SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Today, the Great Dismal Swamp is a refuge for wildlife. It’s one of 560 refuges across the country, but at one time, it was also a place where many people found refuge from slavery.
Chris Lowie, the refuge manager, says people in Hampton Roads still use it today for its trails and opportunities to see wildlife.
“We have one and a half million people living in Hampton Roads — an hour from here. So, this place not only provides refuge for wildlife, but for people as well,” Lowie said.
And that started when Native Americans freely called this place home. Then later, George Washington also dug the first ditch in the swamp, which used to be one million acres, and started farming the land.
But, the swamp also played a critical role in helping serve as a spot for the Underground Railroad and a final destination for many who fled there to escape slavery.
“We believe from some of the evidence and what gray literature we have, that several generations of maroons lived out here in the swamp. The number is up to 10,000 over those generations, and those are 50 years and in several generations would be 100 years,” he said.
“Maroons” are runaway slaves that formed communities, threatening to institution of slavery at the time, according to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
So, to tell the story, the swamp has done outreach and constructed an educational pavilion to tell this hidden history.
And that will continue to expand, officials say.
On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin plans to introduce a bill to make the Great Dismal Swamp a National Heritage Area.
“Once that is proposed to Congress and whether that goes through, it’s huge. That’s some big support at the national level,” Lowie said.
If passed, the area would get increased national funding but would not fall under jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Donations contributed by private donors would be matched dollar-to-dollar by federal funding to give the community better resources to promote the Great Dismal Swamp through tourism, education, conservation and recreation. The bill proposes this will also create jobs and generate revenue for local governments.
Becoming a National Heritage Area would not affect property rights and, if passed, a feasibility study will be conducted to determine whether the site meets the criteria, something McEachin’s office believes will happen.
“The Great Dismal Swap National Wildlife Refuge is a natural and cultural gem, and is one of my favorite places in Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District.
In addition to safeguarding wildlife populations and their habitats, the Great Dismal Swamp is also an American storyteller — preserving and commemorating people, cultures, and events that are key to our nation’s history.
I am pleased to introduce The Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act to provide local and regional communities with the resources needed to ensure future generations can share in its quintessentially American story.”– Rep. Donald McEachin in a statement to 10 On Your Side
Lowie says the work that’s been done at the refuge and possible increased funding to help tell the story makes him feel proud to be the current manager.