—Dismal Swamp Canal Trail —
Between 1793 and 1814, the grueling, brutal job of digging this twenty-three mile canal was done by slave labor.
Dense underbrush, insects, venomous snakes and bears made the Great Dismal Swamp an "awesome and terrible place."
(Colonel William Byrd II, 1674-1744)
When it was decided that a canal connecting the Chesapeake Bay to the Albemarle Sound would be good for business, it was also decided that it would be dug by slave labor.
"The labour is very severe. The ground is often very boggy: the negroes are up to the middle or much deeper in mud and water, cutting away roots and baling out mud; if they can keep their heads above water, they work on. They lodge in huts, or as they are called camps, made of shingles or boards. They lie down in the mud, which has adhered to them, making a great fire to dry themselves and keep off the cold. No bedding whatever is allowed them; it is only by work done over his task, that any of them can get a blanket. They are paid nothing except for this overwork."
Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America,
published in London in 1843.
As America grew around them, generations of families were living undetected in the Great Dismal Swamp.
Even with wild and harsh
living conditions, the Dismal Swamp was a safe haven compared to the horrors of slavery and indenture. Between about 1700 and the 1860s, Maroons (escaped slaves), Native Americans forcibly torn from their lands, enslaved canal company laborers and outcast or criminalized Europeans, became outliers, disappearing into isolated or hidden settlements deep in the swamp. Researchers think that, despite mostly keeping to themselves, some may have bartered goods and services on the outside with canal company laborers, thus creating a dynamic, yet hidden, swamp-wide political economy. Whole generations of outliers made the Dismal Swamp their home. This area was also part of the Underground Railroad that helped African Americans find their way north freedom.