In search of Great Dismal’s slave-refuge islands

“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’….”

— From “Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom” by Richard Grant in Smithsonian magazine (September 2016)
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In NC mountains ginseng theft can be family tradition

“This winter, amid the news of the FBI’s arrest of the remaining occupiers of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon, another story unfolded more quietly in the Appalachians. At the heart of it were a small plant that plays a significant role in eastern mountain forests — American ginseng — and Billy Joe Hurley, a North Carolina man who had just been released from prison for stealing ginseng plants from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“Hurley, 47, has been convicted at least five times, stretching back nearly two decades. While ordinarily such a case would be the stuff of the local paper’s police blotter, Hurley’s malfeasance is unusual, garnering national coverage, both because American ginseng roots fetch high prices in Asian markets – hundreds of dollars a pound — and the oddity of a plant heist resulting in a [six-month] prison sentence….

“The history of the park and its creation in the 1930s still stings for some who feel their grandparents were swindled out of their land through eminent domain to establish what is now America’s most visited park…. A few descendants today use that grudge to justify taking ginseng from the park. But for most, like Hurley, ‘ginsenging,’ is a tradition handed down one generation to the next.”

— From “The Fight Against Ginseng Poaching in the Great Smoky Mountains” by David A. Taylor in the Smithsonian (April 21)

Meanwhile, the other side of the state is confronting its own plant poaching problem.