natural monument to resistance: the great dismal swamp was a refuge for those escaping slavery

July 12, 2017
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By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor*

Rarely is the real history of the Great Dismal Swamp ever talked about. There is a good reason. It was used for nearly 250 years as a sanctuary for those escaping slavery and colonialism.

In the 1800s, the Great Dismal Swamp was a 2,000 square mile tangle of dense brush, swamps and bogs between Virginia and North Carolina. As early as the 1600s, Native Americans, runaway slaves and even white indentured servants used the swamp as a refuge to avoid bondage and colonialism.

From colonial times through the Civil War the “runaway slave” section of Virginia and North Carolina newspapers (where slaveholders advertised, and offered rewards for the return of their escaped slaves) often mentioned the Great Dismal Swamp as a possible destination.

In 1714, Alexander Spotswood, a Virginia colonial governor, described poor whites and indentured servants who joined swamp communities as the “Loose and Disorderly people who flock to this No-Man’s-Land.”

In 1728, Surveyor William Byrd led the first survey of the Great Dismal Swamp. He encountered a family of escaped slaves, sometimes called maroons, describing them as “mulattoes,” and was well aware that others were watching and hiding: “It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this Obscure Part of the World….”

In 1784, British traveler and writer J. Smyth noted “Runaway negroes have resided in these places for twelve, twenty, or thirty years and upwards, subsisting themselves in the swamp upon corn, hogs, and fowls….[On higher ground] they have erected habitations, and cleared small fields around them.”

It has been estimated that up to 11,000 escaped slaves lived in the swamp and along it borders. These slaves raided white settlers near the borders of the swamp for food and ammunition, and traded work, tools, food and other goods with nearby slaves and free people of color.

In 1831 the Great Dismal Swamp became the focal point of slaveholders’ fear after one of the most famous slave rebellions in U.S. history: Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Nat Turner’s Rebellion took place in Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831, a place that borders the Great Dismal Swamp. After killing nearly 65 men, women and children the rebellion was squashed by local militias and government troops in less than two days. Turner succeeded in hiding out for several weeks and was later captured, tried and hanged in Jerusalem, Virginia.

While Turner was evading capture, he claimed he had an army of runaway slaves nearby in the Great Dismal Swamp, waiting his arrival and his order to attack. News of this claim spread throughout the Virginia and North Carolina counties adjacent to the swamp.

In the lead-up to the Civil War southern slaveholders were already in a panic due to constant revolts. This news pushed many of them over the edge.

Can you imagine the fear this prospect of another large slave revolt would have put into the already terrified white population? We don’t have to imagine. The writer Paul Johnson has a firsthand account from his great-great-grandfather John Morgan, who lived on the border of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Morgan was a Quaker. The Quakers had a nearly 200 year history in Virginia and North Carolina. Their fair treatment of Native Americans and their abolitionist sentiments brought them into direct conflict with colonial southerners and southern slaveholders in the lead-up to the Civil War.

After Nat Turner’s Rebellion, towns and municipalities in Virginia and North Carolina made it mandatory for able-bodied men to serve in local militias or town guards. Morgan, rather than serve in the local militia, which was against his Quaker beliefs, hired a substitute. Meeting minutes of the Quaker congregation in Pasquotank County tell what happened to Morgan. John Morgan was charged by his Quaker congregation in 1831 with “hiring a substitute [soldier], offering a reward for every negro he should kill and for not attending Meetings.” The Quakers appointed a committee to investigate the charge and noted in the minutes that John Morgan “justified himself in this conduct.” The rest of the Quakers in his congregation were strongly against his actions. He was disowned by the congregation in December 1831.

After Nat Turner’s Rebellion, many Quakers left Virginia and North Carolina due to the new restrictive laws put in place to enforce slavery and prevent rebellions. Extreme white fear, anger and vigilantism was blamed for the more than 200 free people of color and slaves who were killed after Turner’s Rebellion, even though they had no connection to the rebellion. Many more innocent people were jailed and had their property burned or stolen following the rebellion by disorderly militias and town guards.

The story of the Great Dismal Swamp is just one of many places escaped slaves used as sanctuaries. The Rigolets, a large area near New Orleans, was controlled for twelve years by the famous maroon, Juan St. Malo, from 1773 to 1784. There were also numerous maroon settlements in pre-Civil War Alabama and Florida.

The Great Dismal Swamp is a National Wildlife Refuge. And only recently has a large area of the swamp been opened up to car travel. Archeologists have just begun exploring and excavating some of the site used by runaway slaves.

The history of the Great Dismal Swamp and maroon settlements throughout the U.S. points to consistent, relentless resistance to slavery by a large slave population. If news of these facts had been circulated at the time it would have shaken the notion of white supremacy and dominance to the core. For this reason the history and stories about the Great Dismal Swamp and other maroon communities has been suppressed and very few reliable images of these heroes were circulated.

Besides being a National Wildlife Refuge, the Great Dismal Swamp and places like the Rigolets should be considered historic natural landmarks for African American history, to honor those who resisted and escaped slavery and oppression before the Civil War.

*Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana and Reclaiming Black History: Finding Admirable Ancestors, a Wealth of Heroism and Traits that Shatter Defeatist Clichés. You can contact him at findingoctave.tumblr.com

Paul Johnson’s story appears in Carolina Genesis: Beyond the Color Line by Stacy Webb. Quakers of the Great Dismal Swamp