North Carolina Swamps – Where Slaves Went To Disappear

North Carolina Swamps – Where Slaves Went To Disappear

Did you know that slavery in North Carolina was uniquely shaped by our landscape?   That two of our state’s most interesting geographic features were integral to the history of slavery? North Carolina swamps – they’re where slaves went to disappear.

Limited Deep-water Ports   

The first landscape feature – our barrier islands – initially helped limit the arrival of slaves in North Carolina.  That 175-mile long chain of islands, now known as the Outer Banks, created a barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Carolina mainland. Why would that matter? The narrow islands protected the coastal plains, but they also limited the number of natural harbors. Slave ships were big – they needed to be big enough to cross the ocean.  And ships of that size needed a deep harbor in which to land. In North Carolina, the Cape Fear River and its port-colony Wilmington was pretty much the only harbor accessible to large ships.

Image Courtesy of  Pixabay from Pexels

That means North Carolina’s lack of deep-water ports contributed early on to a how slavery developed here versus in neighboring colonies like Virginia and South Carolina. And yes, slave traders could have anchored their ships offshore and ferried captives to the barrier islands. However, the subsequent journey to reach inland population centers was formidable. Again, geography was key.

Consider what it takes to travel from Nags Head to Raleigh.  Today, that is a 197-mile trip that begins with three long bridges spanning roughly 30 miles of water – the Roanoke Sound, the Croatian Sound and the Alligator River. In the 1600’s simply getting off the barrier islands and across the sounds onto the mainland would have required days – and a small army of wagons and pole-powered ferry boats.  

Inhospitable Lands and All Manners of Wildlife

Once there, traders would have faced another 100 or so miles of largely unmapped lands, with rivers, creeks, inhospitable swamps, densely wooded forests and all manner of wildlife.  Those same wild lands? They also made large plantations less feasible in North Carolina, contributing to slow the spread of slavery somewhat early on.

But a second geographic feature played a more important and direct role in slavery: North Carolina’s swamps.  Nearly 550 swamps have been identified in present-day North Carolina.  Back in colonial times, there were more swamps – far, far more. Long before those wetlands were drained for farms and towns, the eastern side of the state was a vast uncharted wetland. North Carolina had millions and millions of acres of primordial swamp.   

Swamps were other-worldly.  Swamps were watery worlds of black-tea water, of gnarly roots and cypress knees, not to mention malaria, venomous snakes, alligators, bears and bobcats.   Imagine trying to survive there.

North Carolina swamps – where slaves went to disappear.

Image Courtesy of Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

And yet, swamps were where slaves went to disappear.  Deep in the North Carolina swamps freedom seekers had a chance of escaping trackers and their dogs. In fact, the Great Dismal Swamp was a known route for run-aways. It was among most rugged routes of the Underground Railroad, but perhaps the one most likely to deter trackers.

Today you can the visit the Great Dismal Swamp and its Underground Railroad education pavilion to get a better understanding of where slaves went to disappear.

Want to learn more about North Carolina’s swamps or black history? Head to our Lifestyle section where we dive deep into North Carolina’s history.