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The Great Dismal Swamp: A Path to Freedom

The Great Dismal Swamp covers more than 110,000 acres on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. Most of this wilderness area is wetland that is usually under water. Thick trees, vines, and roots make walking in the Great Dismal Swamp very difficult. Bears, poisonous snakes, and biting insects live in the swamp. Yet enslaved people preferred freedom in the swamp to a life of slavery.

Most visitors today don't realize that the trails of the National Wildlife Refuge were once part of a path to freedom for enslaved people. The swamp wasn't “dismal” to them. It was a road to freedom. Some people who had escaped slavery made the swamp their permanent home. They didn't leave until after the Civil War, when they knew they could not be enslaved again.

Escaping through the Swamp

In the years before the Civil War, many enslaved people tried to escape slavery by going north. A network of people and houses helped them. That network became known as the Underground Railroad. People running away from slavery would make their way from house to house until they reached freedom. Guides along the railroad were called conductors. The most famous of these was a woman named Harriet Tubman.

Many enslaved African Americans worked in the Great Dismal Swamp as a way to escape from slavery. Some enslaved people were allowed by their owners to work as boatmen on the canal that went through the swamp. Others harvested wood out of the swamp to make shingles that they sold. Some of them earned enough money to buy their freedom.

Living in the Swamp

The swamp was also a part of the Underground Railroad, a network of people and houses that helped people who were trying to escape slavery. By the 1820s, at least one thousand people lived in the swamp. They formed tight-knit communities that became resting stops on the Underground Railroad. Enslaved people from plantations in the surrounding area traveled through the swamp to try to get to Norfolk, Virginia, a seaport only twenty miles from the edge of the swamp. They hoped to get onto a ship in Norfolk that would take them north.

Those who stayed in the swamp survived on corn, wild hogs, and waterfowl. They cleared small fields and built houses on the little bit of land that would not flood. A few left only when African American troops of the Union Army told them slavery had ended.

New Meaning for the Swamp

In 1998, the National Park Service started searching for places that were once part of the Underground Railroad. Through the National Underground Railroad Network, the National Park Service works with local governments to preserve Underground Railroad sites and to educate the public about them. On June 11, 2007, the National Park Service set up two signs in the Great Dismal Swamp to inform visitors about the role of the swamp in the Underground Railroad.

People go to the Great Dismal Swamp all year long to enjoy its natural beauty. Red maple trees flower in February. Orchids, yellow jasmine, and coral honeysuckle bloom in the spring. Silky camellia blooms in late May and trumpet and passion vines flower in summer. Fall comes to the swamp in November when hardwood leaves turn fiery red and orange.

The changing landscape offers roosting spots for different birds throughout the year. In the winter, migrating waterfowl stop in Lake Drummond, the largest lake in the Great Dismal Swamp. Great horned owls and red-tailed hawks nest their eggs. Migrating songbirds and ospreys visit the swamp in spring. Summertime brings great blue herons and kingfishers to the swamp. Flocks of robins and blackbirds return every autumn.

No matter the time of year, tens of thousands of campers and tourists visit the park to canoe, kayak, or hike. Now they can learn also how the Great Dismal Swamp was truly a place where people went to be free.