Archaeologists have uncovered secrets about America’s biggest enclave of runaway slaves who lived in a secretive community deep in the North Carolina swamps.
Between the early 1600s right up until the Civil War, the Great Dismal Swamp became a refuge for thousands of Native Americans fleeing the frontier and runaway African American slaves.
The 2,000 square miles of land, stretching from across southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, was a snake infested, mosquito-ridden swamp land. The vegetation was so thick it was impossible for horses or even canoes to make it through the undergrowth.
The hellish conditions would have made life hard for the community of runaway slaves – known as Maroons. Yet it would have been incomparably better to a life of enslavement, working sunrise till sunset in the cotton fields at the end of a master’s whip. Here they were free.
There have long been rumors of a secret enclave deep in the swamps, away from white settlers and slave catchers.
But until recently, there has been little physical evidence of its existence.
One of the few first hand reports about life at the settlement came from a man named only as Charlie who had lived in the swamp and later made his way up to Canada where he was interviewed.
He described an isolated society, which resembled a traditional African village, which was so cut off from the outside world that some people would have never seen a white person.
Others described groups of families living in the swamp, surviving on corn, wild hogs and even clearing small areas for planting fields.
But archaeologist Dan Sayers, of American University is unearthing some of the hidden secrets about the almost unknown community as part of a decade-long project.
‘In 2004, when I started talking about large, permanent maroon settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp, most scholars thought I was nuts,’ Sayers told Smithsonian Magazine.
‘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.’
Sayers, who set up the Great Dismal Swamp Archaeology Field School, began investigating the historic reports about the runaways and began searching for the Maroon settlements.
He found references to the people of the Dismal Swamp in a 1714 report by Alexander Spotswood, the colonial lieutenant governor of Virginia, who described it as a ‘No-man’s-land,’ where ‘loose and disorderly people daily flock.’
It is believe the people he referred to in this case were poor whites who had also joined the swamp communities as former slaves were not referred to as ‘people’ at that time.
Virginian aristocrat William Byrd II also wrote about his encounter with the Maroons when he led a survey into the swamp to determine the state border in 1728.
Referring to them as ‘mulattoes,’ he said it was certain that ‘many slaves shelter themselves in this obscure part of the world’ as he described being watched from the shadows by many of the runaways.
‘These groups are very inspirational,’ Sayers said in a University report. ‘As details unfold, we are increasingly able to show how people have the ability, as individuals and communities, to take control of their lives, even under oppressive conditions.’
British traveler J.F.D. Smyth, who toured North Carolina during the Revolution, encountered a community of what he described as ‘runaway Negroes’ who he believed had lived in the swamp communities for decades or even longer, ‘subsisting themselves in the swamp upon corn, hogs, and fowls…
‘(On higher ground) they have erected habitations, and cleared small fields around them.’
Sayers became fascinated with the secret communities of Maroons and began searching for evidence of settlements around Virginia and North Carolina.
But the archaeologist says he wasted ’so much time’ looking in the hills and high ground before someone finally suggested he tried the swamps.
The real breakthrough came in 2004 when a biologist brought Sayers to a 20 acre island virtually unknown except to a few local hunters in the area.
‘I’ll never forget seeing this place for the first time,’ recalls Sayers. ‘It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I never dreamed of finding a 20-acre island, and I knew instantly it was livable. Sure enough, you can’t put a shovel in the ground anywhere on this island without finding something.’
What began as a 12 week project for Sayer’s dissertation, stretched to three eight-month sessions in the swamp. He also spent the next five summers excavating the area with university students.
Since then, he has found a small but fascinating array of tools on the island – most of which were Native American in origin but had been reused and re-purposed by the Maroons.
‘In the interior of the swamp, there was only one source of stone,’ he says. ‘Tools left behind by indigenous Americans. Maroons would find them, modify them, and keep using them until they were worn down into tiny nubs.’
Sayers and his team have found items such as stone arrowheads chipped away to be used as a small knife and Native American pottery reused as to shore up their cabin foundations.
But he says most of the materials used by the Maroons would have come from the swamp itself – which would have swiftly rotted and disappeared and they left the swamp after the Civil War.
So far, the archaeologist says the total of his finds – which also include flakes of clay pipe and gunflint pieces, would be able to fit in a small shoe box. They have been able to date the finds by analyzing soil samples and measure when they were last exposed to sunlight.
The biggest find of the dig has been the discovery of the outlines of seven wooden cabins dating from between 1660 and 1860.
‘We know from documents that maroons were living in the swamp then. There’s no record of anyone else living there. It is certainly not the type of place that you would make a choice to live in, unless you needed to hide.’
But with only one per cent of the island excavated so far, there is likely to be much more we can learn about the unique group of Maroons.
The Great Dismal Swamp was home to the biggest population of Maroons but there were other communities in swamps near New Orleans and Florida which are also being investigated.
But none of the other communities were as isolated from the outside world as the people of the Dismal Swamp.
The greatest threat to those people came in 1763 when the Washington Ditch – a canal cut through part of the swamp by slaves to transport limber, brought the runaways in close approximation with slave catchers.
But there are also reports that some of the Maroons worked with the timber merchants, cutting down timber and selling it on.
Sayers says there is evidence that the Maroons lived in the swamps through until the Civil War – and the official end of slavery in 1863 – when they appear to have moved out of the area.
The archaeologist, who also published a book on his findings - A Desolate Place for a Defiant People - has shared some of his findings with the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington D.C. which is due to open later this month.
Sayers, who has conducted the most in-depth research into the Maroons in the United States, says they have been overlooked due to racial bias.
He believes that historians have instead highlighted the role of whites and downplaying the resistance of runaways and their established communities in the United States.