The Great Dismal Swamp straddles many lines—the border between Virginia and North Carolina, the boundary between land and water, and the space between past and present. It exists today as one of the most ecologically sensitive and important areas on the East Coast, a natural carbon sink that plays a critical role in carbon sequestration, and as a repository of another type, holding the stories of the enslaved people who sought refuge in the swamp and claimed it as a place of resistance to slavery.
Our new entry by Marcus Nevius on Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp explores the role of the Dismal as a place of petit marronage, in which individuals or groups of enslaved people self-emancipated and sought refuge in inhospitable terrain. There is archeological evidence of maroon communities in the Great Dismal Swamp dating back to the late seventeenth century. Beginning in the 1730s with the Chesapeake Rebellion, the Dismal Swamp became a place of refuge for Black insurgents as well as for African Americans fleeing slavery and Native Americans who had been driven off their lands.
As Nevius notes, a series of conspiracy scares in the region of the swamp in the early 1800s, including Gabriel’s Conspiracy in 1800 and Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831, and the “ability of fugitives to evade capture in its depths created its reputation as an almost mythical place of enslaved resistance and rebellion.”
From there, the Dismal entered popular consciousness as a place of refuge from slavery through works such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1856 book Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, which was inspired by the story of Nat Turner.
The story of marronage in the swamp largely ended after the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. More than a century of efforts to exploit the Dismal’s natural resources through speculative entities like the Dismal Swamp Company and the Dismal Swamp Canal Company altered its hydrology, however, leading to a dramatic reduction in its swampland. Today efforts are underway to preserve the swamp’s natural resources and its historic story as a place of short- and long-term refuge for maroon communities.
Join Encyclopedia Virginia on May 11 for a fascinating look at the Great Dismal Swamp: Past and Present, as we present a conversation with Marcus Nevius, author of City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, and Alexandra Sutton Lawrence of the Great Dismal Swamp Stakeholders Collaborative. We’ll explore the history of the Great Dismal Swamp as a place of enslaved resistance and rebellion and learn about current efforts to have the swamp designated a National Heritage Area, a place where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. REGISTER HERE