If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find “safe haven.”
And with this encouragement, hundreds of slaves streamed into Roanoke Island in eastern North Carolina, looking for freedom. Now, this site along with hundreds of others is part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.
No one place tells the complete story of the Underground Railroad movement. As the website states, the National Park Service coordinates preservation and education efforts nationwide and integrates local historical places, museums, and interpretive programs associated with the Underground Railroad into a mosaic of community, regional, and national stories.
The Underground Railroad was not underground and was not a system of railroad tracks. Rather, it consisted of a network of people, routes, and safe houses used by black slaves to escape to freedom in the North and Canada. The conventional scene of the Underground Railroad movement is that of slaves fleeing Kentucky to find freedom and refuge in Ohio. Yet, traveling to eastern North Carolina, I found several Network to Freedom sites.
Way before the Civil War, slaves escaped into the Dismal Swamp located in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Between 1793 and 1804, black labor was used to dig the Dismal Swamp Canal completely by hand. As a result, slaves were so familiar with the swamp that the the area became a haven for runaways. It was a rugged route full of insects, snakes, black bears, and bobcats. Not a place you’d want to be alone without knowing where you were. The Dismal Swamp Canal, the oldest operating built waterway in the United States, is still used by pleasure boats.
Today, you can walk in Dismal Swamp State Park to understand how rough it would be to find your way in the swamp. If you take the wide flat Canal Road, a walking and biking trail from the visitor center, you’ll feel the vines, trees, and bushes closing in. Walking the Supple Jack Trail, you can hardly see the sky for all the vines entangled through trees and bushes. The sides of the trail look impassable and threatening.
The Dismal Swamp may have harbored the largest maroon, or fugitive, colony in the United States, runaways who lived deep in the swamp. Others used the Dismal, as it’s referred to, as a resting place before moving further north.
A copy of the certificate that notes the Dismal Swamp is part of the Underground Railroad network is displayed in the visitor center. It states in part that the Dismal Swamp makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the Underground Railroad history.
A little further south, the Elizabeth City waterfront has a large plaque proclaiming its inclusion in the Underground Railroad network. The Pasquotank River in the city is the first river to receive this designation. Slaves traveled to reach Elizabeth City and then escaped on ships heading north or south to the West Indies. Some runaways were able to go as far as Hawaii.
Hatteras Island In The Outer Banks
Although the Outer Banks is less than a 100 miles away by road from the Dismal Swamp, the two areas are as similar as chalk and cheese. Most of the Outer Banks is now part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
During the Civil War, Federal forces seized Hatteras Island in August 1861. Almost immediately, slaves from eastern North Carolina found their way to the Outer Banks. They helped Union troops build fortifications during the rest of the war in exchange for food and lodging.
So many runaway slaves fled to the army that the New York Times of January 29, 1862, reported that a “Capt. Clark has erected a very commodious wooden house on the beach for the use of fugitives who have recently arrived from Roanoke Island. It is christened ‘Hotel de Afrique.’”
Even back then, a French name gave the place certain cache, even if it was meant to be ironic. An image in Harper's Weekly shows two wooden buildings, one flying the U.S. flag. The original site had 12 buildings. Today, the area is overgrown with brush and has been washed over by repeated storms and hurricanes. There are no remains of the "Hotel."
However, the New York Times quote is engraved on a large plaque that stands in front of the Graveyard of the Atlantic museum. The monument was dedicated this past July.
Roanoke Island, located between the Outer Banks and the eastern North Carolina mainland, fell during a Civil War battle on February 7-8, 1862. Word of safe haven spread throughout the state and attracted hundreds of slaves.
There were so many escaped slaves living on the island that the Federal government had to establish some organization and order. The Freedmen’s colony, as it was called, became a formal settlement offering training and education to its members. Schools and churches were established. At the end of the war, the land reverted to the previous owners and most freed blacks moved back to the mainland.
The Freedmen's Colony exhibit is within Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Most of the site is concerned with the first New World settlement and Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America. But the beautiful new visitor center also devotes space to the Civil War and its aftermath. A large memorial outside the visitor center commemorates the Freedmen's Colony.
Underground Railroad Program
The Underground Railroad Program recognizes hundreds of historical places, museums, and interpretive programs throughout the country. The website has a database organized by state and facilities. Most of the sites themselves are not national park units, but members of the program. The individual sites provide their own interpretation.
If there's one commonality among the several sites in eastern North Carolina, it's that there are no artifacts left of the legacy of the Underground Railroad. Stories and memorials are all that a visitor can experience of this heritage. That's why I found walking the Dismal Swamp so fascinating. At least there, I could understand why slaves were able to find "safe haven."