Archaeology is my activism
September 6, 2016 8:39 PM   Subscribe

“These people performed a critique of a brutal capitalistic enslavement system, and they rejected it completely. They risked everything to live in a more just and equitable way, and they were successful for ten generations."
The Great Dismal Swamp straddles the Virginia-North Carolina border. From the 1600s to about the American Civil War it was a place of refuge, largely for escaped African and African-American slaves, and an important link in the underground railway.

Archaeologist Dan Sayers has been working in the swamp for more than a decade, and has a written a book on the little-known daily life of the "Maroons": these "defiant people entirely undermined and left the racist and brutal modern world. They created a social and economic world of their own. This was the civil rights, occupy, and labor movements all rolled into one and made inspiringly manifest for more than two hundred fifty years. I marvel at it every day."
posted by Rumple (16 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think there's going to be an exhibit on the Great Dismal Swamp at the National Museum of African American History, and that is really cool! Also the museum is opening in three weeks, and that is really cool!

Also rumor has it they're gonna have the P-funk mothership on display, and that is possibly The Coolest
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 8:57 PM on September 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


It is also what my great uncle called my great aunt when they were kids. She stayed mad about it!
posted by grobstein at 9:05 PM on September 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Draining of fens and swamps has been critical to capitalism since the beginnings of Enclosure. The decision to turn land from home into a commodity was always hampered by lands that proved undrainable and unmappable.

Escape to islands in these hidden, fertile, intractable lands has been just as important to the culture of resistance ever since.
posted by eustatic at 9:25 PM on September 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


This is amazing, thanks for posting it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:39 PM on September 6, 2016


I read an incredibly racist old occult detective story last week that was set in a place like this, and I think it may have even been the place. Interesting.
posted by bongo_x at 11:32 PM on September 6, 2016


I'm just an undergrad, but this may be the coolest historical archaeology site I've heard of so far. I want to read everything there is to read about this.
posted by teponaztli at 12:27 AM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is fascinating. As a far more developed glimpse into the world back then.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:02 AM on September 7, 2016


I'd mention Harriet Beecher Stowe's less well-known work "Dred: A Tale of The Great Dismal Swamp" a contemporary account of escaped slaves living in the swamp and a more enlightening look at the anti-slavery movement than Uncle Tom's Cabin.
posted by Lame_username at 3:45 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Great Dismal Swamp is also quite beautiful. I went camping there as part of a school trip (there's just one small camping area, accessible by boat) and it was a wonderful experience. It was in February, to beat the mosquitoes. I particularly remember a moment canoeing along the shore of Lake Drummond, with snow gently falling on tea-colored water covered in red maple blossoms, rocked by waves, passing cypress knees and bamboo. Fairly surreal.

Lake Drummond (the large lake in the middle of the swamp) is also a bit of an oddity, being higher in elevation than the surrounding land. The origins are unknown; besides tectonic shift, a peat fire or a meteorite impact are the most interesting interesting possibilities, especially considering the reported Native American legend of a fire bird creating the lake or swamp... :-)
posted by Belostomatidae at 5:15 AM on September 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


(Mind you, there's quite a bit of myth around the GDS and Lake Drummond; all my information on this comes from Wikipedia and a school teacher who said some things I now cannot find citations for. And Wikipedia is largely pulling from news and tourism sites, which are not to be trusted with vibrant histories. I particularly suspect that story of a Native American legend of itself being a legend...)
posted by Belostomatidae at 6:03 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is amazing, and the story really does need to be told. To know it has been here all these years, and for so many generations....Thanks so much. Good on Smithsonian mag, too.
posted by Pocahontas at 9:09 AM on September 7, 2016


Very neat! I grew up in southern VA and knew nothing about this! Here's an article in The Virginian-Pilot with some more details: Escaped slaves may have lived in Great Dismal Swamp, Bill Bartel, 2012.
posted by nangar at 9:25 AM on September 7, 2016


I read an incredibly racist old occult detective story last week that was set in a place like this, and I think it may have even been the place. Interesting.

Was it The Call of Cthulhu?
posted by WidgetAlley at 2:14 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Lake Drummond (the large lake in the middle of the swamp) is also a bit of an oddity, being higher in elevation than the surrounding land. The origins are unknown; besides tectonic shift, a peat fire or a meteorite impact are the most interesting interesting possibilities

Yes, Lake Drumond's elevation is highly unusual. I had a geomorph professor who hypothesized that the lake had once been a hilltop, a topographic high point; therefore, the ground under it would have been drier, better drained, and more susceptible to burning away in a peat fire. (It's definitely not a meteor. You know how it's not lupus, it's never lupus? Same for meteor strikes. Meteor strike hypotheses are my pet peeve, because ever since they found the end-Cretaceous iridium layer, people who usually haven't studied the subject they're talking about will try to blame every damn thing on a meteor strike.) (Also, I'd say that tectonic movement was not the proximal cause of the lake's formation, either. It's almost perfectly round, and there are no other natural lakes anywhere in Virginia or Maryland.)

But anyway! Its history of human habitation is really remarkable. I'm curious about the cultural interactions between Native people and escaped slaves.

Dan Sayers's description of the Maroons makes them sound like a guerrilla resistance movement:
"Searchers for interior Maroons had problems. They would have had to walk—no boats or horses were going to get through that vine- and foliage-thick swamp. Searchers were not necessarily going to get through on foot either. There was the standing water, spongy peat, sinkholes, and even, maybe, pockets of quicksand here and there. Finally, Maroons were tough and not afraid. So, even if raiders found one of the interior communities, they had to actually overtake them. Maroons were armed, and they probably booby-trapped the swamp surrounding their villages."
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 2:34 PM on September 7, 2016 [4 favorites]



Was it The Call of Cthulhu?

No, it was...Dammit, I went back and looked at it again but I can't remember of course. Scanning over it it didn't reference where the swamp was though like I thought. I must have been getting it mixed up with another story. It was a hard boiled tough guy detective meets voodoo story.
posted by bongo_x at 9:08 PM on September 7, 2016


Dan Sayers's description of the Maroons makes them sound like a guerrilla resistance movement:

This was a part of the story that stuck to me as well, Sayers' commited Marxism. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I mean, I know - at least it's an ethos - and all but I haven't heard that kind of language, earnestly meant, in a long while. It is an interesting interpretation or vantage point. Can't say I necessarily agree with him but I don't think I agree either. Funny enough I kind of think his enthusiasm has helped revive a story that needs to be re-told.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:47 AM on September 8, 2016


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