The mysteriously and formidably named Great Dismal Swamp straddles the North Carolina-Virginia border only a few miles inland from the Atlantic coast. This vast wetland or peat swamp originally covered about 1.28 million acres, stretching from the James River in VA to the Albemarle Sound in NC.
The Great Dismal Swamp was a thriving refuge and destination for freedom seekers. In the nineteenth century, the Swamp was a morass of huge trees towering over dense underbrush and delicate ferns, inhabited by black bears, wildcats, hogs and poisonous snakes. It was to this treacherous route and inhospitable place, where many enslaved people sought freedom.
While some were able to blend in with free blacks, many chose to live among a colony of runaways, called maroons, in the Great Dismal Swamp. The nature of the swamp made it possible for large colonies to establish permanent refuge. Colonies were established on high ground in the swamp, where crude huts were constructed. Abundant animal life provided food and clothing. Some earned money by working for free black shingle makers, who hired maroons to cut logs.
The Dismal Swamp Canal, hand dug by hired enslaved labor, opened to navigation in 1805 after twelve years of backbreaking work under highly unfavorable conditions. This 22-mile-long canal allowed trade between the Chesapeake Bay in VA and the Albemarle Sound in NC.
Today, researchers believe the Dismal Swamp may have been home to the largest maroon colony in the United States. The Dismal Swamp State Park, part of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, shares the mystery of the swamp and offers additional activities like hiking, birding, kayaking, biking and Ranger led programs. Interpretive panels are located on the east bank of the Dismal Swamp Canal and Visitor Center at the Dismal Swamp State Park. Free National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Passports and Cancellation Stamps are available at this site.