Escaped Slaves Lived a Primitive Life in the Great Dismal Swamp Wilderness

The geological origin of the Great Dismal Swamp is similar to that of the Okefenokee.  Formerly, the Atlantic Ocean extended over both locations.  The Okefenokee region emerged above sea level early during the Pleistocene about 2 million years ago, while the location of what was to become the Great Dismal didn’t emerge above sea level until about 100,000 years ago.  Ocean currents deposited a layer of impermeable clay over both locations, explaining why drainage is so poor.  For most of the Wisconsinian Ice Age pine and spruce forests along with wet meadows and acidic bogs covered most of what’s now the Great Dismal.  Though climate was drier during cold stadials, the cooler temperatures meant a slower evapotranspiration rate, allowing for the existence of wetlands.  There was likely an influx of northern hardwoods during warmer interstadials.  Pollen studies show pine and spruce gave way to beech/hemlock forests about 13,000 calendar years ago, and oak hickory forests dominated during the middle of the Holocene when climate became hot and dry.  But about 4000 years ago, the swamp began to develop its modern characteristics.

A combination of alternating drought, fire, and tropical storms created marshes consisting of high grass, reeds, and bamboo cane covered with tangles of greenbrier and vines.  Impenetrable stands of fire-adapted white cedar grew in some places, and cypress and tupelo forests prevailed in the wettest areas.  The peat from generations of dead grass and reeds added to the impermeability of the soil, but when drought dried the peat, lightning storms ignited it.  The burning of layers of peat actually lowered elevation in places, creating large shallow lakes. The Great Dismal originally encompassed 2000 square miles.  Few ventured into this vast wilderness where thick plant growth stymied the advance of man on foot or horseback.  This made the Great Dismal an ideal hiding place for persecuted Indians, escaped slaves known as Maroons, and white outlaws.

The Great Dismal Swamp originally covered about 2000 square miles between Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. Most of it was drained and now there are just 200 square miles left.

The  Maroons lived in wattle and daub houses.  They either learned this construction technique from the Indians or they remembered how to make it from when they lived in Africa. Humans have been making dwellings from tree branches and clay for at least 6000 years. How ingenious.

 

A Native American Morrow Mountain point

Indian projectile point believed to have been reworked by escaped slaves known as Maroons.

Dan Sayers supervises archaeological excavations of small islands within the Great Dismal.  He believes islands within the swamp were home for thousands of people between 1700-1865.  The people who lived here had few material possessions and lived such a primitive life that little physical evidence remains.  Their wattle and daub houses, made with woven sticks and muddy clay, have long rotted away, and termites have consumed just about every wood artifact.  Nevertheless, he’s found foundation post holes of their dwellings and digging around the vicinity often yields artifacts, including re-used lead shot, gun flint, glass, and iron nails.  The Maroons were so desperate for tools, they even remade Indian projectile points.  What to us would be a curious artifact was for them an essential tool for survival.

Americans began digging canals in an attempt to drain the swamp in 1823.  (George Washington was 1 of the 12 original American owners of the swamp but he sold his share early on.) Maroons worked on the canals in trade for goods they needed.  The engineers in charge of excavating the canals were not always strict about enslaving every black person they encountered.  Efforts to raid the Maroon hide-outs were futile because the Maroons knew their way around the swamp better than the “lawmen” who always got lost looking for them.

It’s too bad the Maroons were illiterate and left no written record of their experiences in the Great Dismal.  Their experiences would have been of great interest to the naturalist.  J.F.D. Smythe was an English loyalist who hid in the Great Dismal from angry revolutionaries.  He did write about the Maroons in 1790 when he finally made it back to England.  He reported that the runaway slaves lived there for 10-30 years on corn, hogs, and chickens they raised.

I’m sure the Maroons depended heavily upon trapping small mammals, turtles, and fish.  It would have been difficult for them to access firearms and ammunition, so I don’t think they often exploited the abundant bear and deer populations. Instead, animals such as marsh rabbits and snapping turtles served as more attainable sources of protein.  Marsh rabbits lived on the islands with them.  Slaves were known to set fire to fields where marsh rabbits lived.  Rabbits fleeing the fire could be clubbed by the hundreds. Brave waders could catch snapping turtles and catfish by hand.  Catching catfish by hand is called “noodling,” a technique the Maroons probably learned from the Indians.  It’s possible to catch snapping turtles without injury, if the shell is grasped from behind where their jaws can’t reach.

The primitive conditions of living in the Great Dismal were difficult, but it beat living in bondage.  The Great Dismal has been drained and reduced to just 200 square miles, but that’s still enough territory for archaeologists to get lost in.  A fugitive could still potentially hide here, but prisoners probably have a better life than a person eking out a living in this bug-infested environment.  Also, the primitive skills to survive here have been lost in our modern “tech savvy” culture, and I doubt a single inmate in North Carolina or Virginia would last long here.

References:

Levy, Gerald

“The Vegetation of the Great Dismal Swamp: A Review and Overview”

Virginia Journal of Science Winter 1991

Unnamed Author

“Digging up the Secrets of the Great Dismal Swamp”

Popular Archaeology April 2011

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