11 months ago

Tradewinds April 2005 Fiinal Web

April 2015

The Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp and the Underground Railroad by Wanda E. Hunt McLean Continued from last month Nineteen years later, several prominent VA land speculators, including George Washington, Anthony Bacon and John Robinson, organized the Dismal Swamp Land Company, otherwise known as the ”Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp.” Establishing the Dismal Plantation, the founders used enslaved people (slaves) to dig ditches to drain the swamp, farm, and cut timber. In spite of theories to farm the swamp land, the swamp’s primary attraction was its timber; cypress and the Atlantic white cedar. Although George Washington concluded that farming was possible on certain kinds of reclaimed soil, nearly another decade passed before the company began to build canals to Lake Drummond, such as the Washington and Jericho Ditches, and farm the land, using enslaved labor. Soon after the experiment began it came to an end due to a general economic downturn, internal problems, and the American Revolution. When people ask me how anyone could live in the swamp I start with the simple facts; various people lived there for different reasons. If a person committed a crime in Virginia they often hid out in the North Carolina side of the swamp, or vice-versa. I guess extradition didn’t hold up in the swamp. During various conflicts, for example the Civil War, militia and “gorillas” hid out in this swamp. And let’s not forget the Lake Drummond Hotel, which straddled the VA/NC boundary line. For whatever reasons when someone wanted to get away from North Carolina they often booked a room in the hotel on the Virginia side, or vice-versa. And, historians continue to explore the oral history that Nat Turner and some of his men hid out in the ‘dismal’ following Nat Turner’s Insurrection. “What about slaves?” I’m asked. “How could they live for 30 years in the swamp?” In one word I answer, freedom; Freedom to live without fear of physical cruelty or being sold off to another plantation, and changing ones status from ‘property’ to viable citizen. The maroon community occupants took matters into their own hands. They bartered with farmers who lived near the edges of the swamp for food, weapons, mules, etc., and/or a small parcel of land to grow food in exchange for labor. And often the farmers had no choice for fear of their property going up in smoke. Many of the maroon occupants earned money working for lumber companies in the swamp. Lumber companies had absolutely no reservations hiring people of African descent working for them. Free or runaway, they just wanted good cheap labor. Was it political? Yes! Was it about money? Yes! And since horses used by slave catchers were not able to traverse the unstable swamp land, dogs were trained to do the job. Once the freedom seekers set up ‘house’ in the swamp and obtained weapons, the dogs were injured or killed by the runaways. Documented in the slave narrative of Allen Parker of nearby Chowan County, “Recollections of Slavery Times by Allen Parker” (, slaves living in the swamp for refuge imagined that when the owls started hooting they were warning the slaves that an unfamiliar person was approaching their camp. True or imagined, freedom seekers survived. How many survived is difficult to determine. Do you know people living in northeast NC and southeast VA today who are descendants of former slaves who lived and worked in the swamp, and those who worked the swamp, white or black, following the end of slavery? You can easily visit the Great Dismal Swamp in Camden County on US 17N at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome/Visitors Center, and on the same side of the canal welcome center you can walk across the canal floating bridge to the NC Dismal Swamp State Park. You can also drive to the swamp’s headquarters in Suffolk for information about the swamp and more planned programs and activities. Your local computer repair store. From Laptop Repair to virus removal we do it all. Located in Elizabeth City NC. 252-562-0987 Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia, by David Edward Cronin, 1888 Albemarle Tradewinds has never required contracts from it’s clients. 22 Albemarle Tradewinds April 2015

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