RECAP: “City of Refuge: Evidence of an 18th-Century Great Dismal Swamp Slave Labor Camp,” Inlands Kickoff w/ URI Prof. Marcus Nevius

In 1763, a group of mid-Atlantic enslavers including George Washington dispatched 54 enslaved persons to a 2,000-square mile plot of land that spanned the Virginia-North Carolina border known as the Great Dismal Swamp. As University of Rhode Island Associate Prof. of History Marcus Nevius explored throughout his April 20 talk in Jesse 410, an unofficial kick off to the April 22-23 Inlands syposium on campus, the story that you tell of what would become the Great Dismal Plantation depends largely on the questions—and sources—you start with. If, for example, you work outward from the land and slave registers of members of the Dismal Land Company, you get a pre-imperial crisis story of expansionist land speculators attempting to identify the next frontier of slavery as they retreated from a tobacco-heavy economy. And theirs wasn’t at all a new idea. As early as the 1720s, William Byrd’s surveys of the area (incorrectly) touted how its peat rich soil was perfect for growing rice and hemp. Nor was theirs a narrative that terminated with the Revolution (though more on the imperial war in a moment). As the Dismal Land Company gave way to the Dismal Swamp Land Company, two somewhat conflicting stories emerge. On one hand, you have Washington begging to divest from a failed project to generate new cash crops. On the other hand, you have figures like Samuel Proctor amassing a modest fortune as the economic animus of the Dismal labor camps turned toward exploiting enslaved labor to dredge canals in the swamp and, subsequently, extract timber from it.

Viewed through a different evidentiary lens, however, the swamp becomes a unique terrain of slave resistance and petit marronage. For instance, the papers of Land Company agents like James Holliday, a go-between with labor camps, show the extra goods that those enslaved at Great Dismal Plantation would demand and receive—spirits, pork, clothing—in exchange for abandoning work stoppages. Records also reveal a remarkable pattern of flight. The original registers note that at least three enslaved men named Tom fled Great Dismal, spending years living off the resources of the swamp, sometimes with the aid of Quakers who resided on its borders, both alone and in small communities. Abolitionist pamphlets—like Edmund Jackson’s “The Virginia Maroons,” re-published by Frederick Douglass in The North Star—championed this form of resistance as more familiar to Saint-Domingue, Cuba, and Jamaica, a parallel captured perhaps most vividly in David Hunter Strother’s etching of Osman the Maroon, armed with a long gun, in Harpers. And returning to the Revolution, wartime memoranda count 27 enslaved people who fled behind British lines when Cornwallis sacked Great Dismal Plantation for tools, steers, and food in July 1781.

In detailing the next phase of his research on the Great Dismal Swamp, which builds off his 2020 University of Georgia Press monograph City of Refuge, Prof. Nevius highlighted that there is still much to be learned by going back to the original appraisal documents to unearth the stories of the 21 enslaved people who remained behind after Cornwallis’ raid. There’s Harry, dispatched to Great Dismal by Washington only to be moved back to Mount Vernon, where he escaped in the 1770s. Harry Washington, Prof. Nevius noted, appears in a 1783 record of enslaved people who evacuated the U.S. to Sierra Leone, where they organized a revolt against the British imperial agents deputized to control them there. There’s Jack and Venus, married in 1771, perhaps at Great Dismal Plantation. And there’s Nathanial Booth, a freed slave who continued to work in the swamp after liberation and who, according to county court records, was returned to bondage under the terms of 1857 Virginia reenslavement legislation.

Circling back to the conference he was starting, Prof. Nevius offered that the inland region of the Great Dismal Swamp provides a new way to think about these kinds of spaces: not just in terms of the history of the expansion of slavery but also for the complex, grassroots history of the enslaved people who claimed the Great Dismal Swamp as their own.