The history geek in me can’t get enough of standing on the same spot where something significant took place. And then there’s the gazing I do, pondering the stories that are told about a certain spot.
The Pasquotank River is a great touchstone to the past. Last year when our friends JEB and Judi Stuart took us for a ride along the river, I gazed upon the shores and up that waterway. As I gazed, I thought of Moses Grandy.
Grandy was the famous slave who struggled to buy his freedom. As a slave, his reputation as a waterman was widely known.
He plied the waters of the Pasquotank and up and down the Dismal Swamp Canal. Before he purchased his own freedom, he would be known as Capt. Grandy, and eventually, as a freeman, would become a sailor on the high seas.
Grandy’s story as a slave, his struggle for freedom and even as a sailor who would have smuggled people to freedom is all played out right here, in Elizabeth City and Camden County.
Perhaps a marker should be erected along the shores of the river, commemorating this man’s story. Until then, please go to the shore of the river and look upriver and imagine Grandy sailing a skiff full of hand cut shingles toward Norfolk, Va.
Then imagine a man who worked tirelessly and against great odds to buy his own freedom, and then the freedom of his family. This is a rich part of the historical legacy of this land.
Elizabeth City was once a great port. Once upon a time there were sailing vessels and steam ships moored in the waters here.
Many of those vessels would smuggle slaves fleeing bondage. They would take them north to New York and Boston where they might stay and make a life, or perhaps continue their journey along the Underground Railroad to Canada.
The people seeking freedom would flee to Canada because of draconian laws allowing for the capture and return of slaves who had fled to the north. While northern states did not condone slavery legally, the laws provided for the return of slaves to their Southern owners.
The road to freedom through Elizabeth City was well known by slaves who anticipated that a seagoing route might serve them well. It was also well known by slave owners looking to recover the people they claimed as “property.”
Advertisements in local newspapers would ask for the return of these slaves.
“RUNAWAY,” read an 1831 advertisement in the Elizabeth City Star, found in the archives of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “FROM the subscriber a negro woman named JANE, rather tall, dark complexion and blind in the left eye. She was hired some months since by the subscriber of Mr. Messenger of this place, and is probably lurking about the town or its vicinity. All persons are warned against harboring or employing the said negro under the severest penalties of the law. Elizabeth Lloyd. Elizabeth City, Sept.1.”
Whether it was the shores of Elizabeth City, the shores of Edenton or the Great Dismal Swamp, enslaved people seeking freedom would ply the waterways as a part of the journey along the Underground Railroad.
The Great Dismal Swamp is an entire story unto itself. According to information from the National Park Service, the swamp canal was dug by slaves from 1793 to 1804 and because of their familiarity with the terrain they began to seek refuge in it.
When I walk into the Dismal Swamp and hike through its thick woods, I think of the people who escaped into the depths of the place. Rugged and full of insects and snakes, the so-called “Maroon Colony” was comprised of runaway slaves seeking refuge from bounty hunters who would return them to bondage.
The so-called colony was situated deep in the swamp.
And of course the canal itself was a passage north. It was known as, “a resting place before moving further north,” according the National Park Service.
And of course it was a significant part of the Moses Grandy story. It is the waterway that Grandy would use to move his cargo north to Virginia. It was also the access point to Lake Drummond where he would spend a year in near seclusion.
The other waterway is found in Edenton. Like Elizabeth City, there were plenty of slaves escaping to freedom via ships moored in Edenton’s natural harbor.
An 1820 advertisement found in the UNCG archives from The Edenton Gazette was placed by a Pasquotank County man:
“25 Dollars Reward WILL be given for apprehending and securing in any jail so that I get him, my Negro Fellow
EMANUEL, who ran away in July last. He is 26 or 27 years old, 5 feet 8 or 10 inches high, rather slim for his height, has a mulatto complexion, and when spoken to has a considerable impediment in his speech. He has a number of relations in Perquimans County, where he was raised, and a sister at Clemment H. Blount’s, and another at Joseph B. Skinner’s, in Chowan county, and a wife in the Town of Nixonton. Masters of vessels are strictly forbidden from harboring or carrying him off at their peril.
Benjamin H. Harvey, Pasquotank, Oct. 19, 1820.”
Perhaps the most famous case of a slave escaping to freedom from Edenton was Harriett Jacobs. Born into slavery, Jacobs lived in Edenton.
“The degradation, the wrongs, the vices that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe,” wrote Jacobs in her memoirs. Jacobs would go through many trials and tribulations before her escape. But finally, in 1842, she would secretly board a boat in Edenton headed for Philadelphia. From there she would travel to New York where she would be reunited with her family.
As I stand on the lawn of Colonial Park in Edenton, I look out over the waters of the Chowan River. I think of Jacobs and the unnamed that quietly slipped away in the belly of a ship. I imagine the nerve it must have taken, and even the fear that coursed through their bodies as they anticipated freedom.
These sites are not all marked as historically significant Underground Railroad landmarks. They are, however, recorded as history and available to you, and me.
So stand along the shores of the Pasquotank River and imagine Moses Grandy working tirelessly to earn his freedom while earning a reputation as a strong waterman.
Walk the trails of the Dismal Swamp and peer into the thick wilderness. There you can only imagine how horrible slavery would be to flee to such a dangerous wild land in the name of freedom.
And then there is Colonial Park where you can envision a weary but determined Harriett Jacobs smuggling herself onto a ship to freedom.
All of these stories are also available by going to www.nationalparktraveler.com and searching Underground Railroad, eastern North Carolina. It’s worth your while.