Life In The Great Dismal Swamp

An investigation is revealing how escaped slaves established free communities in a vast wetland on the Virginia-North Carolina border.

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By around 1680, African American Maroons established communities on islands in the swamp. The woman pictured here is fashioning a tool while keeping an eye on her children. Credit: Carolyn Arcabascio
By around 1680, African American Maroons established communities on islands in the swamp. The woman pictured here is fashioning a tool while keeping an eye on her children. Credit: Carolyn Arcabascio

Spring 2017: By David Malakoff.

“I sometimes ask myself why I didn’t do one of those projects where the dig is right next to the parking lot.” Archaeologist Becca Peixotto wasn’t complaining, but she sounded a bit wistful on a cool, cloudy day last December as she caught her breath, brushed some mud off her hip waders, and dropped a heavy pack at her excavation site deep within the Great Dismal Swamp, a vast wooded wetland that straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border near the Atlantic coast.

To get to the site, which was perched on a forested hummock barely higher than the surrounding water, we’d taken a jolting drive down a dirt road pitted with yawning potholes, and then lugged a pile of gear nearly half-a-mile under fallen trees and through thick reeds, sharp brambles, boot-sucking mires, and deep pools of icy water. Still, we’d had it pretty easy, Peixotto informed me and two volunteers. We hadn’t needed the machete she often used to slash a path through the tangle, nor the insect repellent or leg chaps she uses in summer to defend against the swamp’s voracious bugs and venomous snakes. And our 45-minute trek was nothing compared to the hardship endured by the people who journeyed here centuries ago to build new lives in a landscape that one Colonia-era writer considered so dangerous and inhospitable that “not even a turkey buzzard will venture to fly over it.” Given such a reputation, “to live in the Dismal, you really had to want to be here,” said Peixotto, who is pursuing a doctorate at American University in Washington, D.C.

They wanted to. Historians know that, in the decades after the first enslaved Africans arrived at the colony of Jamestown in 1619, some slaves escaped from plantations and workshops and sought refuge in the dense swamp, where Native Americans had already pioneered small settlements and bounty-hunting slave catchers were loathe to venture. The escapees were known as Maroons, a name derived from a Spanish word used to describe untamed or feral livestock.

Now, thanks to more than a decade of sloshing, slashing, and digging by archaeologists, the wetland is yielding insights into the lives of the Maroons. Since the early 2000s, a project led by archaeologist Daniel Sayers of American University has excavated five sites within the swamp.

Excerpt.

Read More in our SPRING 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4. Browse Content of this Issue: SPRING 2017. Browse Articles Excerpts from our last issue, WINTER 16-17.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. In reference to the painting above, (lady and children in the Dismal Swamp) – Who painted it and when – and where is the painting located?

    Thank You,

    Sonny Corbi,
    Asheville NC

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