How the Great Dismal Swamp Hid Runaway Slaves for More than a Century

Sayers in the Great Dismal Swamp in 2011. Photo via AP Images.
Sayers in the Great Dismal Swamp in 2011. Photo via AP Images.

Perhaps one of America’s most evocatively named places, the Great Dismal Swamp—which straddles the Virginia/North Carolina border—is mean as hell. But the snakes, bears, and the near-inaccessibility made it a refuge for escaped slaves and their descendants.


This month’s Smithsonian magazine features a look at findings from archeological investigation of a 20-acre island inside what is now a federal wildlife refuge, some of which will be on display when the new National Museum of African American History opens soon. First, let’s set the scene with a description of the leading researcher on the topic:

Thigh deep in muddy water, wearing Levis and hiking boots rather than waterproof waders like me, Dan Sayers stops to light a cigarette. He’s a historical archaeologist and chair of the anthropology department at American University in Washington, D.C., but he looks more like an outlaw country singer. Long-haired and bearded, 43 years old, he habitually wears a battered straw cowboy hat and a pair of Waylon Jennings-style sunglasses. Sayers is a Marxist and a vegan who smokes nearly two packs a day and keeps himself revved up on Monster Energy drinks until it’s time to crack a beer.

The Great Dismal Swamp, as you can probably guess from its name, is not an easy place to excavate, though Sayers insisted, “I got very comfortable being in the swamp,” adding that, “Bears would watch me excavating. I ran into huge water moccasins and rattlesnakes as thick around as my thigh. But nothing worse happened than scrapes, bug bites and losing equipment in the muck.” The piece’s author, Richard Grant, notes that many who’d tried before had been stymied by the conditions: “One research party got lost so many times that it gave up,” and apparently it was fairly routine for people with Sayers to need cutting out of the thorns.

But that’s exactly what drew looking for a hideout from the slavery-enforcing authorities, and once Sayers and his team found the island, they hit the jackpot, finding evidence of seven cabins from roughly 1660 to 1860. Objects going on display at the NMAAHC include: “a white clay tobacco-pipe fragment, 12 millimeters long. There is a small chunk of burnt clay, a five-millimeter piece of flattened lead shot, a quartz flake, a British gunflint chip (circa 1790), a shard of glass, a nail head with a partial stem.”

The story of the settlement (or settlements) in the Great Dismal Swamp pushes back on some of the long common narratives around slavery in the United States:

Marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery, took place all over Latin America and the Caribbean, in the slave islands of the Indian Ocean, in Angola and other parts of Africa. But until recently, the idea that maroons also existed in North America has been rejected by most historians.

“In 2004, when I started talking about large, permanent maroon settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp, most scholars thought I was nuts,” says Sayers. “They thought in terms of runaways, who might hide in the woods or swamps for a while until they got caught, or who might make it to freedom on the Underground Railroad, with the help of Quakers and abolitionists.”


There were other such communities—for instance, Florida and outside New Orleans—but NMAAHC curator Nancy Bercaw explained that typically they weren’t so isolated: “The Dismal Swamp maroons found a way to remove themselves completely from the United States, in the recesses of its geography.” Sayers estimates that Africans and African Americans dominated the Great Dismal Swamp from the 1680s, but, “We’ve found almost nothing after the Civil War. They probably worked themselves back into society as free people.”

“Traditionally, we’ve studied the institution of slavery, not enslavement as it was lived,” Bercaw added. “Once you start looking at our history through an African-American lens, it really changes the focus. Maroons become much more significant.”


The piece is worth reading in full; the NMAAHC opens September 24.

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White people terrorized black people to the extent that bears, snakes, swamps were nothing compared to the terror of white hate