BY Stephen Nartey, 12:00pm October 01, 2022,

The inhabitable Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia that became a safe haven for freed slaves 

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: USFWS/Wikimedia Commons

The Great Dismal Swamp of the Virginia colony was one of the safe havens for enslaved or runaway slaves in the 1800s. When free Africans who had served their terms of contracts and those who were freeborn became targets for white slave raiders, the swamp became their natural fortress. 

It protected them from kidnapping and recapture and provided them with a sense of peace from enduring memories of the scars of slavery they bore on the plantations. The swamp, which was described as inhabitable,  became home to the hundreds who sought refuge in the woods, according to

Until encroachment and scramble for a piece of the Great Dismal Swamp in the 20th century reduced its size, the swamp used to measure one million acres. Those who escaped into the swamp had a new lease of life and earned their keep, a luxury slave owners never offered. 

Archaeologists describe the swamp as full of thorns. Its paths are difficult to navigate and it holds volumes of historical relics which sum up the life of enslaved African and freeborn of African descent. 

Despite the safe refuge the swamp provided the freed slaves, they had to battle poor climatic conditions and the growing encroachment of the woods. 

The swamp has always been an important site in pre-colonial polity for many nations. When slavery was at its peak, the swamp’s resources were a goldmine to many slave owners. Slaves were forced to dig the dismal swamp canal by their hands to pave way for trade between the Chesapeake Bay and Albermarle Sound. 

Jamaicans who escaped slavery made the swamp their settlement. The economy on the swamp favored everyone because survival was not made under the crack of a whip. The enslaved who were escaping from their owners used the swamp as a temporary hideout before executing their plan. 

Aside from the refuge it provided, it is the ancestral home of the Nansemond Indian nation and is considered the historic land of the Haliwa-Saponi and Meherrin Tribes. 

However, the history and its ancestral significance are being threatened by climate change, urbanization and environmental pollution. It has over 200 endangered bird species and migratory birds like the Swainson’s Warbler. 

The water that emanates from the Great Dismal Swamp is noted for its unique cleanliness and serves over 1.8 million people in the Hampton Roads region. 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 2, 2022


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