Straddling the North Carolina-Virginia border, the enormous, inhospitable morass was an ecosystem like no other in the region, and largely still is. Long an ancestral hunting ground for Native American tribes, the swamp became the site of grueling slave labor when George Washington and his Virginia business partners sought to develop the land in the 18th century. Grandy described the work conditions there in later decades as “very severe,” as the enslaved worked up to their chest in mud and water carving out ditches and canals.
But over time, the swamp took on an almost paradoxical identity. It became a passageway on the Underground Railroad — and, in its deepest reaches, the site of permanent maroon settlements where runaway African Americans and subjugated Native Americans found unlikely refuge. The swamp, said Marcus P. Nevius, author of “City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763-1856,″ was “both a place of slave labor’s exploitation and a place of Black resistance to that exploitation.”
And as he followed Moses Grandy into the Great Dismal, Sheppard could feel the weight of its complicated legacy settle on his shoulders.
“It was like an enlightenment, if you will. To take you into another realm of what happened there,” Sheppard said.
Now, Sheppard and a group of descendants of the swamp’s diverse free and enslaved refugees — called the Great Dismal Swamp Stakeholders Collaborative — are lobbying Congress to grant the swamp greater federal recognition in honor of their ancestors’ pursuit of freedom and security.
Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), whose 4th Congressional District encompasses the Great Dismal, has refiled a bill that would launch a feasibility study to create the Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area, while Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have filed its companion in the Senate.
A national heritage area designation would unlock greater federal funding to preserve the swamp’s distinct African American and Indigenous history and share it more broadly with visitors, McEachin said. Currently, the swamp is a National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia and state park in North Carolina, with limited exhibits describing that history.
“The name is well known. The history is not,” McEachin said. “It is a jewel, not only to the district but to the commonwealth and indeed to the nation, and being able to get that story out there and amplify that history is something I hope our work will help do.”
Reports of people fleeing bondage and taking refuge in the swamp emerged virtually as soon as White colonists began exploring it in the 18th century. Among the earliest was from William Byrd II, who during a 1728 survey of the Virginia-North Carolina border spotted a “family of mulattoes that called themselves free,” which “seemed a little doubtful.”
“It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this obscure part of the world, nor will any of their righteous neighbours discover them,” Byrd wrote. He cautioned that if North Carolina didn’t get the problem under control, the maroons might rise up and create their own “city of refuge for all debtors and fugitives” like in ancient Rome, a reference to the legend of the civilization’s founder, Romulus.
A few decades after Byrd’s excursion, George Washington became among the first to bring slavery to the Great Dismal.
The swamp was still largely untouched then, a dense canopy of junipers and cypress where few ventured for sustenance save for the region’s Indigenous tribes: the Nansemond, the Meherrin and the Nottoway.
Nikki Bass — a member of the Nansemond tribe who also descends from free and enslaved African Americans and White settlers in the region — said the encroachment of Europeans forced the tribes to rely more on the Great Dismal Swamp for survival and preservation of their way of life. She described the swamp as an intertribal space, “the center of these communities and a blending space of our heritage and our resilience.”
But Washington saw dollar signs: the potential for burgeoning plantations and the lucrative harvest of timber.
Ultimately, he wanted to drain the swamp.
In 1763, Washington and several business partners formed the Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp — later the Dismal Swamp Land Company — to launch the venture. Washington coordinated efforts among the company’s shareholders to procure five enslaved people each to bring to “Dismal Town,” the site of the swamp’s first slave-labor camp, Nevius said.
More than 50 enslaved people began digging the “Washington Ditch,” which is still there today, in the form of a charming bike trail through the wildlife refuge.
Soon, newspaper advertisements about the enslaved escaping into the swamp abounded. By the mid-19th century, when the White journalist Frederick Law Olmsted journeyed through the swamp on assignment for the New York Times, he observed that “there are people in the swamps now that are the children of fugitives and fugitives themselves all their lives.”
Because of the swamp’s treacherous landscape, however, hunters of the enslaved rarely ventured past the swamp’s perimeter or beyond the labor camps to chase fugitives, Nevius said. Before long, in the eyes of White townspeople, the swamp developed an almost mythical, ominous quality as a potential cauldron for Black rebellion.
“The story of the swamp becomes the story of this pervasive fear of maroons who are known to be in the swamp and who are known to be a threat to slave societies outside the swamp,” Nevius said.
Harriet Beecher Stowe captured that sentiment in her 1856 antislavery novel, “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp,” which painted a fictional portrait of a maroon society of escapees. The swamp, she wrote, was a place that extended “far beyond the abodes of man, into the recesses of that wild desolation.”
Knee deep in her own genealogy project, Bass discovered that one of her distant relatives, Romulus Sawyer, was among the fugitives who probably retreated into the swamp to pursue freedom.
She found his name scrawled in faded cursive in an 1863 ledger, listed among the enslaved who fled from a plantation in South Mills, N.C., in the throes of the Civil War.
Seeking reimbursement for his losses, the enslaver reported to the Confederate government that Romulus Sawyer and the 28 others managed to escape north from South Mills to join “the enemy” in Norfolk — the Union Army. Looking at a map, Bass said, she knows there’s only one way the 29 slaves could have gotten there without being discovered: through the Great Dismal.
Today, the name Romulus is still in her family.
“It’s difficult to tell stories like this because you want to have the full, complete narrative, but you have to commit your life to finding those details,” Bass said. “I’m still living this story right now.”
Distracted by a certain revolution, Washington never fulfilled plans to drain the swamp and ultimately sold his shares in the venture. But slavery continued there through later projects, namely the canal.
That was how Sheppard’s distant relative, Grandy, ended up enslaved within it.
Published in 1843, Grandy’s personal narrative follows his life in slavery in North Carolina until he purchased his freedom through work in the Great Dismal and became an abolitionist in Boston. The narrative is significant, historians say, as the fullest existing description of the lives of the swamp’s enslaved laborers.
They slept in the mud beneath huts made of shingles along the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, Grandy wrote. And for three years, as he worked lugging timber on a steamboat, he witnessed the brutality of a notorious enslaver. He flogged people with his own hands, sometimes until they were dead, Grandy wrote.
“For fear the slaves should run away, while unable to work from flogging, He kept them chained till they could work again,” Grandy wrote.
In too much pain to work once himself, Grandy sneaked off deeper into the swamp to recover from severe rheumatism, building himself a little shelter “among, snakes, bears, and panthers,” subsisting on provisions from the camp and whatever else he could find.
“We know a lot more about what happened inside that swamp because of Moses Grandy’s slave narrative than anything else,” Sheppard said. “How they suffered, how they felt like there was no way out. And as I tell some of the people that I encounter [who ask me], why are you doing this? Because their bones are still there. There was no funeral procession that led out the swamp when people died.”
And yet there is little memorializing them, Sheppard said, no solemn space for reflection on their lives — something he hopes a national heritage site designation could change.
In the meantime, Sheppard has created that space for himself. He thinks about walking on the same ground that Moses Grandy walked on. Seeing the same cypress and juniper trees Moses Grandy did. He puts his ear to the wind.
“Where are you?” he would say in his earliest visits, to Grandy, or whoever might still be there. “Talk to me. I want to know where you are, I want to know your story, so I can pick up your legacy and keep it going.”
Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong first name for Frederick Law Olmsted. This version has been corrected.
Read more Retropolis: