The Great Dismal Swamp goes back centuries as a refuge for Native American tribes and enslaved Black people.
Congress has recently introduced a bill to designate the Great Dismal Swamp as a National Heritage Area. Spearheaded by Virginia Representative Donald McEachin (D), the Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act would direct federal funding to the natural landmark for future preservation. If passed, it would join the 55 landmarks previously recognized, such as Niagra Falls and the Appalachian Forest traversing Maryland and West Virginia.
“National Heritage Areas serve for us and future generations as a reminder to remember the stories and places that have shaped America," congressman McEachin said in a public statement. "In addition to safeguarding wildlife populations and their habitats, the Great Dismal Swamp is an American storyteller – preserving and commemorating people, cultures, and events that are key to our nation's history."
The swamp is a rich source of history, both from an environmental standpoint and a political one. Stretching from Southeastern Virginia to North Carolina, the 2,000-mile landscape once spanned millions of acres and has served as a refuge for disenfranchised groups, including indigenous communities and Black people escaping the bonds of slavery (also known as "maroons").
Designating the Great Dismal Swamp as a National Heritage Area would bring federal $ to help preserve the swamp & learn more about its place in history as a refuge for enslaved people escaping through the Underground Railroad & for many indigenous peoples. https://t.co/FiGT8X3VAi— Rep. Donald McEachin (@RepMcEachin) December 23, 2020
In the 17th century, Native American tribes like the Haliwa-Saponi built independent communities in the boggy landscape while enslaved Black people sought refuge in the swamp during the Civil War. Maroons created their own communities independent from the nearby white slaveholders, working and trading with one another. The swamp even housed one of the Underground Railroad's few water stops that liberated slaves on their path to freedom.
The bill, known as H.R. 5853, has found support among elected officials and activists alike, including a coalition of groups under the Great Dismal Swamp Stakeholder Collaborative. While the geological marvel was made a wildlife refuge in the 1970s, federal support would ensure the landscape's preservation for future generations to study as a vital piece of American history.
The coalition, in particular, applauded the bill, citing its recognition of the swamp's ecological diversity; the vast landscape has provided sanctuary for wildlife species and continues to serve communities to this day.
"We are thrilled to see this legislation introduced that recognizes not only the importance of the Dismal Swamp as it is now, but also the role it has played in our history as a community and a country," the coalition said.
What do you think of the Great Dismal Swamp bill? Are there other landmarks you'd like to see designated as a National Heritage Area? Let us know in the comments!