July 5, 2011
A national park composed of vast acres of swampland, straddling the border of North Carolina and Virginia, was once home to runaway slaves, an anti-oasis of sorts in the South for people to disappear to.
The site was long known as a haven for escapees and members of Indian tribes avoiding European encroachment. Advertisements seeking the return of escaped slaves from the 1700s mention the swamp, and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about it as a place of refuge in the novel “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.” The North Carolina legislature was even petitioned to do something about the settlements in the swamp, said Wanda Hunt-McLean, a local historian who studies the underground railroad.
“Many people were warned about traveling near the edge of the swamp because of stories about blacks living there,” she said.
But the only significant attempt to recapture slaves in the swamp came after the violent slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1831, and that barely reached the fringes of the wilderness, Sayers said. The swamp was simply too dense and treacherous to make sustained efforts to capture slaves or their descendants worthwhile.