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  • Susan Stoderl

Excerpt | Terror in the Dismal Swamp

Enslaved Blacks on the Maritime Underground Railroad
Father and Children Escape in the Great Dismal Swamp

... It didn’t take long to reach the mouth of the narrow Feeder Ditch. The left bank hosted almost impenetrable canebrake and tall bamboo, while the right bank was more open, with large timber. Unlike the Dismal Canal, the Feeder Ditch had no raised banks. Water drizzled into the surrounding swampland. At its deepest, the Ditch was six feet, but often much less. It gave a false sense of protection and peace. Danger lurked close all around. The canopy of tree limbs allowed only splinters of light and the whisper of wind above it. No cool breeze could break through the thick foliage, causing stifling heat….

Elijah refocused his concentration on the left bank. He could not miss the first marker for leaving the Ditch and going south. He spotted the green algae spreading out from the banks. Next came all the splintered logs, scattered about like a petulant child’s pickup sticks…. A group of five splintered trees peered out of the water like a Ditch guardian. Their lightning-splintered arms pointed in different directions. This was the hidden entrance.

Elijah used the long pole to maneuver the flatboat through the narrow channel’s heavily clogged shallow water. First came the small grove of black gum trees coated with leaf mold guarded by their fort of cypress knees—the first marker. In the deeper patches of the inlet, he could feel preserved cypress logs move with the push of the pole—the second. The third and last marker was a small grove of broad-leaved evergreen shrubs. He would hide the boat in their center. Elijah worked the boat into the low, grave-like space Amos had dug. The challenging navigation deterred any visitors.

“Time to go by foot now….”

The underbrush was heavy. Tall reeds standing in bunches marked the direction to go. Thick ooze sucked at their feet while hidden roots and branches grazed their ankles. A bevy of ospreys burst out of the stand of trees with large flapping wings and loud warning shrieks to the southwest. Then he heard the barking dogs. Elijah stopped dead in his tracks and gathered a child in each arm, clutching them tight to his body. He leaned down to their ear level and spoke in a terse whisper. “Ain’t no mistakin’ that sound. That’s a slave patrol lookin’ for any slave they can find! Quick! This way!”

Elijah ran to the southeast toward a group of burned trees with trunks crisscrossing over a pit. “Quick! Down into the pit!” He jumped down into the grass-lined pit behind the kids and added extra logs to block the entrance. When blocked, he took a corked bottle from a carved ledge in the hideaway. He dribbled a few drops over the side of the bottom log. The smell of skunk was pungent and undeniable.

Soon, a patrol of four or five men passed by. Two enslaved teens, bruised and bleeding, were bound with rope and were towed along behind. Their terror and that of Liza and Jeb was palpable.

“Whew,” said a heavyset white man carrying a rifle. “The hounds can’t smell anything with that skunk stench. Let’s get movin’. Likely the other two are further in….”


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