[News] Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Sep 1 13:20:27 EDT 2016


  Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves
  Kept Their Freedom

Allison Shelley, Richard Grant - September 2016

The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp 
<https://www.fws.gov/refuge/great_dismal_swamp/>, the better I 
understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and 
sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of 
the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps 
thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.

We don’t know much about them, but thanks to the archaeologist hacking 
through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in 
hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world 
until the 19th century. The Dismal Swamp covered great tracts of 
southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and its vegetation was 
far too thick for horses or canoes. In the early 1600s, Native Americans 
fleeing the colonial frontier took refuge here, and they were soon 
joined by fugitive slaves, and probably some whites escaping indentured 
servitude or hiding from the law. From about 1680 to the Civil War, it 
appears that the swamp communities were dominated by Africans and 

Thigh deep in muddy water, wearing Levis and hiking boots rather than 
waterproof waders like me, Dan Sayers stops to light a cigarette. He’s a 
historical archaeologist and chair of the anthropology department at 
American University in Washington, D.C., but he looks more like an 
outlaw country singer. Long-haired and bearded, 43 years old, he 
habitually wears a battered straw cowboy hat and a pair of Waylon 
Jennings-style sunglasses. Sayers is a Marxist and a vegan who smokes 
nearly two packs a day and keeps himself revved up on Monster Energy 
drinks until it’s time to crack a beer.

“I was such a dumb-ass,” he says. “I was looking for hills, hummocks, 
high ground because that’s what I’d read in the documents: ‘Runaway 
slaves living on hills....’ I had never set foot in a swamp before. I 
wasted so much time. Finally, someone asked me if I’d been to the 
islands in North Carolina. Islands! That was the word I’d been missing.”

The Great Dismal Swamp, now reduced by draining and development, is 
managed as a federal wildlife refuge. The once-notorious panthers are 
gone, but bears, birds, deer and amphibians are still abundant. So are 
venomous snakes and biting insects. In the awful heat and humidity of 
summer, Sayers assures me, the swamp teems with water moccasins and 
rattlesnakes. The mosquitoes get so thick that they can blur the 
outlines of a person standing 12 feet away.

In early 2004, one of the refuge biologists strapped on his waders and 
brought Sayers to the place we’re going, a 20-acre island occasionally 
visited by hunters, but completely unknown to historians and 
archaeologists. Before Sayers, no archaeology had been done in the 
swamp’s interior, mainly because conditions were so challenging. One 
research party got lost so many times that it gave up.

When you’ve been toiling through the sucking ooze, with submerged roots 
and branches grabbing at your ankles, dry solid ground feels almost 
miraculous. We step onto the shore of a large, flat, sun-dappled island 
carpeted with fallen leaves. Walking toward its center, the underbrush 
disappears, and we enter a parklike clearing shaded by a few hardwoods 
and pines.

“I’ll never forget seeing this place for the first time,” recalls 
Sayers. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I never dreamed 
of finding a 20-acre island, and I knew instantly it was livable. Sure 
enough, you can’t put a shovel in the ground anywhere on this island 
without finding something.”

He has named his excavation areas—the Grotto, the Crest, North Plateau 
and so on—but he won’t name the island itself. In his academic papers 
and his 2014 book, /A Desolate Place for a Defiant People/ 
Sayers refers to it as the “nameless site.” “I don’t want to put a false 
name on it,” he explains. “I’m hoping to find out what the people who 
lived here called this place.” As he sifts the earth they trod, finding 
the soil footprints of their cabins and tiny fragments of their tools, 
weapons and white clay pipes, he feels a profound admiration for them, 
and this stems in part from his Marxism.

“These people performed a critique of a brutal capitalistic enslavement 
system, and they rejected it completely. They risked everything to live 
in a more just and equitable way, and they were successful for ten 
generations. One of them, a man named Charlie, was interviewed later in 
Canada. He said that all labor was communal here. That’s how it would 
have been in an African village.”


Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who 
escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These 
people and their descendants are known as “maroons.” The term probably 
comes from the Spanish /cimarrón/, meaning feral livestock, fugitive 
slave or something wild and defiant.

Marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery, took place 
all over Latin America and the Caribbean, in the slave islands of the 
Indian Ocean, in Angola and other parts of Africa. But until recently, 
the idea that maroons also existed in North America has been rejected by 
most historians.

“In 2004, when I started talking about large, permanent maroon 
settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp, most scholars thought I was 
nuts,” says Sayers. “They thought in terms of runaways, who might hide 
in the woods or swamps for a while until they got caught, or who might 
make it to freedom on the Underground Railroad, with the help of Quakers 
and abolitionists.”

By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in 
the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in 
Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black 
resistance and initiative. They’ve also revealed the shortcomings of 
their methods: “Historians are limited to source documents. When it 
comes to maroons, there isn’t that much on paper. But that doesn’t mean 
their story should be ignored or overlooked. As archaeologists, we can 
read it in the ground.”

Sayers first heard about the Dismal Swamp maroons from one of his 
professors at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. 
They were smoking cigarettes after class in late 2001. Sayers proposed 
to do his dissertation on the archaeology of 19th-century agriculture. 
Stifling a yawn, Prof. Marley Brown III asked him what he knew about the 
maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp and suggested this would make a more 
interesting dissertation project. “It sounded great,” says Sayers. “I 
had no idea what I was getting into.”

He started doing archival research on the Great Dismal Swamp. He found 
scattered references to maroons dating back to the early 1700s. The 
first accounts described runaway slaves and Native Americans raiding 
farms and plantations, and then disappearing back into the swamp with 
stolen livestock. In 1714, Alexander Spotswood, the colonial lieutenant 
governor of Virginia, described the Dismal Swamp as a “No-man’s-land,” 
to which “Loose and disorderly people daily flock.” Since Africans and 
African-Americans were not referred to as “people” in the records of 
18th-century Virginia, this suggests that poor whites were also joining 
the swamp communities.

In 1728, William Byrd II led the first survey into the Great Dismal 
Swamp, to determine the Virginia/North Carolina boundary. He encountered 
a family of maroons, describing them as “mulattoes,” and was well aware 
that others were watching and hiding: “It is certain many Slaves Shelter 
themselves in this Obscure Part of the World....” Byrd, an aristocratic 
Virginian, loathed his time in the swamp. “Never was rum, that cordial 
of life, found more necessary than it was in this dirty place.”

 From the 1760s until the Civil War, runaway slave ads in the Virginia 
and North Carolina newspapers often mentioned the Dismal Swamp as the 
likely destination, and there was persistent talk of permanent maroon 
settlements in the morass. British traveler J.F.D. Smyth, writing in 
1784, gleaned this description: “Runaway negroes have resided in these 
places for twelve, twenty, or thirty years and upwards, subsisting 
themselves in the swamp upon corn, hogs, and fowls....[On higher ground] 
they have erected habitations, and cleared small fields around them.”

The most comprehensive work that Sayers found was a 1979 dissertation by 
an oddball historian named Hugo Prosper Leaming. He was a white 
Unitarian minister and civil rights activist who managed to get accepted 
into a Black Muslim temple in Chicago and wore a fez with his Unitarian 
robes. Leaming surveyed local and state records related to the Dismal 
Swamp, and scoured unpublished local histories, memoirs and novels for 
references to maroons. In his dissertation, later published as a book, 
he presents a detailed account of maroon history in the swamp, with a 
list of prominent chiefs and vivid descriptions of Africanized religious 

“His interpretations are stretchy, but I like the book, and it was 
useful on the history,” says Sayers. “When it came to the archaeology, I 
had nothing. I didn’t know where to look, or what to look for. So I 
decided to survey the swamp, find the high ground and dig there.”

The most useful map was a digital representation of the swamp’s 
vegetation. It showed clusters of tree species that typically grow on 
higher, drier ground. To help him get into these areas, Sayers recruited 
young, energetic assistants and armed them with machetes and loppers. “I 
remember one day in particular,” he says. “There were four of us and we 
went at it with everything we had, just sweating bullets. In eight 
hours, we made 200 feet. The brush was so thick it would have taken us a 
week to get there, so we gave up.”

On the edge of the swamp, where sites were more accessible, Sayers found 
some artifacts that clearly suggested maroons. But it wasn’t until he 
saw the island that he felt the rush of a big discovery. He went back to 
his professors with a timetable. In 12 weeks, he would identify the key 
sites, complete the shovel tests and perform his excavations. Then he’d 
be ready to write his dissertation.

“It was probably the greatest underestimation in the history of 
archaeology,” he says. “Instead of 12 weeks, it took three eight-month 
sessions. Then I spent five more summers excavating with my students in 
field schools.”

All the excavation sites at the nameless site are now filled in and 
covered over. Apart from some water catchment pits with fire-hardened 
floors, there’s not much he can show me. But Sayers is an expressive 
talker and gesticulator, and as he walks me around the island, he 
conjures up clusters of log cabins, some with raised floors and porches. 
He points to invisible fields and gardens in the middle distance, 
children playing, people fishing, small groups off hunting. Charlie, the 
ex-maroon interviewed in Canada, described people making furniture and 
musical instruments.

“There were hardships and deprivations, for sure,” he says. “But no 
overseer was going to whip them here. No one was going to work them in a 
cotton field from sunup to sundown, or sell their spouses and children. 
They were free. They had emancipated themselves.”


On the outside wall of Dan Sayers’ office at American University is a 
large photograph of Karl Marx, and a flier for Great Dismal Black IPA 
beer. Inside, the office has a comfortable, masculine, lived-in feel. 
There’s an old pith helmet hanging on the wall, and a Jaws poster, and 
the front page of a newspaper announcing Obama’s election. In the 
bookshelves are the entire works of Karl Marx.

I ask him how his Marxism influences his archaeology. “I think 
capitalism is wrong, in terms of a social ideal, and we need to change 
it,” he says. “Archaeology is my activism. Rather than go to the 
Washington Mall and hold up a protest sign, I choose to dig in the Great 
Dismal Swamp. By bringing a resistance story to light, you hope it gets 
into people’s heads.”

When ideological passion drives research, in archaeology or anything 
else, it can generate tremendous energy and important breakthroughs. It 
can also lead to the glossing over of inconvenient data, and biased 
results. Sayers has concluded that there were large, permanent, defiant 
“resistance communities” of maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp. Is there 
a danger that he’s over-interpreted the evidence?

“Historical archaeology does require interpretation,” he says. “But I 
always imagine what my worst critic is going to say, or want as 
evidence, and I’ve done a decent enough job to convince my academic 
peers on this. There’s a few who don’t buy it. The show-me-the-money 
historians don’t see much money.”

He takes me down the hall to his laboratory, where soil samples are 
stacked in plastic bags on high shelving units and hundreds of artifacts 
are bagged, numbered and stored in metal cabinets. I ask to see the most 
important and exciting finds. “In one sense, this has been the most 
frustrating archaeology project imaginable,” he says. “We haven’t found 
much, and everything is small. On the other hand, it’s fascinating: 
These soils are completely undisturbed. You’re scratching the surface of 
an undiscovered world.”

In order to date these soils, and the traces of human occupation left in 
them, Sayers used a combination of techniques. One was the law of 
superposition: Layers of undisturbed soil get older as you dig deeper. 
Also, artifacts found in them, arrowheads, pottery and manufactured 
items like nails, can be dated through the collective knowledge of 
historical archaeologists, based on the objects’ style and attributes. 
The third technique was optically stimulated luminescence, or OSL.

“We collected soil samples without exposing them to sunlight and sent 
them to a lab,” he explains. “They can measure when these grains of sand 
last saw sunlight. Normally, historical archaeological projects don’t 
need to use OSL because there are documents and mass-produced artifacts. 
It’s a testament to how unique these communities were in avoiding the 
outside world.”

Before 1660, most people at the nameless site were Native Americans. The 
first maroons were there within a few years of the arrival of African 
slaves in nearby Jamestown in 1619. After 1680, Native American 
materials become scarce; what he identifies as maroon artifacts begin to 

Sayers pulls out a stone arrowhead about an inch long, one side chipped 
away to form a tiny curved knife or scraper. “In the interior of the 
swamp, there was only one source of stone,” he says. “Tools left behind 
by indigenous Americans. Maroons would find them, modify them, and keep 
using them until they were worn down into tiny nubs.”

Nothing was more exciting than finding the footprints of seven cabins at 
the nameless site, in the 1660-1860 range. “We know from documents that 
maroons were living in the swamp then. There’s no record of anyone else 
living there. It is certainly not the type of place that you would make 
a choice to live in, unless you needed to hide.”

He pulls out a disk of plain, earth-colored Native American pottery, the 
size of a large cookie. “Maroons would find ceramics like this, and jam 
them down into the post holes of their cabins, to shore them up. This is 
probably the largest item we’ve found.” Then he shows me a tiny rusted 
copper bead, perhaps worn as jewelry, and another bead fused to a nail. 
The artifacts keep getting smaller: flakes of pipe clay, gunflint 
particles from the early 19th century, when the outside world was 
pushing into the swamp.

“Everything we’ve found would fit into a single shoe box,” he says. “And 
it makes sense. They were using organic materials from the swamp. Except 
for the big stuff like cabins, it decomposes without leaving a trace.”

Seven miles away from American University, at the new National Museum of 
African American History and Culture, an exhibit about the maroons of 
the Great Dismal Swamp is scheduled to go on view. For the curator Nancy 
Bercaw, it presented an unusual challenge. “The ethos here is that 
objects should speak for themselves,” she says, talking over coffee in 
her office. “Dan Sayers generously gave us ten objects. They are 
reworked pebbles, shims for post holes, tiny fragments of stone from an 
unnamed island. Some of them look like grains of sand.”

Artifact 1 is a white clay tobacco-pipe fragment, 12 millimeters long. 
There is a small chunk of burnt clay, a five-millimeter piece of 
flattened lead shot, a quartz flake, a British gunflint chip (circa 
1790), a shard of glass, a nail head with a partial stem.

They are not the sort of objects, in other words, that catch the eye or 
speak for themselves. Her solution was to mount some of them in jewel 
cases like priceless treasures.

The exhibit is in the 17,000-square-foot Slavery and Freedom gallery, in 
a section about free communities of color. “Traditionally, we’ve studied 
the institution of slavery, not enslavement as it was lived,” she says. 
“Once you start looking at our history through an African-American lens, 
it really changes the focus. Maroons become much more significant.”

The largest community of American maroons was in the Great Dismal Swamp, 
but there were others in the swamps outside New Orleans, in Alabama and 
elsewhere in the Carolinas, and in Florida. All these sites are being 
investigated by archaeologists.

“The other maroon societies had more fluidity,” says Bercaw. “People 
would slip off down the waterways, but usually maintain some contact. 
The Dismal Swamp maroons found a way to remove themselves completely 
from the United States, in the recesses of its geography.”


On a cool cloudy morning in the Great Dismal Swamp, Sayers parks his 
vehicle by a long straight ditch full of black water. He sips his 
Monster, and sucks fire into a cigarette. The ditch arrows through the 
gloomy swamp to a vanishing point in the far distance.

“This is Washington Ditch, a somewhat unique monument to brutality and 
entrepreneurship,” he says. George Washington was the first to see 
economic opportunity in the vast coastal swamp south of Norfolk, 
Virginia. In 1763, he formed a company with fellow investors to drain 
the swamp, exploit its timber resources and dig canals for 
transportation. This is the first canal, completed in the late 1760s, 
and excavated by slaves.

“Imagine it,” says Sayers. “Digging, chopping, bailing mud, working in 
chest-high water. One hundred degrees in summer, full of water 
moccasins, ungodly mosquitoes. Freezing cold in winter. Beatings, 
whippings. Deaths were fairly common.”

The canal now known as Washington Ditch was the first significant 
encroachment into the Great Dismal Swamp. More canals were dug. Timber 
companies cut thousands of acres of Atlantic white cedar, known locally 
as juniper, and turned it into barrel staves, ship masts and house shingles.

It became more dangerous for maroons because the canals allowed 
slave-catchers to get into the swamp. But there were also new economic 
opportunities. Maroons were able to cut shingles for lumber companies 
that turned a blind eye. Frederick Law Olmsted, who traveled in the 
South as a journalist before he took up landscape architecture, writing 
about the maroons in 1856, observed that “poorer white men, owning small 
tracts of the swamps, will sometimes employ them,” and also that maroons 
were stealing from farms, plantations and unwary travelers.

Olmsted asked if locals ever shot the maroons. “Oh yes,” came the reply. 
“But some on ’em would rather be shot than be took, sir.” It’s clear 
that there were two different ways of marooning in the swamp. Those 
living near the edge of the swamp, or near the canals, had far more 
interaction with the outside world. In the remote interior, at the 
nameless site and other islands, there were still maroons who lived in 
isolation, fishing, farming and trapping feral hogs in the deep swamp 
muck. We know this from Dan Sayers’ excavations and from Charlie the 
former maroon. He described whole families that had never seen a white 
man and would be scared to death to see one.

The white residents of Norfolk and other communities near the swamp were 
terrified of being attacked by the swamp’s maroons. Instead, they got 
Nat Turner’s insurrection of 1831—a rebellion of slaves and free blacks 
in which more than 50 whites were killed and then at least 200 blacks 
killed in reprisal. Turner was planning to hide in the Dismal Swamp with 
his followers, recruit the maroons and more slaves, and then emerge to 
overthrow white rule. But his rebellion was suppressed after two days, 
and Turner, after two months in hiding, was captured and hanged.

What became of the Dismal Swamp maroons? Olmsted thought that very few 
were left by the 1850s, but he stayed near the canals and didn’t venture 
into the interior. Sayers has evidence of a thriving community at the 
nameless site all the way up to the Civil War. “That’s when they came 
out,” he says. “We’ve found almost nothing after the Civil War. They 
probably worked themselves back into society as free people.”

Early in his research, he started interviewing African-Americans in 
communities near the swamp, hoping to hear family stories about maroons. 
But he abandoned the side project. “There’s still so much archaeology 
work to do,” he says. “We’ve excavated only 1 percent of one island.”


He’s out of Monsters and low on cigarettes. It’s time to leave the Great 
Dismal Swamp and find the nearest convenience store. On a raised gravel 
road, we pass through a charred expanse of forest, torched by a 
lightning fire. We skirt the shores of Lake Drummond, the perfect blue 
lake at the center of the swamp, and drive on through waterlogged 
cypress trees and stretches where the road is walled in on both sides by 
thorny brush.“I got very comfortable being in the swamp,” he says. 
“Bears would watch me excavating. I ran into huge water moccasins and 
rattlesnakes as thick around as my thigh. But nothing worse happened 
than scrapes, bug bites and losing equipment in the muck.” Once he was 
wading to the nameless site with a group of students. A young woman 
stepped into an underwater hole and disappeared. But she surfaced a 
moment later, with no damage done. On many occasions, students and other 
visitors became so entangled in thorn patches that they had to be cut 
loose. “Nothing happens quickly or easily,” he says. “The swamp is a 
trickster and summertime is really tough. But I love it. The 
thunderstorms are really something. The sound of the frogs and the 
insects and the birds, just as the maroons heard it. I love what the 
swamp has done for me, and I love what it did for them.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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