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Swampers - Free Blacks in the Great Dismal Swamp

Pasquotank County, NC
(C.R. 075.928.9/C.R. 075.928.10) Abstract of Record

31 August 1853: Martha Gordon, free. About 24 years old. Born on the propterty of John C. Ehringhaus, child of Tempy Tubbs, free, who “afterward married John Morris and with him left last fall for Liberia.”

This information is taken from a book entitled Swampers –Free Blacks and the Great Dismal Swamp by Harriette Thorne Kent, 1991, reprinted 2001.

While doing some research at the NC archives (Raleigh) the author, Harriet Thorne Kent, “came across a list of names of free blacks in an old Halifax County, NC Court Order Book”. Further research.. revealed that this list pertained to a law passed by the NC legislature (1847) “to list those free people of color who planned to seek employment in the Great Dismal Swamp, an area that was also a favorite hiding place for fugitive slaves”

The Dismal Swamp extends between Virginia and North Carolina. In 1820 the Dismal Swamp canal would provide “an important transportation link between the Pasquotank River in NC to the Elizabeth River in VA”…”by 1855 the desire for better access to Virginia markets and the Chesapeake Bay”, would overtake the objections of North Carolinians who had originally objected”. “Huge steam-driven dredges were required to excavate a wider, deeper channel. The second canal, the Albemarle and Chesapeake, was completed by 1859 and allowed passage of larger boats.” The work on this canal would provide employment for Free blacks in both Virginia and North Carolina..not only individuals but whole families.

The point of this post is not to give a history and detailed description of the Canal (the author does a wonderful job and anyone can Google and find out more about the Great Dismal Swamp ), it does underscore the need to understand the history and laws of the places we are researching. It also shows what can be found sometimes in unexpected places and the invaluable information that can be provided.

The NC Law that is referenced in my first paragraph was ratified by the NC Legislature on the 18th day of Jan. 1847 “although directed primarily toward the apprehension of runaway slaves”,… it also included a “requirement in Section 2 that “no free person of color shall work or employ himself in the said swamp without having gone before the clerk of the proper court, and cause a description of himself to be taken and registered in the manner prescribed….any free person of color employed in the swamp without a copy shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor”.

Those of us who research Virginia are familiar with the Free Negro Registers that were generated based on the law that was passed in 1793 requiring “Free negroes and mulattoes shall be registered and numbered in a book to be kept by the town clerk, which shall specify age, name, color, status and by whom and in what court emancipated”. Not all VA counties kept these registers, or not all survived, or have not been discovered even now. Some VA counties did not keep separate registers but, kept information in their County Court Order books. Although I believe NC had a similar law? I don’t believe it was as diligently followed (that doesn’t mean folks didn’t and always knew who you were). For an excellent overview of the Laws as they relate to Free Blacks in North Carolina see Introduction at this site and Erin Bradford’s Blog – Free Blacks in Antebellum NC.

The information in this book (only 35 pages long) can in no way be compared with the VA registers in terms of sheer numbers of free blacks, and length of time. But it does provide a window into the time frame 1847 when the law was passed “and 1861, when the Dismal Swamp Land Company, the largest employer in the swamp, announced that all work in the swamp would cease because of the war” (Civil War).

A copy of the NC law “had to be placed on the courthouse doors of the counties of Gates, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Perquimans and Paquotank”. Ms. Kent writes that she “searched in an effort to make this listing as accurate as possible…. times it was very difficult to ascertain any relationship between the work in the swamp and this law. In cases of Currituck and Perquimans Counties the evidence of free black employment in the ..Swamp is so slight from the court records that no one from those counties is included. ..Halifax County, NC, a county not mentioned in the law, the dates and the descriptions are so explicitly in response to the law that it was included….Although Northampton County also had a large free black population, and there are many references, I could find no clear indication of the connection to the requirements of this particular law".


Halifax County, NC – Minutes of Pleas & Quarter Sessions 1847-1854 (record abstractions)

Betty Locklayer, wife of Aaron LockLayer. Their children Zylphia, 6 years old, Susan, 4 ½ years old, Polly, 2 years old, Gabriel, an infant 1 month old. (No age/identification for Betty Locklayer).

Robert JONES, 20 years 3 months 13 days old, dark complexion, 5 feet 7 ½ inches tall.

James Jones, 23 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall, dark gingerbread complexion, weighs 135 pounds.

Gates County, NC – (abstract of Record)
Although this is recorded in NC records a number of these people are said to be from Virginia, mostly Nansemond County VA.

Limus LOWERY, a free man of color of Nansemond County, VA employed by William B. Whitehead registered to work in the Dismal Swamp about 22 years old, brown complexion, large mouth and nose, 5 feet 9 inches tall.

1 March 1847 – Jack JACKSON, a free boy bound to Nathaniel Booth of Nansemond Co. VA hired by Wm B. Whitehead the present year and registered to work in the Dismal Swamp, about 12 years old, bow legged, bow backed, “remarkable hair almost down to his eyes, 5 feet 4 inches. “Reissued Jan 22nd 1850. No. 31. 15 years old.

Thanks to Harriette Thorne Kent for taking the time and effort to abstract this information and make it available. There are copyright issues, so I have no intention of posting this whole book on line. However, I will post the names in a separate posting of those individuals whose names appear in the 3 counties records she abstracted. If you see a name and you want further information, I will post.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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