What comes to mind when you think of the lands the Service works to conserve? Areas that are rich in cultural history and conserve the nation’s past? Believe it or not, before protecting native plants and wildlife, many Service lands were once areas that have profound connections to black history. A number of national wildlife refuges still conserve these historic areas.
At Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, the swamp served as a place of safety and a route to freedom for escaped slaves. Archaeologist and professor Daniel Sayers initiated a study in 2001 to uncover “maroon” communities in the swamp, which were established by some slaves who hid there. “Maroon” is from the Spanish word cimarron, meaning fugitive or runaway. Different historians estimate that between 2,000 and 50,000 maroons lived in the swamp, originally about 10 times larger than its current 190 square miles.
You can learn more about maroon communities by visiting the Underground Railroad Education Pavilion that has been opened at the refuge. Great Dismal Swamp was also the first refuge named to the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program by the National Park Service in 2003.
The birthplace of Harriet Tubman was in and around an area that is now Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland. The refuge plays an important role in the management and protection of the historic landscape that formed the life and experience of the American hero, who risked her life to help many slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
An area that is now in the western section of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, was part of the Whitehall Plantation. At the end of the 1700s, the plantation was owned by a Philadelphia lawyer, Benjamin Chew. The enslaved members of the Whitehall community engaged in various forms of resistance, which led to a rebellion at Whitehall. The story of the rebellion is richly documented through a series of letters between the Chew family and the slave overseers.
During the 1800s, Bombay Hook Island and its surrounding marshes were located on one of the more significant routes of the Underground Railroad. Fugitives from the Delmarva Peninsula often made their way through the communities of Dover and Smyrna, where slaves were ferried to New Jersey in small boats that were hidden in the Delaware marshes during the day and were rowed out under the cover of darkness. Recent scholarly research* suggests that the fugitives’ primary point of embarkation for their voyage to New Jersey lay in the marshes between Bombay Hook Island and the mouth of Little Creek. If that were indeed the case, the location was likely on the eastern shoreline of today’s refuge.
In January 2013, the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge acquired 38 acres in Haddam Neck, Connecticut, which includes the homestead of Venture Smith, an African slave who earned freedom for himself, his family and several other black slaves in the late-1700s. In 1798, Venture narrated his life story, noting that he owned over 100 acres of farmland and three houses. Until his death at the age of 77, Venture and his family lived in Haddam Neck, supported by farming, fishing, lumbering, and river commerce.
The Service also supports preserving black history through other means as well. With funds authorized by the Endangered Species Act, the Service is helping the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department acquire and preserve “Journey’s End,” the homestead of Alexander and Daisy Turner, a family that came up the Underground Railroad all the way to Vermont. Once acquired, the land will become part of a new wildlife management area.
Preserving cultural history is of great importance on Service lands. While visiting our lands and national wildlife refuges during black history month and throughout the year, be sure to learn about the cultural history these wild places conserve. To find a national wildlife refuge near you, visit www.fws.gov/refuges.
William J. Switala, The Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 2004.