By a quarter past eight, the woods were bright and humming, and the summer heat had rolled in off Route 17. The early August air was soft and humid by the canal on the eastern side of the Great Dismal Swamp’s Virginia half. The bikers, the joggers, the hikers, the bird-watchers, and the couple loading up their dusty SUV each chimed “morning” one after another, all cradling the letter m at the roofs of their mouths.
Eric Sheppard stepped gingerly ahead of me. His turquoise polo shirt was lined with pin-sized holes on the collar, and he’d tucked the hem into his tan boot-cut khakis. He made his way to a muddy footpath facing the canal, away from the cluster of visitors. The water gleamed like black marble, reflecting the canopy.
“A whole lotta stuff went on here,” Sheppard said, gazing out over the pool and into the tangle of poplars where his forebears had been enslaved. “Our ancestors’ bones are still in that swamp right there.”
Listen to locals long enough and you’ll come to find that the Dismal shifts in the eye of the beholder. The land’s kaleidoscopic history is much the same. For one of Eric’s distant relatives, a lumberman named Moses Grandy, the swamp was at once the site of his bondage and the nexus of his freedom. Grandy toiled in the cavernous morass for decades as an enslaved laborer before stashing away enough coin to purchase himself outright. He was one in a colony of workers who lived in camps in the bog. Out of porous peat soil they cut and glued canals, lugged cypress and white cedar trunks, and crafted millions of shingles. Most inhabitants were enslaved, but some harnessed the swamp to other ends. Some sought refuge in it.
From the late 17th century to the end of the Civil War, thousands of maroons—runaways who obtained their freedom by occupying remote and uninhabited regions—lived in relative secrecy throughout the 750-square-mile wilderness. No one is sure exactly how many people escaped enslavement within its confines, but this much is clear: The Great Dismal Swamp, an area regarded by colonial settlers as so utterly inhospitable that its very air was once said to be toxic, was over multiple centuries home to the largest maroon community in the United States.
Sheppard, who was raised in Baltimore and now lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, didn’t know of Grandy until well into adulthood. He was trying to trace his late father’s ancestry when he stumbled upon a family graveyard on the property of a small, red-brick Baptist church in Camden County, North Carolina. When he got home that evening, he typed “Grandy” and “North Carolina” into Google. The top result was Moses’s autobiography. Sheppard cross-referenced his own family tree and found that he and Grandy shared common relatives. “It’s almost like he was calling me,” Sheppard said, inching closer to the canal. “How many other ancestors are out there calling their descendants?”
We moved farther down the pathway and approached a brown picnic table with an adjoining shingled roof and feet that were caked in drying mud. Stroking the bright silver hair above his lip, Sheppard told me that many of his other relatives likely worked in or around the swamp too. Because there is no firsthand documentation of their lives, though, Moses’s story is the closest Sheppard will get to knowing their experiences. It took him years, but he visited each location the freedman wrote about in his book.
For the better part of a decade, Sheppard has devoted himself to spreading awareness of Grandy’s narrative and the larger “human history” of the swamp. When he started, there was not a single monument, plaque, sign, or posting acknowledging the history of enslavement and rebellion in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge or on the Virginia or North Carolina sides of the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. Now, there’s a trail named after Moses, a pavilion that foregrounds maroons farther south, and a few markers that are part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. In September 2021, the House approved a bill that would help make the Dismal a national heritage site. If passed in the Senate along with subsequent legislation, the area would receive millions of dollars in federal resources to preserve and promote its history in the decades to come.
The viability and ramifications of this shifting landscape are of particular fixation to Sheppard. When we spoke, he wasn’t so much bothered by the prospect of change as he was leery of it. In the final few steps on our walk back from the waterway to his blue Ford Escape, Sheppard paused and looked at me. “The question,” he said, “is how are the descendants of enslaved people benefiting from this here?”
Since the beginning of the 20th century, protection of the Dismal has been framed as an environmental issue. After 200 years of heavy logging left the territory at less than a third of its original size, the Union Camp Corporation gifted the swamp to the U.S. government in 1973. For nearly all of its modern existence, the region’s multigenerational history of exploitation, brutality, and resistance has—through decades of distortion and purposeful erasure—been largely hidden from view. Many of the area’s residents are direct descendants of the people who populated, toiled in, or commodified the swamp. Together, they form a community wrapped in conflict over the ways in which the truth of the past and its obfuscation continue to shape the present.
In a nation whose every territory is drenched in overlapping legacies of violence and erasure, the Dismal stands as a most American tangle. It is scarred. And yet it is anointed.
By the canal, Sheppard and I opened the doors to his car and kept them ajar until it cooled. As we turned out of the lot, I wondered aloud whether what he was getting at earlier—ensuring that any efforts to memorialize this place benefit the offspring of American slavery—was not unlike the call for reparations. For a substantial amount of time neither of us spoke. “So you get reparations. What does that do to your spirit and psychology?” he asked, the swamp undulating in the distance. “You’ve been mortified for 400 years. You can’t tell me that’s not passed down through your DNA.”
The archaeologist tugged on his straw hat and strode into the forest. He raised a cloud of pollen when his boots thumped on the sun-bleached boards of the wooden trail. It was high noon and 94 degrees outside, but he wore two layers, a tan vest over a plum T-shirt, along with a pair of thick blue jeans. About two miles from the nearest entrance to the Dismal, Dan Sayers—the first excavator to unearth evidence of maroons in the swamp—led me beneath the tree canopy.
“You can see it’s getting a little more swampy,” Sayers said, gesturing toward a stretch of muddy pools hugging the pathway. Within 20 steps, insects were diving at our necks, ears, and faces. Another 30 steps, and we were enveloped by the sounds of cicadas, crickets, warblers, parulas, northern mockingbirds, frogs, weasels, squirrels, and southern bog lemmings. Sayers wanted me to get a feel for the wilderness before we set out for the archaeological sites he’s worked at for the past 15 years.
This trail is one of many built by the Fish and Wildlife Service for public use. Most trails are located near major canals, or “ditches” as they’re known throughout the swamp. There are 49 ditches in the Dismal, seven of which connect to Lake Drummond, the 5-square-mile lake in its center. The larger Dismal Swamp Canal stretches along the swamp’s eastern border. The land is carved and defined by these man-made tributaries.
The path we walked on is just off Washington Ditch, named after then-general George Washington. In 1763, Washington, along with his brother John, helped cofound a conglomerate with the hopes of draining the Dismal, clearing its sizable cypress, Atlantic cedar, and white pine groves, and converting the area into farmland. The idea mirrored one originally put forth by the British loyalist William Byrd. In 1728, Byrd published a proposal entreating the crown to sell the swamp to him and a group of buyers for a cut of their future profits. To accomplish the undertaking, Byrd requested that King George II’s government provide 3.7 million pounds, which he estimated would be spent on 180 enslaved laborers over eight years. Because of the grueling nature of the work, Byrd wrote that an especially young enslaved population would be necessary:
And for those which happen to dye, ’tis probable that their place will be fully supplyd by their children. … It will be prudent to lay out part of the money in boys and girls, which will not only season better than men and women, but will be very soon fit for labour, and supply the mortality that must happen among so great a number.
Byrd’s proposal was declined, but by 1763 Washington had gained approval for a scaled-down version of it. Instead of the crown subsidizing enslaved labor, Washington’s Dismal Swamp Land Company agreed to furnish all costs independently. Each of the group’s owners contributed at least five enslaved workers; Washington sent six. Their names were Harry, Jack, Caesar, Topsom, Nan, and Toney—who, according to Washington’s diary, was still “a boy.” By the late 1780s, the company had failed to drain the swamp and pivoted to solely exporting lumber. Within five years, three other outfits had opened up shop, all of them dependent on slavery.
As soon as enslaved labor enveloped the land around the Dismal, rumors of lawless runaways congregating in the wilderness began to circulate. Alexander Spotswood, the lieutenant governor of the Virginia colony, referred to the swamp in a 1714 report as a “no-man’s-land” where “loose and disorderly people daily flock.” In 1728, Byrd wrote about encountering “a family of Mulattos that called themselves free” in the area, a claim that, he said, “seemed a little doubtful.” By 1767, John Washington had taken to running ads in local newspapers in an attempt to apprehend one of the company’s enslaved workers, a man named Tom, who had fled into the Dismal, never to be seen again. After the Revolutionary War, stories about runaways who lived in the bog for as many as 30 years spread among white residents. Multiple ads seeking the capture and return of fugitives appeared in newspapers as the number of lumber companies increased. A Yale graduate who had moved to the Dismal in 1817 as a tutor remarked that “traveling here without pistols is considered very dangerous owing to the great number of runaway negroes.”
Between 1763 and 1863, hundreds of enslaved workers in the swamp cut hulking Atlantic cedar and cypress trunks into thousands of shingles. More than 8 million shingles were exported from the Dismal annually. Most enslaved workers were rented out on a yearly basis to logging outfits by their owners in nearby towns. In the wilderness, they lived on small hills made out of wood shavings from February to November.
If the workers did not meet their weekly quotas, they were punished mercilessly. In his autobiography, Moses Grandy recalled watching one overseer whip chattel laborers’ backs raw, after which “pork or beef brine was put on their bleeding backs, to increase the pain.” When they died of exhaustion or were killed by any of the threats posed by the environment, the work went on, their bodies discarded.
By the early 1800s, shingle production in the Dismal had become so profitable that some enslaved people were able to sell their over-quota stocks back to the lumber companies. Grandy emancipated himself in similar fashion, laboring in the wilderness and selling goods independently until he’d accumulated enough to pay back a white man who had agreed to purchase and free him. As long as the shingles came in on time, certain overseers were willing to ignore the presence of runaways looking for work. A few enslaved laborers even formed partnerships with fugitives, peddling food and supplies for an extra set of hands and a chance to increase their earnings. Ads that warned against both practices did virtually nothing to dissuade businesses.
For some workers, the Dismal was a death sentence. For others, it was salvation. What the swamp took, it gave back. These were the warring truths of this land: Its cruelties became inseparable from its possibilities.
Around midday, with the sun glaring, Sayers and I trudged through a thicket and left the gravel behind. Moving even a few feet off trail in the swamp requires both balance and attention. The forest floor is a bed of tricks. Sometimes a log that from a distance appears solid is, upon contact, as soft and malleable as a pile of leaves. At any moment the ground’s texture can shift from light and airy to thick and mucky. There are no stretches of continuous dry land, but rather thousands of raised islands among a sea of blackwater pools.
When we arrived at the first excavation site, Sayers went searching the roughly 80-by-100-foot plot for artifacts. The gum trees lining the perimeter looked blue and misty in the distance. Sayers told me that this hummock was once used by enslaved lumberers, but it had likely been home to maroons decades earlier. As logging closed the gap with the outer world, fugitive enclaves moved farther into the swamp’s interior.
A few clues remain from their occupation. The ground in the Dismal is primarily composed of peat, a waterlogged organic material that’s made of decomposed plants and known for its moist and spongy composition. “Stone is not natural to the swamp or its islands,” Sayers said, having located the head of an ancient hammer. “If it’s here, it had to have been brought in.”
To reach a second site of maroon residence, we hiked through a sprawling cypress pond with coffee-colored water that rose to our hips. Some of the sparse but exceedingly wide trees had toppled into channels, where they bobbed and floated until they sank and blackened and greened. I asked Sayers what kinds of snakes live in the Dismal, and he turned his head to me while slogging. “There’s a lot of them,” he said. “The ones that you’re probably thinking of are water moccasins. We got two kinds of rattlesnake, and those are the ones I worry about the most. I spend most of my time on dry ground.”
Sayers first heard about the Dismal in 2001 from a faculty adviser at the College of William & Mary. He was looking for a topic for his doctoral thesis, and he fell in love with the swamp’s history. Years later, when he assembled a team and gained access to the area, nobody was sure what he would find. Until then, the consensus among historians was that runaways had likely used the Dismal as a stop on their journeys north, but it was doubtful that permanent communities could have developed undisturbed. In the 15 years since Sayers and his colleagues began working in the bog, they’ve done more than just prove that stable enclaves existed. They’ve constructed an idea of how these groups lived.
Pointing with his left index finger, Sayers mapped out what a settlement would’ve looked like. “There are going to be posts in the ground,” he said. “That means their homes are raised off the ground—and it’s particularly imperative here because these are not high-elevation islands. So probably a foot, foot and a half, maybe two feet off the ground. The floor is then placed on those posts. Then they’re raising 10-foot-tall walls all around themselves, and they put their wattle and daub roof on.”
Sayers took a sip from his water bottle and continued. “Kin groups are settling here, and after a generation or two they have kids, kids get married, somebody comes and joins the family—whatever it might be—and you need another cabin or two. They stay closer together. They nucleate a little bit, but then they’re part of that wider village or community. If you look all around here and think of cabins that are 15 by 15 foot, maybe, or 15-by-20, there’s a lot of room for a lot of people here just on this island alone. That’s sort of what I’ve seen in almost all these islands.”
Maroons probably grew gourds, cotton, onions, okra, garlic, rice, and other grains. Sayers has found evidence of weaponry, nails, and palisades, almost all of which are dated from the 18th century onward. He has also located other, older artifacts, like ancient flints and ceramics, which predate European contact but were buried in the same layers of soil as the newer relics. This suggests that maroons found and made use of them hundreds of years later. Sayers said that when enslaved Africans first began to flee into the area, they came into contact with Indigenous factions, forming a series of multiracial communities.
The layers of branches that surrounded the second site made it seem like it was ensconced in a protective haze. The place had a bygone quality. To observe the Dismal today is to behold the wreckage of a striking contradiction. It is the site of the most extensive chattel exodus in U.S. history, and yet it’s home to perhaps the most violent forms of enslaved labor ever practiced. This spindly labyrinth of a swamp holds both the costs of slavery and the prices paid to resist it.
In the Dismal, Washington was a slave owner, an exploitative lumber baron. His captives were the true creators and inheritors of democracy. I asked Sayers whether he feels a moral duty to spread awareness of this history, to force the public to contend with what happened.
“Yes. It’s in ethics,” he said, pausing in the shade. “Well, it comes from the profession, in part. I’ve loved archaeology since I can remember.”
“But every archaeology site isn’t this?” I said.
“No, right. Exactly,” he said. “If the folks that lived out here … if those people give us some sense of how to proceed with our future—even if it’s not the map, but if it has parts of that map and we can get creative in our own time with it—that’s about as close to moral as I’m going to get in my life.”
Though most of Nat Turner’s remains lie in the neighborhood, there are no grave sites bearing his name off Main Street in Courtland, Virginia—only comely blocks lined with high grass, bungalows, and the occasional poplar. Turner died here in 1831, hanged from a tree limb. Nearly 200 years after his death, Courtland has smooth asphalt roads with dust and gravel along the bends. It has railroad tracks with rotting foundations overcome with weeds. There are swing sets, turned green from the rain, and basketball hoops, dimpled and baked in the sun. But there are no markers for where Turner’s body was torn to pieces. No indication of where his skin was mashed into grease. No flag for his rib cage; no sign for his legs. On a placid morning, I roamed Courtland’s narrow byways and found no traces of the great insurrection, nor the force with which it was quelled.
The seat of Southampton County, Courtland is 34 miles west of the Dismal, about a 40-minute drive. That’s all that separates the most well-known example of enslaved resistance in our national consciousness from the one that ought to be, but is likely the least. Turner’s uprising was an outburst. The Dismal was a centuries-long leak. The proximity between the two is both intoxicating and inescapable. Taking in either space requires confronting their indelible connection.
There’s a misconception that Turner was just a preacher, a man who labored solely with his mind. In truth, he also served as a plow hand. His mother did too. His father fled enslavement when Nat was a child, and their master never found him. Nat tried to run away in his early 20s, but came back after a month. He thought of rebellion often. “As I was praying one day at my plow,” he’s alleged to have said in The Confessions of Nat Turner, “the spirit spoke to me … for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” A solar eclipse arrived soon after. He thought it was a sign from God.
There’s another misconception about Turner: that he was the sole architect of the plan to liberate the enslaved people of Southampton County. In reality, the rebellion was a collective action that depended on a number of others who handled recruiting. Turner wanted to carry out the operation on July 4, but he came down sick that day. On August 13, the sun suddenly turned pale green, and he believed the lord had again shown the way. The following weekend, he and the other rebels killed his master, Joseph Travis. Within hours, 59 white people were dead, some by hatchet, others by gunshot. No one was spared. The group grew in numbers with each freed plantation. Their last victim was a widow named Rebecca Vaughan. They let her pray before they shot her.
What doomed Turner was that he was too committed to the task at hand. The rebels wanted to stop at another plantation on the way to the local armory, and Turner didn’t say no. A squad of white men ambushed them and shattered the uprising.
Of course that’s not how it ended. The thing that is rarely considered about Turner’s rebellion—the thing you won’t learn driving through Courtland—is that the number of people Turner and his partners killed pales in comparison to the number of deaths dealt in backlash. No one is sure how many Black people were killed in response to the insurrection, but most estimates peg it in the hundreds, possibly in the thousands. “Negroes are taken in different directions and executed every day,” one white resident wrote at the time. Heads were mounted on poles, bodies burned at the stake.
A few weeks before Turner was caught, the editor of The Richmond Whig referred “with pain” to “the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity.” On August 27, 1831, a letter from a local reverend was published in The Liberator that said “many negroes are killed every day: the exact number will never be ascertained.” The Southern Advocate reported on October 15 of that year that more than 100 Black people had been killed in Southampton County alone. As far north as Delaware and as far south as Alabama, enslaved people were arrested and killed. The NC Star declared that the rebellion was the product of “runaway negroes,” assuring its readers, “few if any of the plantation hands had joined.”
At least eight articles from four different Virginia newspapers published between August 25 and 30 claimed that the insurrection was based out of the Dismal. On September 6, a company of white men went into the swamp and returned days later with 12 runaways, whom they falsely held responsible for the violence.
In her exhaustive text Slavery’s Exiles, the historian Sylviane Diouf tracks slave owners and government officials’ growing fear about the development of a large maroon community. Diouf found that colonial Virginia’s legislature passed multiple laws to eradicate resistance among the enslaved during the 17th century. In the 18th century, North Carolina’s colonial government passed at least three similar pieces of legislation, one of which made it illegal for runaways to live “in the Swamps, Woods and other Obscure places.” Elites like William Byrd were aware of maroon societies that had developed in the Caribbean and in South America. Byrd was so concerned about maroons taking over Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains that in 1736 he formally urged the crown to explore the lands and erect forts “to prevent the negroes taking refuge there, as they do in the mountains of Jamaica.”
By 1847 the North Carolina Legislature had passed “An Act to provide for the apprehension of runaway slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp.” In 1849, it approved another, similar bill.
Part of why the planter class attempted to destroy and erase maroon communities was that marooning was not just an act of defiance, but of collective resistance. In the short term, it was dependent on the help of allies still caught in the web of slavery. When maroons couldn’t find permanent exile communities, they stayed close to home and returned to their families for supplies. In the long term, maroonage required a form of radical, multiracial community building. “Maroons did not need white people to free themselves,” Diouf told me last fall. “So abolitionists totally ignored them. In the South, white slaveholders had no incentive to be talking too much about them, because it did not look very good for them to have these people living under their noses.”
When we spoke, Diouf had just finished giving a lecture at a university in South Carolina. In her presentation, she shared examples of how other countries with descendants of enslaved Africans have celebrated maroons across the diaspora. Maroons appear on dollar bills in Jamaica. They have statues in Mexico. They have holidays named in their honor in Brazil.
“Then I say, ‘Here’s how maroons are remembered and celebrated in the United States,’ and it’s a blank slide,” Diouf said. “Because that’s exactly what is the truth in the United States. There’s no knowledge, there’s no consciousness.”
The town of Courtland, which was originally known as Jerusalem, sprouted up around the first version of the Southampton courthouse where Turner was tried and convicted. The building is different now. It was remade three years after the rebellion, and remodeled again in 1924. The edifice still has an ancient feel: Pillars hold up a pediment with a small circular window in the middle; big, heavy doors with chipped white paint mark the front entrance.
The sheriff’s department directly next to the property houses the same unit that hunted down Turner in October 1831. A couple of constables found him hiding in a log two months after most of the other conspirators behind the rebellion had already been executed. To the left of the courthouse, a gazebo peeks into view. It’s in this very spot that Turner was held for a month before he was killed.
While lingering under the gazebo, I noticed that there are no markers bearing his name, only a path to the parking lot off the Nottoway River out back. I paced away from the cars and toward the stream. A single monument rests in front of its muddy banks. It’s an obelisk cut from smooth gray stone that stands at least 20 feet tall. Engraved bricks surround the structure. In front is a black plaque with gold lettering:
The two hundred and nineteen names that are engraved on the bricks before you are the men from Southampton County who gave their lives defending their family, friends and their homes from the northern invaders. They were killed in action or died from wounds or disease in the War of Northern Aggression 1861-1865. We honor their bravery and sacrifice. We will not forget their struggle to preserve the principles on which our country was founded.
The monument, in the shadow of the courthouse, looked crisp and glaring. Fresh roses and a miniature American flag rippled at its feet.
When Donald McEachin began serving in the Virginia General Assembly in 1996, he found something in the budget that appalled him: The commonwealth was paying the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group devoted to the preservation of Lost Cause iconography, $50,000 a year. Virginia has a number of Confederate grave sites, particularly in the areas surrounding Richmond, the onetime capital of the Confederate States of America. After becoming a U.S. representative, McEachin did some digging and discovered that the Assembly had agreed to cover the costs of maintaining many of these sites. He and a few other Black legislators moved to cut funding to the program, but their efforts never built up enough steam.
“This was sort of shocking to me,” the congressman told me in November. “That we had that in the Virginia budget, but we weren’t doing anything for African American slave graves.”
McEachin grew up in Richmond, and his parents taught him from a young age that enslaved people resisted bondage at every turn. They exposed him to the history of Gabriel’s rebellion in nearby Henrico County, Turner’s revolt in Southampton, and the experience of maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp. As he watched the Virginia Assembly not only turn its back on the preservation of Black history, but uplift the legacy of seditionists, McEachin was taught another lesson: We will confront nothing if we are not made to.
“How do I counterbalance this?” he remembered thinking. “How do I make sure that all of American history is told?”
Shortly after being elected to Congress in 2016, McEachin looked over the map for Virginia’s 4th District. It is the same area that John Mercer Langston once represented as Virginia’s first Black congressman. McEachin saw the swamp looming to the edge and realized this was his chance. He introduced the Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act in February 2021.
There is no guarantee that the bill will make its way through Congress. It was approved by the House in September, but it’s been left virtually untouched by the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works ever since. Even if it passes, there would be more steps before a heritage site could be approved: a feasibility study, a funding proposal, multiple election cycles. The entire process could take up to a decade. There may not be enough political muscle to push it through.
I asked McEachin about the symmetry of fighting the same battles over and over, all of them rooted in enslavement. “I believe we are better off than we have been,” he said. “But have we healed? No.”
The Camden County Heritage Museum is not known for its looks. Its interior is made of cinder blocks and painted white. The arrangement is basically one big suite. Since it opened in 2017, its two septuagenarian curators, Alex Leary and Brian Forehand, have kept a log of their visitors in a handwritten notebook. It took over a year to reach 1,000 names.
“We have a little bit less than 11,000 people living here,” Forehand said of the county, after greeting me at the entrance. “And we have two stop lights.”
“No,” Leary corrected him. “We got three now.”
The perimeter of the museum was lined with waist-high glass cases that housed arrowheads, old books, baseball mitts, a miniature replica of the early 1900s steamboat Annie L. Vansciver, and an even smaller replica of the old Wade Point Lighthouse. Above the cases hung a collection of display boards that contained brief episodic summaries of the county’s history. Some were related to enslavement.
Leary and Forehand are retired high school history teachers; both are white men who were born and raised in the county. Many of the items threaded throughout the museum were their personal mementos. At times, it was difficult to parse where the exhibits began and their memories ended.
In addition to the glass display cases, there were multiple mannequins dressed in period costumes from the colonial era, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II. In the back of the museum was a row of old school desks, cut from oak. After surveying the place, I asked the curators what they were taught about enslavement growing up. “I was born in ’45. He was born in ’43. So for the first 18 years of my life, I lived a segregated life,” said Forehand, stretching the i in life to its outer limits. “Slavery was just something that, I just accepted. … We were in a fog. You know?”
We inched toward a gray plastic table. Leary, who’s slightly taller than Forehand and has a rounded nose and face, pulled up a nearby chair. He spoke at a gradual tempo. “We were exposed to the Civil War and slavery,” he said. “The old sayings and everything.”
One of the boards on the walls was dedicated to Moses Grandy. Forehand told me that when he learned Grandy was from Camden, he felt compelled to bring the freedman’s story to the museum. In recent years, both he and Leary have welcomed multiple visitors hoping to track down information on their enslaved ancestors. “My relatives owned slaves,” Forehand said. “My great-great-grandfather had slaves. And I guess it was just like when I was living in segregation: ‘That’s the way life is.’”
The museum sits about 25 miles from the Dismal, and even closer to the Great Dismal Swamp Canal. Since it had an exhibit on Grandy, I asked the curators whether they had heard of the maroons. Forehand said he only knew the swamp might’ve been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Leary wasn’t sure.
“A lot of them escaped, but there’s more talked about sometimes than what actually happened,” he said. “They attacked a few people, but really it wasn’t that many.”
“What if I told you that there were thousands of maroons who lived in the swamp for extended periods of time?” I asked. “What would you say?”
“That,” Leary said, “would be a fairly high number for me.”
When he was a boy, Sam Bass used to hunt for deer and black bears in the Dismal with his father and uncle. They knew the swamp like an extension of their bodies; after all, they lay ancestral claim to the land. For thousands of years, the Nansemond, Chesapeake, Chowanoke, and Meherrin people all used the area, most often as hunting grounds, staying sporadically in the bog. There are legends of tribes openly sharing the land. As white settlers arrived and enslaved Native people in Virginia’s Tidewater region, some tribes moved into the Dismal, hoping it would provide protection and reclusivity.
Sitting in a small Starbucks in Suffolk, Virginia, away from the summer heat, Bass told me that family memories were once all he knew of the swamp. Then he joined the Dismal Swamp Stakeholder Collaborative, a group of descendants, academics, and community leaders who have been lobbying Congress to consider and approve a national heritage site in the region for years. After learning about the history of slavery in the Dismal and observing the introduction of McEachin’s bill, he felt compelled to ensure that the real history came through—not “the white man telling the story that doesn’t show the cruelty.”
A former chief of the nearby Nansemond Tribe, Bass has wide nostrils and hair that is mostly gray, save for a few flecks of black. He has lived near the swamp for his entire life, and is still a member of the Nansemond governing council. On the day we met, he wore a mask with an overlapping triangular design of orange, brown, and green. He told me that most folks in the area don’t even know his tribe exists. “They don’t have a clue,” he said in a low hum. “Now, the majority of the people that do not know, when they learn of us, they are, for the most part, appreciative to learn. They’re quick to say, ‘You Indians were really treated bad.’”
He looked at me, out of the corners of his eyes. “You Indians,” he repeated.
When I asked about the prospects of the bill, Bass pointed to depictions of Indigenous people in popular culture, and the continuing endurance of false stereotypes. He doubted the community was willing to interrogate the actions of their ancestors, let alone the way those actions reverberate in the present. “Most of it is nothing but for show. They’re not going to come through with what they’re talking about,” Bass said. “I still think the history needs to be out there, but I don’t think that they’ll grasp [it].”
He sometimes paused for a beat before answering a question. He took his time. Bass wanted me to know that he loves his home. But he knows his home’s history just as much. “Out here it’s like the Dismal Swamp,” Bass drawled. “I have to figure out how to maneuver.”
The storefront emptied as we spoke. When Bass first sat down, he dragged his chair from the side of our small metal table and positioned it across from me, facing the door. He said he has a concealed carry permit.
“I’m not looking for no trouble,” Bass told me. “But I want to protect myself.”
Eric Sheppard walked past a map. It was erected by the Chesapeake Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism on the outer lip of the Dismal Swamp Canal, featuring the title “Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge” and the subtitle “Not only a refuge for wildlife, but also a refuge for people …” Sheppard fixed his gaze on it. He halted outright, his pupils scanning the posting, and then turned to me.
“Sometimes people don’t mind the history being shared now because of what it represents monetarily,” he said. “It becomes a national heritage area, that’s millions of dollars coming in here.”
This was not the first time Sheppard expressed concern that an influx of money could undermine the quest to guard and uplift the area’s history. As Grandy’s story has gained recognition in recent years, Sheppard has grown increasingly doubtful that everyone who’s attached themselves to it has the right motives for doing so. He has no interest in spreading tales that make it seem like the arc of this country’s history bends toward justice. If anything, Sheppard would like Grandy’s life to show that people should leave where they’re not welcome. “Show me a document, give me a story, give me something based on history, where people who’ve been enslaved on a massive scale, around 400 years, have ever found their promised land inside the land of their captivity,” Sheppard said.
Other residents and descendants I spoke to voiced similar concerns about the push to commodify the swamp’s history. Nikki Bass, who like Sam Bass is a member of the Nansemond Tribe, grew up in Baltimore but heard about the Dismal from her late father’s side of the family. Her grandfather moved back and forth between Maryland and Virginia during her childhood; he and other relatives taught her about their family’s forebears, including free and enslaved people of mixed descent.
As an adult, Bass has spent years tracking down her family’s history. Since her grandfather passed away a few years ago, she’s mostly had to search on her own. She taught herself to locate land records, wills, census data, and other historical documents in her spare time away from work. She runs a website called Descendants of the Great Dismal, where she posts about her findings. With the rush of attention on the swamp, Bass told me that histories like her family’s are flattened to make them more digestible.
“I keep seeing people tell stories of maroons escaping into the swamp and the Underground Railroad, and then they never tell you anything after that,” she said. “I am extremely proud of the history of resistance. I just don’t want the story to stop there.”
One of the relatives who Bass uncovered is a man named Romulus Sawyer. She says he freed at least 28 family members from bondage, likely moving them through the Dismal to Norfolk. She looks at her ancestors’ narratives and sees proof of the lives that folks carved out in and around the swamp. Those lives were shaped by slavery, but not halted by it. And they did not end with emancipation.
“Moses Grandy’s narrative is phenomenal. It’s rare, but we have to tell all the stories,” Bass said. “I hardly ever see anyone talking about women in the swamp, ever. And I also don’t see anyone acknowledging that gap.”
When I spoke to researchers and historians like Diouf, they were likewise troubled by the limited scope of the swamp’s coverage. Diouf pointed to the lack of attention that certain forms of resistance receive in the public eye. “In the United States there’s this image of people, arms in hands, being the heroes and fighting and this kind of masculine type of opposition,” she said. “But there are many ways that people used to resist and attack and protect themselves from enslavement.”
Warren Milteer, a professor at UNC Greensboro who grew up less than a mile from the swamp, said that the entire picture of the Dismal has not yet been conveyed. He told me that the lack of an expansive dialogue makes it difficult for residents to feel attached to the past. His ancestors were part of a substantial free-born mixed-race community that developed along the periphery of the swamp; due to their proximity to whiteness, they were able to pass down property over time. “There’s a disconnect between making maroons central to the story of the swamp and the everyday lives of the vast majority of people who actually lived around the swamp and had connections to it,” Milteer said. “Including the enslaved population.”
Sheppard, for his part, just wants folks to see that the swamp’s history is about more than any one person. The reason he cherishes Grandy’s narrative is not because of a single lesson or detail therein. It’s because it is one of his few ties to all his ancestors. Reading about Grandy’s life, his escape, his joy and pain, is the only way Sheppard can grasp and exalt them.
“It’s hundreds of thousands of them who wasn’t fortunate enough to leave a slave narrative,” Sheppard said. “We have to make sure that we find ways to include them, the ones with no names. The ones who are lost.”
“You see how my eyes are set back?” Sylvia Murphy asked, craning her neck. “I have deep-set eyes, like him. He had very high cheekbones, very narrow face. Hair like cotton, all white, but he wouldn’t let you touch it. He never combed his hair. I kid you not, my granddaddy never combed his hair. It was never nothing to do. It was just soft.”
Murphy, 63, was describing her late grandfather Jephthah Hunt. I had spent months searching for a direct descendant of a Dismal maroon. There are thousands around the swamp who could be related to maroons, thousands whose homes have been here for years. They are shrouded among the populace. Sayers, the archaeologist, says he’s never been able to find a descendant in more than two decades of research. A documentary crew from Old Dominion University set off to locate one in the early 2010s, but failed to identify a single subject.
There are few accounts of maroons or their kin from either before or after emancipation. In 1856, the writer and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted published an article based on a multiday journey to the Dismal. He wrote that some locals believed the maroon population had decreased due to “systematic hunting of them with dogs and guns.” Others he encountered swore “there were people in the swamps still.” That same year, in an article published in Harper’s Magazine, the novelist David Hunter Strother wrote that he saw a maroon in the canebrake, “with a tattered blanket wrapped about his shoulders, and a gun in his hand.”
During the Civil War, two Northern soldiers claimed to have encountered maroons. The first said he met a runaway who maintained he’d been living among an exile community for decades. The second wrote that while he was in the swamp with his infantry company, a family of nine runaways “came into our line” before suddenly disappearing. After the war, at least two others attested to meeting maroons. In 1888, the author Robert Arnold contended that in the 1840s he talked to a fugitive who fled into the swamp after killing a white man. In 1895, a former Confederate soldier named Alexander Hunter published an article that mentioned his meeting with a runaway in the Dismal in the 1870s. The man told him that “he had remained hidden in the swamp for 19 years.”
Today, a few families in the area believe their ancestors used the swamp as a stopgap on longer journeys to freedom, but not as a place of permanent residence. People aren’t exactly chatty either way. After emancipation, the Dismal was a moonshine hub. Some longtime residents are hesitant to say too much about days past.
I contacted multiple members of the Dismal Swamp Stakeholder Collaborative while looking for a confirmed maroon descendant, but only one had any inkling of where to start. She pointed me to Murphy, who had worked for Representative McEachin. Murphy called me and we agreed to meet outside a shopping center in Suffolk.
Jephthah was small and had a pointed nose—at least, that’s the way Murphy remembers him. “He always told my mom he was Cherokee,” she said. Her grandfather often claimed his parents were the ones who informed him of his mixed ancestry, but no one in the family could be sure if that was true. He was born in Franklin, Virginia, though most of his relatives were from Southampton County. Murphy recalls that he was always out hunting and fishing; she thinks he may have even gone to the Dismal when the weather was right. He had a long green canoe that he sometimes took with him.
“He brought fish home every day,” she said, adjusting her black visor. “He knew the woods very well. You never heard him come up on you. You could be standing there, right there, you would hear somebody else come up. You wouldn’t hear him because he believed in the earth. It was like, ‘I know the earth.’ He would always say that to me. ‘Sylvie, you got to know the earth. You got to listen to the earth.’”
She put both hands on her cup of iced tea. “I did not know what that meant until he died.”
Murphy told me that on the day Hunt passed away, he asked her to visit him. “It was weird,” she said. “He just said the earth was calling him.” She stayed with her grandfather for a few hours. She thought he seemed fine. Later that evening, though, he walked into the kitchen and turned both of the faucet handles on. Then he walked out to the backyard. When hours passed and Hunt hadn’t returned, Murphy’s family panicked.
“They called the police, and the police came, and they took flashlights and went back there. My granddaddy had went all the way in the corner of the fence and laid down and put his head onto himself—like this,” she said, bunching her torso to her knees. “And he was dead. He said the earth was calling him.”
A few years ago, Murphy was invited to a meeting of the stakeholder collaborative. She listened as experts described the maroons: how they were a mix of Black and Native ancestry, how they lived off the land. She thought of her grandfather. Some of his people had been enslaved, but others she wasn’t certain about. She convinced her mother to take a DNA test in the hope that it might provide clarity.
In the late-afternoon heat, Murphy pulled up the results from an app on her phone. She said she wanted to show me. The longer I spent around the Dismal, encircled by locals like Murphy, the more I found myself inspecting every visage, looking for every lost face. With each passing day, the search for descendants felt increasingly maddening. They must be here, I thought again and again, yet everywhere I go they escape me.
Murphy cradled the glowing device. She set it in my hands. It contained a multicolored pie chart and bar graphs. The results indicated her mother was from the “Virginia Tidewater” area. They said that she was almost entirely of African descent.
A sliver of a note glittered from the bottom of the screen. The nation “Cameroon” was spelled out in thick lettering.
The car kicked gravel from under my tires on my last visit to the Dismal. The loblolly pines hugged the road. I parked in a dusty lot, the morning air fresh and cool. The swamp’s lost figures entered my mind.
It took me six months of interviews, database searches, and library visits before I finally located an in-depth account from a maroon. It’s attributed to a runaway named “Charles,” and was written in vernacular and printed in an abolitionist magazine. I studied the piece so often that by the time I set foot in the bog, it came to me in effortless and instinctive fragments, almost like a memory of my own.
In the tale, Charles describes families and children all living and working in unison in the Dismal. He says maroons chose to reside near one another for protection and security. They thrived and lifted each other up, as if they all had “one head and one heart.” He recalls canebrake, 30 feet high, and mammoth cypresses, which shrouded the enclave from the outside world. He gives a glimpse of their lives.
At the end of the narrative, Charles declines to say how he journeyed to Canada from the swamp. He doesn’t want to tip off any slave catchers. There’d be “lots more boys comin’ [the] same way I did.”
From the vacant entrance, I followed the raised wooden pathway with sideburns of verdant moss growing on its edges. I walked through towering black gum groves with limbs 60 feet high. I trekked past so much green that it started to blur—too much green to even see the leaves—until I hit the Underground Railroad pavilion, nestled in the mire. It’s a small, wall-less structure, made of metal and painted dark green.
It appeared abandoned. Not decrepit—its floorboards were relatively fresh. On the eastern-facing side, a film of dust had bloomed beneath a mounted informational display titled “Maroons and Resistance in the Great Dismal Swamp.” Some dirt lined the top.
There was no litter on the premises, no footprints whatsoever. The ferns, from the forest, were ready to creep over the floor. Someone had built this monument in the web of vegetation. And there were hardly any traces that it had been visited.
I stepped out from underneath the roof. The structure looked rejected in the gleam of the morning light. The pathway out to the road seemed to shrink from this vantage point. After 10 feet of boardwalk, the swamp appeared to engulf its sides. The land would take it, if we will not have it. I pictured Charles moving in the brush, swaying with the leaves.
I turned back to the trail. It was there and then it wasn’t. The path seemed hidden. The tangle surrounded me.
A mockingbird called out from the pines.