Escape through the swamp: The link between the Great Dismal Swamp and the Underground Railroad

For centuries, slaves came to the Great Dismal Swamp seeking freedom.

There is evidence that even in the 1640’s and 50’s there were Africans who had escaped from their owners and fled to the Dismal Swamp. For many, the sprawl of dense forest wetlands on the Virginia-North Carolina border was a stopping point on their journey northward.

For others, the swamp became a permanent home where they established hidden, largely self-sufficient settlements. They were called maroons, a word that comes from the French word marronage, meaning “to flee”.

The Great Dismal Swamp played a significant role in the “Underground Railroad." Deloras Freeman, the Visitor Services manager at the Swamp conducts education tours, says most of the freedom seekers took a path on the eastern side of the swamp.

Thousands were captured, but thousands more used the harsh landscape as a path to liberty and set up communities.

Archaeologist Dan Sayers published findings of artifacts that support the theory that groups of slave settlements were clustered throughout the swamp.

Historians note that the maroons helped build the 22-mile Dismal Swamp Canal in the early 1800’s, hiding in plain sight. According to Norfolk State University Professor Cassandra Newby-Alexander, these runaway slaves living in those communities would barter items in exchange for their labor.

Recent research suggests that as many as 50,000 maroons may have lived in the swamp. Usually not more than four or five family groups lived in these small clusters throughout the swamp, according to Newby-Alexander. Some of the islands deep in the swamp are 25 to 50 acres of large pieces of land just a few feet above water.

To avoid discovery, historians say, children were raised not to speak above a whisper. Following the civil war, it’s been reported some of the maroon families settled in areas of Chesapeake, Suffolk, and Northeastern North Carolina.

To learn more about this period in history we recommend:

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, is a professor of history at Norfolk State University and the director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies.

Her publications include An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads, the co-edited book Voices from within the Veil: African Americans and the Experience of Democracy and the co-authored books, Black America Series: Portsmouth and Hampton Roads: Remembering Our Schools.