Birds In the News

Swamp used by freedom-seekers recognized on Underground Railroad list

Beidler Forest Audubon Center is now recognized as part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

This story originally appeared in the Charleston City Paper on December 15, 2021.

An enslaved man named James Matthews hid in Four Holes Swamp on his way to Charleston in 1838, where he gained passage on a ship that took him to freedom in Boston.

Another enslaved man, Team, sometimes lived with maroon communities throughout Four Holes Swamp, a vast ecosystem of virgin cypress and tupelo trees, making it an ideal hideaway for freedom-seekers more than two centuries ago.

These and other accounts of enslaved people who found temporary freedom in the swamp from chattel slavery helped The Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest secure a designation on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The Underground Railroad refers to efforts used to escape bondage, assisted or unassisted, from settled communities and later across state and international borders. As slavery persisted, escapes increased, becoming more deliberate and organized in some places after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

With the designation, Audubon’s Beidler Forest Center is among nine Underground Railroad sites in South Carolina and one of four in Charleston County.

Matt Johnson, director of the Beidler Forest Audubon Center in Harleyville, said, “We are proud to be recognized as part of this important national program, and we look forward to honoring this history — and the men and women to whom this history belongs — at Beidler in the coming years.”

The Beidler Audubon Center manages 18,000 acres that covers Berkeley, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties within Four Holes Swamp, a place-name that first appeared on Revolutionary War-era maps. A portion of it has remained untouched with 1,000-year-old cypress and tupelo trees that provided cover for maroons, a term likely derived from the Spanish word “cimarrón” for wild or untamed.

In the coming year, Beidler will work with local residents to develop a plan to interpret the maroon story.

“We traditionally have focused on natural history,” Johnson said. “But that does not tell the complete history of this landscape and how it connects with African-American history more broadly.”

Beidler’s old-growth forest allows visitors to experience a place today that looks virtually the same as it would have looked to maroons. “We have a unique opportunity to interpret this history,” he said. “We hope this will take shape in the form of interpretative signage, exhibits and continued programming, like our past Cultural Heritage Days.

“But it may grow to things beyond that, too,” Johnson said. “We also envision the Underground Railroad designation as an opportunity to engage more meaningfully with the local community and new partners.”

This is not the first maroon story told in the Lowcountry. The Summerville-Dorchester Museum in 2015 erected a permanent maroon display in its historic garden house. The display presents the maroon communities in Four Holes Swamp and the wetlands at Beech Hill near Legend Oaks Golf Course on S.C. Highway 61.

The exhibit is still on display at the museum at 100 E. Doty Ave. Ed West, the museum’s volunteer historian, said, “The Lowcountry was hundreds of miles from where the Underground Railroad actually operated, and it was very unfriendly country, so a runaway couldn’t go anywhere. So runaways here ran away to the swamp, and they just lived there.”

Emily Davis and the Audubon Society manage the Francis Beidler Forest near Harleyville

At Beidler, a nearly 2-mile boardwalk loops through a portion of the world’s largest virgin swamp forest with trees likely touched by freedom-seekers. Emily Davis, Beidler’s center manager, said, “This is what makes Beidler so special. It is untouched yet touched.”

Beidler receives 10,000 visitors annually, many of them birdwatchers who come to see the more than 180 species of birds that have been documented in the sanctuary. The spring is the bird-watching highpoint when hundreds of yellow prothonotary warblers migrate from South America to build low-level nests, even in cypress knees.

Just as maroons might have been surprised to see a massive warbler invasion, birdwatchers today are just as surprised to discover the maroon story displayed on the boardwalk’s temporary signs. “They think they are coming here to hike or do some bird-watching, and then there is the historical aspect that a lot of people don’t know about,” Davis said.

This history on slavery, so far, has not shocked Beidler’s visitors, she said. “I’ve only had people come in and ask more questions,” she added.

The history lesson, she explained, adds meaning to Beidler’s peaceful and reflective experience. “It has always been a unique place, but now we have this other piece. You can meditate on these people who were here, meditate on their stories and the stories we may never know.”

The forest provided food, water, natural medicines and materials to build shelter. Remnants of the maroons have long since been washed away by water that flows through the swamp and into the Edisto River. Dwarf palmettos on the high ground shielded maroons in the mysterious swamp, an undesirable place to look for enslaved people, Davis explained.

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