharif: Wealthy colonists saw economic opportunity in developing the swamp. In 1763, a young George Washington, yeah, that George Washington and his brother John started a company with the goal of saving, improving, and draining the land.

Roman: George Washington, the original Swamp Drainer.

Sharif: Eventually, their company and others would create a network of canals so that boats could go into the swamp. Of course, they used slave labor for all of this. Here’s Dan Sayers again.

Prof. Sayers: You see suddenly an introduction of a whole new large group of people, enslaved workers, who were brought in by these companies to help begin transforming the swamp.

Sharif: By the early 1800s, tracts of land had been cleared of trees, and parts of the once impenetrable region had been opened up to new people and industries.

Roman: But remember, the swamp is still huge. If Maroons didn’t want to engage with that encroaching world, they could still find places removed from the industry’s presence, even as that presence became more permanent.

Sharif: Timber companies set up encampments in the swamp for enslaved workers who were sent in to cut down trees. They turned that lumber into shingles and shipped them all over the region.

Roman: Which brings us back to Eric Shepherd, the tour guide we heard from at the beginning of the story whose ancestor spent time in the swamp.

Eric: I believe he was my great-great-grandfather’s uncle-

Sharif: His name was Moses Grandy.

Eric: And he was enslaved down in Camden County, North Carolina, born in 1786.

Sharif: Grandy was a skilled boat captain, and his talents were highly sought after in the canals of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Eric: He was a waterman that delivered those shingles to the Norfolk area so they could build houses.

Roman: While Grandy was working in the swamp, it’s likely that he got to know some of the Maroons who lived there. While some Maroons remained isolated in their communities, others saw opportunities with the new timber industry.

Sharif: Contact between enslaved workers and the Maroons who lived near the new timber camps became pretty common. Sometimes, Maroons would help workers with shingle production in exchange for goods from the outside world.

Roman: One day during his time on the canals, Grandy fell ill, a case of severe rheumatism.

Sharif: When he needed a place to recover, he picked the swamp. He ended up living in the swamp for a whole year. Shepherd thinks he must have had people he could depend on.

Eric: I don’t think you just do that and not know anybody in that swamp. You knew some people there, they watched out for you, and over the course of years, I’m sure that Moses watched out for them.

Roman: In a narrative later published about Moses Grandy’s life, he described his time in the swamp, read here by our friend Al Letson.

Al: “I built myself a little hut, and had provisions brought to me as opportunity served. Here among the snakes, bears, and panthers, whenever my strength was sufficient, I cut down a juniper tree and converted it into cooper’s timber. One night, I was awoken by a large animal smelling my face, sniffing strong. I felt its cold muzzle. I suddenly thrust out my arms and shouted with all my might. It was frightened and made off. I put my trust in the Lord and continued on the spot. I was never attacked again.”

Roman: Eventually Grandy recovered and went back to work. In 1833, he managed to buy his freedom.

Sharif: He became part of the Abolitionist Movement and traveled to Europe where he spoke out against what he’d seen and experienced. In his narrative, Grandy reflected on what it meant to be free after so many years of enslavement.

Al: “I felt myself so light that I almost thought I could fly. In my sleep, I was always dreaming of flying over woods and rivers. My gait was so altered by my gladness that people often stopped me saying, “Grandy, what’s the matter?” Slavery will teach any man to be glad when he gets his freedom.”

Roman: From what researchers can tell, Maroon communities in the states existed as long as they were necessary or as long as they remained hidden from the outside world. Dan Sayers think that the communities in the Great Dismal Swamp began to disperse around the time of the Civil War.

Prof. Sayers: My impression based on the evidence from one interior site right now is that somewhere, more or less, coincident with Emancipation Proclamation, these communities finally disbanded.

Sharif: Some Maroons left to join the Union in battle, and after the war, some may have gone looking for newly freed family in the south. Some may have traveled north, some may have settled in neighboring towns. No one really knows for certain. Many enslaved people weren’t allowed to read or write, so personal accounts from Maroons are rare.

Roman: It’s only in the past few decades that researchers have started to study most US Maroon communities in any sort of depth. For a long time, it was barely a footnote in US history.

Sharif: One reason for this omission is likely because these communities were intentionally secretive, but some academics think there’s a bigger reason why the stories of Maroons aren’t told.

Prof. Sayers: I think in this case, you have a good amount of racism, that sort of coats people’s understandings of history.

Sharif: Most Americans learn about the Underground Railroad way back in elementary school. A resistance to slavery that came about through white and black cooperation. The Dismal Swamp and other Maroon communities are all about black autonomy, a complete rejection of white society. Here’s Sylviane Diouf again.

Dr. Diouf: I think that the idea of black people taking their lives into their own hands and not wanting to be any part of the larger community, not wanting to be free blacks in the north or pass for free in the south, but being self-ruled and living their own kind of freedom. That was not part of the larger discourse of this country.

Eric: I think we still have a ways to go in this country, to be quite honest with you, in terms of history uncut and raw.

Sharif: That’s one of the reasons Eric Shepherd started his tour company. He wants more people to know the history. He left behind a good government job in Baltimore, and he and his wife moved to southern Virginia just to be closer to the hot, muggy, dismal swamp.

Eric: I felt as though it was a calling, it was an assignment. It was a need for me to be down in this area like it was some unfinished business for whatever reason.

Roman: In 2003, several sites in the Great Dismal Swamp were added to the National Park Service Network to Freedom, which recognizes 400 locations involved in the Underground Railroad.

Sharif: A sign at the Great Dismal Swamp recognizes that this place wasn’t just a stop for people on the Underground Railroad, that there were entire communities of people who made this their permanent home.

Roman: Today, the largest remaining part of the Great Dismal Swamp is a national refuge stewarded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who aim to protect the wildlife that’s made a home there and to preserve its unique landscape, keeping alive the memory of the people who found refuge in its dismal terrain.

Eric: It is a strong and rich history, which should be acknowledged, and we are very proud of our ancestors that endured that hell here on earth.

Sharif: Among the black bear and panthers, the rattlesnakes and moccasins, even the unrelenting mosquitoes, the very habitat whose dangers allowed thousands of people to live in relative peace on their own terms.

Roman: We’ll share a little gem of an outtake from Sharif’s research of this piece after this.

We’ll have links to Sylviane Diouf’s book “Slavery’s Exiles” and Sayers’ book “A Desolate Place for a Defiant People” on our website. Thanks to Nina Shapiro-Pearl of American University for the use of her short film “Landscape of Power.” If you’re interested in learning more about tours to the Great Dismal Swamp, check out Eric Shepherd’s website Special thanks also to Terrance Wyke and the Oakland African-American Museum and Library. Thanks also to Al Letson with the podcast Reveal, who voiced Moses Grandy. The archival audio of Laura Smalley was from the WPA’s Voices of Slavery project, hosted by the Library of Congress. This piece was inspired in part by an essay in the Smithsonian Magazine by Richard Grant. We’ll have links to all this and more on our website.

  1. derek

    The Civil War isn’t even two centuries ago.

    Marshes are historically places of refuge for resistance movements, as you say they are traversable by neither horse nor boat, nor men unless they know the area well. The twelfth century Chinese Robin Hood-like story of the Water Margin was about outlaws in the Liangshan Marsh.

    In England in the ninth century, King Alfred based his successful resistance against the Vikings in the marshes of the Somerset Levels, staying on a patch of dry land called the Isle of Athelney, and later Hereward the Wake based his unsuccessful resistance against the Normans in the eleventh century from the Isle of Ely in the Cambridgeshire Fens.

  2. nick

    The original name of the swamp, supposedly, is the Great Dismal as “dismal” was the term given to swamps at the time. That would make its current name essentially the equivalent of “The Great Swamp Swamp.”

    Boaters traveling the interior passageway with a shallow draft might take the dismal swamp canal route, which runs parallel to US Highway 17, when heading south for the winter. This route provides a view of the eastern edge of swamp and offers a glimpse into the conditions and habitat of the area. The canal has been closed to boat traffic since hurricane Matthew as the Army Corps of Engineers continues its dredging operations.

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