Serendipity in Misfiled Docs

act-1847Down here in the abyss of carefully parsing data to construct an argument worthy of a dissertation, it can be easy to lose sight of the point of it all.  “Ugh.  Who really cares about broken cobbles and the mean elevation of topographic zone A and an impossibly tiny flake of glass?”

Then, in search of a reference to quote, one might stumble across a forgotten scan from the archives.  “*$%&@,  why isn’t this in the folder with the rest of the archive scans?” 

So, feeling a bit bogged down by the previous train of thought, one might take the time to read the “new-found” document.  And that document might happen to be a copy of a pernicious, but telling, Act sent from a lawmaker in North Carolina to his counterpart in Virginia almost exactly 170 years ago (February 9, 1847).

“Whereas, many Slaves belonging to persons residing or having plantations in the neighborhood of the Great Dismal Swamp, have left the service of their masters and taken refuge in the said Swamp, and by the aid of free persons of color and of white men, have been and are enabled to elude all attempts to secure their persons and induce them again under the just authority of their masters, and their consorting with such where men and free persons of color, they remain setting at defiance the power of their masters, corrupting and seducing other slaves, and by their evil example and evil practice, lessening the due subordination, and greatly impairing the value of slaves in the district of Country bordering on the said Great Dismal Swamp, for remedy whereof,…”

Amongst all the Be it further enacteds are provisions for a registry of slaves and freedmen working in the Dismal, penalties of “thirty-nine lashes on his or her bare back” for those who were found not properly documented, and fines for anyone found aiding unregistered slaves or runaways.  Free blacks who could not pay the fine were to be sold into slavery.

The law was called “An Act to Provide for the Apprehension of Runaway Slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp and for other purposes.”  By itself, it demonstrates that enough people were engaging in marronage in the Dismal to cause consternation in the state governments.  For me today, it is a potent reminder that the elevations, cobbles, and glass are clues to the lives of the real people who made lives in the Swamp because life outside it was untenable.  I’m still deep in the abyss but the light at the top, the point of it all, just became easier to see.


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