WINGS WorldQuest is proud to have Becca Peixotto carry the WINGS flag on her current expedition, Swampscapes: Archaeological Exploration in the Great Dismal Swamp. Becca and her team are working to recover the remarkable story of resistance and resilience of African-Americans who fled enslavement and sought refuge in the harsh environment of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, USA. Becca is a PhD candidate at American University.
With a heat dome still affecting much of the US, a swamp in Virginia is not the most comfortable place to be. But that won't stop Becca and her team. They are using the opportunity to enhance their exploration. See what Becca has to say about it ...
Live from the field with Becca Peixotto:
Historical View of the Weather
Let me be clear: coming to the Swamp this week was not my idea. When we learned the trip was arranged for the last week of July, the crew’s reactions ranged from bemusement, to face-palms, to immediate stockpiling of frozen water bottles and cans of bug repellent.
Our wariness is supported by historical accounts. In the middle of July 1781, the advancing British army reached Suffolk and the Dismal Swamp. Along the way, enslaved people left plantations to join the British. Everyone suffered from “‘heat so intense that one can hardly breathe'” (1). The bugs must have been particularly bad that year because soldiers were described as looking “‘like people who were seized with smallpox'”(1).
We whine and wilt and and swat flies and try to drink as much water as we’re sweating out but at the end of the day, we go back to a shower and air conditioning. The enslaved laborers who battled heat, humidity and thick undergrowth to clear only 1300 yards of survey path in a day in the summer of 1769 didn’t have that option (2). The maroons who chose a life of relative freedom in the Swamp over a life of chattel slavery didn’t have that option.
To keep the temperature in perspective, I’ve been thinking about the winter of 1784. That winter was so cold, it drove Tom and Lewis, two enslaved men who had fled the Dismal Plantation and been ‘lying out’ or marooning for several years, out of the Swamp. They were jailed and punished at the Plantation but given shelter and rations even though the overseer admitted the men would flee again as soon as the weather improved (3). It must have been a harsh winter indeed.
Going to the Swamp in its full summer glory gives all of us, I think, a better appreciation of the strength and determination of the people we’re studying out here. We’ll never fully understand the experience of maroons like Tom and Lewis or the hardships they faced but a triple digit heat index does help develop our empathy and archaeological imagination.
1Ewald Diary in Royster, Charles. The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times (New York, Knopf 1999), 271.
2 Parker Papers in Royster, 149.
3 Royster, 290 and J. Collows to D. Jamison, 26 December 1784, DSLC Papers (Duke University Archives).