Although the Great Dismal Swamp was an inhospitable environment, it became the adopted home of thousands of people. From 1607 to 1730, the Chesapeake, Nansemond, Meherrin, and Tuscarora indigenous tribes settled in the swamp to escape both colonial diseases and aggression.
Soon enslaved Blacks self-liberated themselves by choosing to live hidden deep within the swamp and away from the plantations, known as marronage. These communities formed throughout the southern US and Caribbean wherever large groups of enslaved people lived. Indentured whites, free Blacks, and other fugitives would sometimes become a part of the community. Living as a Maroon meant taking back their freedom. The price was facing poisonous snakes, black bears, panthers, bobcats, and blood-sucking insects in the horrendous, steamy heat.
When the Dismal Swamp Canal began being built in 1793, the building company rented enslaved Blacks from their owners. The enslaved stood in the mud and water up to their waist, sometimes the neck, cutting away roots with axes and bailing out buckets of mud. The tangled roots and sucking mud could entrap the worker. As there was no bedding, they built a large communal fire for warmth and to dry out the wet mud. Owners came once a month to collect their fees on the enslaved workers. A paltry few gave their enslaved person a dollar or two, or some tobacco, because of the difficulty of the work. The diggers lodged in huts built in the swamp while building the canal. As time passed, many escaped further into the swamp and formed communal settlements which aided each other.
Marronage contradicted the white enslavers’ justification for slavery. These included the belief that Blacks were inferior to whites in every way and were incapable of surviving on their own without their white owner’s benevolence. Another false tenant of slavery was that the enslaved didn’t wish to be free and therefore depended upon their white enslavers.
Marronage also asserted the enslaved person’s humanity. Families could exist without fear of being parted and sold. And they could defend themselves. This frightened their white owners. Whites conducted raids aided by hunting dogs, but the enslaved people mostly thwarted them. The Maroons knew where they were at all times, whereas the owners feared the treachery of the swamp.