“The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.
“We don’t know much about them, but thanks to [Dan Sayers], the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century….
“ ‘I was such a dumb-ass,’ says Sayers. ‘I was looking for hills, hummocks, high ground because that’s what I’d read in the documents: ‘Runaway slaves living on hills….’ I had never set foot in a swamp before. I wasted so much time. Finally, someone asked me if I’d been to the islands in North Carolina. Islands! That was the word I’d been missing’….”