Have you met Charley? Charley has been a quiet presence throughout my journey with the Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study and with swampscapes. Often, Charley’s words will pop into my mind when I get figuratively bogged down starting at the GIS or literally bogged down tromping through the swamp. I’d like to introduce you.
Charley’s story appeared in the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ Paper on 11 March 1859, 158 years (and 2 days) ago. He was a ‘fugitive slave’ who escaped to Canada by way of the Great Dismal Swamp. Recorded in the vernacular by Mrs. Knox of Boston, Charley talks about being hired out, separated from his wife, and refused permission to visit her. He takes the decision to run away and secures a spot working in the Dismal for $2/month. There he encounters a vibrant community complete with Ole Fisher the preacher and families who “growed up in dat ar Dismal Swamp dat never seed a white man.” Charley’s swamp is not without peril: the danger that a fellow laborer would “[be]tray de fugitives to dar masters” and of being discovered by slave catchers was real.
I feel sometimes uncomfortable quoting Charley’s words, reported as they were in a manner that says as much about abolitionist expectations of formerly enslaved people as it does about Charley, his experience and the language he used. His narrative and the hints of the Maroon landscape he describes, though, are invaluable reminders of the very real people whose stories we’re trying to recover through archaeology.