Slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp

Jul 29, 2014

Great Dismal Swamp
Credit Dan Sayers/Archaeology Archives

Most Americans have heard of the Underground Railroad - a trail that allowed Southern slaves to escape to the North, but there were other escaped slaves who stayed in the South, living in a place their masters feared - Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp.

Archaeologists are now digging there - finding proof of sizable communities where defiant people found freedom. 

The Great Dismal Swamp is a vast expanse of forest and dark water.  In George Washington’s time, it was a million acres.  Today, it’s home to a large population of black bears and to 16 kinds of snakes.  Brian Van Eerden is a biologist with the Nature Conservancy.

“You’ve got cotton mouth, copperhead and rattlesnake.  You also have a lot of small, winged creatures that like to suck blood - mosquitoes.  You’ve got a lot of ticks.  On the plant side you have cat brier, a lot of thorns.  You’ve got a lot of poison ivy.”  

And British settlers believed the swamp was haunted, but their descendants overcame that fear to realize great riches.  Trees could be cut and floated to market in canals dug by slaves.

“My name is Moses Grandy.  I was born in Camden County, North Carolina. I believe I am 56 years old.”

Moses Grandy was one of those who worked in the swamp and left a written record of his experience  - read by Norfolk actor Peter Lucas.

“The labor there was very severe.  The Negroes are up to the middle or much deeper in the mud, cutting away  roots.  The overseer gave the same task to each slave.  I have seen him tie up persons and flog them, because they were unable to get the previous day’s task done.  After they were flogged, brine was put on their bleeding backs to increase the pain, he sitting by, resting himself, seeing it done.”

Grandy was eventually freed, and for a time took up residence in the swamp.

“One night I was awoke by some large animal smelling my face and snuffing strongly.  I felt its cold muzzle.  I thrust out my arms and shouted with all my might and it made off.  I slept, of course, no more that night.  I put my trust in the Lord and continued on the spot.  I was never attacked again.”

And it turns out other former slaves were living in this wilderness.  The Nature Conservancy’s Brian Van Eerden says they made their way to one of four large islands accessible only on foot.

“All of a sudden the forest opens.  The ground is dry, and you see in front of you beech trees and oak trees, and the ground is firm.  That was home!”

Archaeologist Dan Sayers

Archaeologist Dan Sayers unwraps several artifacts from a collection of thousands he and students from American University have found during digs that began in 2005.

The earliest stuff was left long before colonists arrived in America.

“This is a ceremonial bowl.  It’s very well done -- very smooth on the inside.  Soapstone vessels preceded the use of ceramic among Native Americans.”

But he’s also found bits of clay pipe, nails and traces of at least a dozen cabins likely built by escaped slaves, along with what could have been an arsenal - a place where Sayers found gun flints and lead shot.

“Make no mistake about it.  These were resistance communities.  They weren’t going out there because they loved swamps.  They were going out there because they were living in a very brutal and oppressive world of slavery and colonialism and all that.”

News of these finds is exciting for professional and amateur historians like Eric Shepherd, a resident of Suffolk who organizes tours to help African-Americans get in touch with their roots.

“As our ancestors are calling us to look for them, I think we ought to pick up the spiritual phone - and answer the call.”

He’s gone as far as Ghana and Gambia - but he’s also traveled around the Great Dismal Swamp to a church where he hoped to learn more about his relatives.

“After the service, somebody came up to me and said, ‘Your people are buried out back here.’  So I go out back, and there was my great, great grandfather.  His name was Edmund Grandy, and he was born in 1827, died in 1906.  He was enslaved down here in Camden County.”

And he was kin to Moses Grandy  - a discovery that led Shepherd to Grandy’s account of life in the Great Dismal Swamp and beyond - a narrative that formed the basis for his own book, Ancestor’s Call.