National Wildlife Refuge System

Underground Railroad Education

 Interpretive panels explain the role of the Great Dismal Swamp in the Underground Railroad, including copies of newspaper advertisements seeking runaway slaves believed to be hiding there.
Interpretive panels explain the role of the Great Dismal Swamp in the Underground Railroad, including copies of newspaper advertisements seeking runaway slaves believed to be hiding there.
Credit: USFWS
Christmas trees serve as a wave break to protect freshwater marsh at Bayou Sauvage Refuge, LA.
A maroon slave from an 1856 issue of Harper's
New Monthly.
Credit: Cornell University Library

More than 150 years after the last slave escaped to freedom through the thick forest of what is now Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, VA, an Underground Railroad Education Pavilion has been opened on the refuge.

The Great Dismal Swamp Refuge was the first refuge named to the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program by the National Park Service in 2003.  “It is our hope to host groups to learn about the runaway slaves that came through the swamp and lived here,” says refuge manager Chris Lowie.

Since the 17th century, the swamp has served as a place of safety and a route to freedom.  For some, it was a stopping point on the way to cities further north. During the Civil War, Union regiments of the United States Colored Troops marched down the canal bank from Deep Creek, VA, to northeastern North Carolina to liberate and recruit enslaved African Americans. 

Some of those who hid in the swamp established “maroon” communities. “Maroon” is from the Spanish word cimarron, meaning fugitive or runaway.  These maroon communities remain the subject of significant historical research. Different historians estimate that between 2,000 and 50,000 maroons lived in the swamp, originally about 10 times larger than its current 190 square miles.

Summer Field School
American University in Washington, D.C., is accepting applications (due April 15) for its summer field school, a seven-week program researching maroon and other settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp. The field school is directed by archaeologist and professor Daniel Sayers, who initiated his study of the maroon communities in 2001.  “There was a lot of anecdotal information about the history of the swamp,” says Lowie. “Dr. Sayers’ tenacious work gave us the evidence.”

Sayers and his team have found imprints of cabins as well as tools left behind by Native Americans and then used by the maroons. Stories of the swamp, the Underground Railroad and the maroon communities are told on interpretive panels in the new pavilion. The pavilion may be visited Monday through Friday, except federal holidays, by first visiting refuge headquarters to obtain a day pass.

Lateral West Fire Update
There is a long history of large fires in the Great Dismal Swamp ecosystem. The Lateral West Fire was started by lightning in August 2011 and is now a smoldering ground fire in two slightly elevated areas within the perimeter established by firefighters. Both areas are surrounded by floodwater. Refuge firefighters continue to monitor the fire.

Last updated: March 14, 2012