Dismal Swamp Slaves
Slaves in the Dismal Swamp
In the nineteenth century, the Great Dismal Swamp was a morass of huge towering trees over dense underbrush and delicate ferns, inhabited by black bears, wildcats, wild cattle, poisonous snakes and hogs. It was to this inhospitable place many slaves came. The foreboding swamp provided natural refuge for runaways.
Following the American Revolution, there were numerous instances of slave resistance. While some runaways were able to blend in with free blacks, many chose to seek refuge among a permanent colony of maroons (runaways) in the Great Dismal Swamp. It was difficult to capture a slave once they were here although occasional forays were made by men with specially trained dogs.
As Robert Arnold remembered in 1888 in the Dismal Swamp and Lake Drummond, Early Recollections: Notice! $500 Reward. Ran away from the subscriber on the night of June 18th, my negro man. Simon. He may be making his way to the Dismal Swamp.
Colonies were established on high ground in the swamp where slaves built crude huts. Family life evolved, and the abundant animal life provided food and clothing. Some earned money by working for free black shingle makers, who hired the maroons to cut logs, paying them with small amounts of food, money or precious clothing. This illicit practice in an account by Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States.
Sometimes runaways were betrayed by the negro lumbermen. Renegade fugitives often raided nearby towns or preyed upon travelers along the state road. Others stole from boats anchored along the canal. These violent rebels were a dreaded menace to the whole swamp community. Slave disturbances in the early 1800’s caused much alarm among residents living near the swamp. Tidewater Virginia residents were greatly concerned about reported unrest among slaves in nearby Camden, Elizabeth City and Currituck County, North Carolina. In the spring of 1823, the situation was so serious a large militia force with dogs was sent to wipe out the swamp slave colony. Some were killed but most maroons escaped.
A brutal slave uprising in 1831 resulted in the butchering of thirteen men, eighteen women and twenty four children in Courtland, Virginia. Following the Southampton County slave rebellion, it was feared many of the insurgents planned to flee the swamp. The leader of the rebellion was Nat Turner, a powerful Baptist preacher with a large loyal following, who remained at large for several months before being eventually caught.
While returning from a trip to England in 1842, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed his poem: “The Slave in Dismal Swamp”, telling of the miserable plight of a negro in hiding.
In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp Where will-o'-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
The hunted Negro lay; In bulrush and in brake;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp, Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And heard at times a horse's tramp And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
And a bloodhound's distant bay. Is spotted like the snake;
Where hardly a human foot could pass, A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Or a human heart would dare, Great scars deformed his face;
On the quaking turf of the green morass On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass, And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Like a wild beast in his lair. Were the livery of disgrace.
All things above were bright and fair, On him alone was the doom of pain,
All things were glad and free; From the morning of his birth;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there, On him alone the curse of Cain
And wild birds filled the echoing air Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
With songs of Liberty! And struck him to the earth!
In 1856, David Strother wrote a description of the swamp’s beauty and fearsome natives for Harper’s magazine. As a artist, he sketched the legendary Osman, who, according to legend, protected the Negro slave escapees.
Harriet Beecher Stowe used the sketch of Osman as the main character in her novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.
Dred is the story of Nina Gordon, an impetuous young heiress to a large southern plantation, whose land is rapidly becoming worthless. It is run competently by one of Nina's slaves, Harry, who endures a murderous rivalry with Nina's brother Tom Gordon, a drunken, cruel slaveowner. Nina is a flighty young girl, and maintains several suitors, before finally settling down with a man named Clayton. Clayton is socially and religiously liberal, and very idealistic, and has a down-to-earth perpetual-virgin sister, Anne.
In addition to Harry (who, as well as being the administrator of Nina's estate, is secretly also her and Tom's half-brother), the slave characters include the devoutly Christian Milly (actually the property of Nina's Aunt Nesbit), and Tomtit, a joker-type character. There is also a family of poor whites, who have but a single, devoted slave, Old Tiff.
Dred, the titular character, is an escaped slave. He lives in the Great Dismal Swamp preaching angry and violent retribution for the evils of slavery and rescuing escapees from the dog of the slavecatchers.
The response to Stowe's first work greatly impacted her second anti-slavery novel. Uncle Tom's Cabin drew criticism from abolitionists and African-American authors for the passive martyrdom of Uncle Tom and endorsement of colonization as the solution to slavery. Dred, by contrast, introduces a black revolutionary character who is presented as an heir to the American revolution rather than a problem to be expatriated. Dred can thus be placed within an African-American literary tradition as well as a political revision of the sentimental novel.
The novel is also interesting in the historical context of runaway slave communities surviving for a long time in swamp areas. Swamps were places where runaway slaves could hide, and therefore became a taboo subject, particularly in the south. The best hiding places were found on high ground in swampy areas. The novel also contains detailed descriptions of the wetlands in the "Dismal Swamp" and is therefore also interesting in the context of the way in which African Americans relate to the natural environment.
ALL IN ALL HOW VERY SAD