This is the story of John Nichols, who escaped to freedom through the Dismal Swamp alone at age 14.
Nichols was born into slavery in Pasquotank County in about 1848 and escaped to the Union army lines in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1862. He served in the U.S. armed services until he and a few other former slaves were recruited to move to Maine with Army surgeon Dr. Alonzo Garcelon at the close of the Civil War. In 1921 and in his 70s, Nichols was interviewed and his story printed by the Lewiston Journal Illustrated Magazine.
Nichols said that his mother died when he was young, but he was close to his father. When his father was sold away to a neighboring plantation he “began to realize that slavery was the greatest curse on God’s earth,” though he said his master, Dempsey Richardson, was “reasonably kind to his slaves.” Nichols still saw his father occasionally, and when a secret plan for a mass escape was formed it was Nichols’ father who communicated the plan to area slaves.
It became known that the Union army was just on the other side of the Dismal Swamp, and many slaves decided to escape north to the Union line. They scraped together $300 to hire a guide through the swamp. On the designated night, Nichols said about 300 men and women gathered but the guide never came.
Nichols’ father, as one of the organizers and one who was familiar with the swamp, was chosen to lead the group. They didn’t get far though, as the guide had not only stolen the money, but had alerted the authorities. The fugitive slaves were quickly overtaken by an armed posse and, as Nichols later recounted, most of “the slaves decided to return rather than be shot. A few of the boldest refused and plunged into the thicket. I was among them, and never did I run faster in my life.”
Seven of the slaves — including Nichols and his father — ran rather than be taken. They were quickly separated in the swamp and Nichols was alone for three days and nights running and often crawling through the swamp. Only 14, he was terrified. In 1921 he said, “It was an awful journey and if I had to live it over again I doubt if the trip would be made.”
Nichols roughly traced “the old canal” and emerged near Portsmouth to find Union sentries on guard. The Union soldiers fed Nichols and the other hungry escapees who emerged from the swamp and “there we entered government service driving mules and doing other service work like handling ammunition.” Nichols added that working for the Union army was especially advantageous as it gave the former slaves protection from their former masters and provided comfortable housing and regular food.
After the war, Nichols went with Dr. Garcelon to Maine, found work, married and had children who he “thanked God ... were all born in freedom.”
To read more of Nichols’ enslaved life in Pasquotank, his escape through the swamp and his free life in Maine, please see the entire 1921 interview shared at DavidCecelski.com.
Carrie Barker is a volunteer at Museum of the Albemarle, as well as events coordinator for the Visit Elizabeth City Welcome Center.