Dismal Swamp featured in Stowe's follow to 'Cabin'

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Carrie Barker

Escaped enslaved person in Dismal Swamp - Image credit - Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856..jpg

Carrie Baker
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Harriet Beecher Stowe, referred to by Abraham Lincoln as “the little woman who made this big war,” never visited the Dismal Swamp but based the sequel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin there.

Despite Stowe family lore, historians haven’t proven that Lincoln referred to Stowe this way when they met in 1862, but no one can deny she contributed to the already heated national controversy over slavery in the decade before the Civil War. Her abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and made her case against slavery by dramatizing the indignity and misery endured by enslaved peoples and the Christian ideology that forbade slavery. Abolitionists praised her novel while slavery proponents vilified it. Love it or hate it, people felt strongly about Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it became the best-selling novel of the 19th century and is still referred to in contemporary popular culture.

Less well-known is Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s sequel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Stowe published Dred in 1856 and, while it initially sold well, it never reached the popularity or success of her first novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was criticized by slavery advocates as exaggerated abolitionist propaganda, and Stowe’s efforts to avoid a repeat of that accusation can be seen in Dred. Instead of focusing on individual characters’ personal responsibility and morals regarding slavery as in her first novel, Stowe resolutely tells her story Dred against the backdrop of an unjust legal system sustaining slavery and legal but inhumane abuse — with appendices of citations to prove the reality of plot points.

Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp takes place in Chowan County and tells the story of Dred, a fugitive slave of the Dismal Swamp — also known as a “maroon.” Dred believes his divine mission is to assist fellow fugitive slaves, leading them to safety in the swamp. During a raid by slave hunters, Dred is mortally wounded, but the runaways he was guiding escape to freedom and to continue Dred’s legacy.

It’s no surprise Stowe placed her story by the Dismal Swamp, despite never visiting the area. Her character Dred is partially based on the real life Nat Turner, whose violent 1831 slave rebellion in southeast Virginia was the largest in U.S. history. Accounts of Turner’s plan claim the Dismal Swamp was the destination to elude capture. As early as the 17th century, fugitive slaves made their escape to the Dismal Swamp to eke out a free life hidden and protected by the vast, unnavigable swamp. It wasn’t a big secret; newspapers carried notices of runaway slaves heading toward the Dismal Swamp, but locating runaway slaves in the thousands of acres of swamp was unlikely.

The islands in the Dismal Swamp where the fugitive peoples made their home have been explored by archaeologists to shed light on their lives and the refugee community they built. Thousands of artifacts have been excavated, proving the self-sufficiency and resourcefulness of the maroons. Life was difficult for the maroon community, but freedom was worth the price.

Carrie Barker is a volunteer at Museum of the Albemarle and Events Coordinator at Visit Elizabeth City – Welcome Center.