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Geography and Runaway Journeys Lesson Plan: The Great Dismal Swamp
The Great Dismal Swamp, composed of 111,000 acres, lies in the South between North Carolina and Virginia. It is a place steeped in history, legend, and lore. How then, in the middle of the era of slavery, could it become the hidden home to several thousand fugitive slaves as explained in the narrative Runaway Journeys? Through research into the geography of swamps and the Great Dismal Swamp in particular, as well as primary accounts and period literature, students will learn how these communities flourished.
Grade Levels:Middle school, grades 6-10
For use with:Runaway Journeys
Concentration Area:History
Concentration Area:Geography
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • How slavery shaped social and economic life in the South after 1800 (e.g., how the cotton gin and the opening of new lands in the South and West led to increased demands for slaves; differences in the lives of plantation owners, poor free black and white families, and slaves; methods of passive and active resistance to slavery; escaped slaves and the Underground Railroad).
  • Different economic, cultural, and social characteristics of slavery after 1800 (e.g., the influence of the Haitian Revolution and the ending of the Atlantic slave trade, how slaves forged their own culture in the face of oppression, the role of the plantation system in shaping slaveholders and the enslaved, the experiences of escaped slaves).
  • How slavery influenced economic and social elements of southern society (e.g., how slavery hindered the emergence of capitalist institutions and values, the influence of slavery on the development of the middle class, the influence of slave revolts on the lives of slaves and freed slaves).
  • Slavery prior to the Civil War (e.g., the importance of slavery as a principal cause of the Civil War, the growing influence of abolitionists, children's roles and family life under slavery).
Time required
Two-three classes
Materials needed
Anticipatory Set

  1. Discuss the following with students: What makes a swamp a swamp?
  2. Have students brainstorm their preconceived notions of what makes a swamp. What would they expect to see in a swamp? Are swamps in the North different from swamps in the South? How is a swamp different than a marsh or a bog?

  1. Introduction lesson

    1. Break students into three groups and assign each group one of the readings in their category—Marshes, Swamps, or Bogs—from the EPA site on wetlands. These are short articles, so if computer access is problematic, they would not be difficult to print and pass out to the groups. You can create more groups if you need. Each category is broken up for a total of up to twelve articles.
    2. Have a representative from each group outline the features that make up their wetland.
    3. Then, have students look back at their brainstorming list and correct any inaccurate concepts they listed.
  2. Primary lesson

    1. Now that they understand the nature of a swamp, have students read one of the reading excerpts listed in the Materials section. Use the Great Dismal Swamp Reading Questions handout to help guide the students in their research.
    2. After students have completed the Reading Questions handout, discuss the similarities and differences they found between the different narratives.
    3. To complete the lesson, have students write a paragraph describing the Great Dismal Swamp, taking into account the various points of view they have encountered.
  3. Follow-up Lesson

    1. Have students take a field trip to an area swampland.
    2. While hiking, have students list different aspects they recognize that make it a swamp.
    3. Once they've returned to the classroom, have students list the difficulties they found that would have made it difficult for those searching for fugitive slaves. Or, they could write about the troubles African Americans would have encountered living in such a place.
Interdisciplinary Links

  • "Fugitive Communities in Colonial America" by Michael Kolhoff:
  • "The Great Dismal Swamp and George Washington" by Paulette Felton Wester:
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Great Dismal Swamp Page (under construction):
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