Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp
In 1856, the United States was in the middle of a particularly heated moment in the slavery debate, a controversy that became known as Bleeding Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act gave the settlers of Kansas the right to decide through popular sovereignty whether Kansas would be a free or slave territory. Due to many charges of electoral fraud, competing free and slave legislatures were set up in the territory. The resulting debate in the U.S. Congress led to pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks viciously attacking antislavery Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate with a cane, nearly killing him.
In the midst of this turmoil, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, her second popular novel, which addressed the question of slavery, as she had previously done in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851). Dred focuses on slave owners and their slaves in the South, with particular emphasis on the mistreatment of slaves.
Nat Turner does not specifically appear in the novel, but he was the inspiration behind the character of Dred. Dred’s childhood is much like Turner’s: he was precocious and religious, with his mother telling him he was destined for great things. Unlike Turner, Dred escaped from his plantation and went to live in the Dismal Swamp (which was, in some accounts, the planned location to regroup after Turner’s uprising). Dred offers a free life to the slaves with whom he interacts and, when slaves escape, he helps them elude capture. As in some depictions of Turner, Dred believes that violence is the only way to escape the bonds of slavery, but unlike Turner, Dred is able to help free slaves through his work in the Dismal Swamp.
Stowe includes three appendices with her novel to provide historical documentation to support her portrayal of slavery. Appendix I is dedicated to Turner, and it is The Confessions of Nat Turner, as published by T. R. Gray, Esq., of Southampton, Virginia, in November 1831. Stowe explains that she includes The Confessions because it is “an illustration of the character and views ascribed to Dred.” She then claims that “one of the principal conspirators was named Dred.”
Stowe’s novel was a success upon its initial publication and by the end of 1856, actor and playwright John Brougham had written a stage adaptation, Dred; or, The Dismal Swamp. As in Stowe’s novel, Dred is portrayed as a deeply religious revolutionary leader who sees it as his divine mission to help runaway slaves and kill the white slaveholders who pursue them. In the play’s fourth act, when Dred is helping a group of runaway slaves, he kills a slave owner pursuing them. This spurs the other slave hunters to revenge, and Dred is wounded in his attempt to help his fellow slaves escape their cruel masters. Though Dred dies, the slaves he was helping successfully escape, and they go on to inspire other slaves to escape, carrying on Dred’s legacy.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.
The full text of Brougham’s play is available through the Internet Archive.
John Brougham, Dred; or, The Dismal Swamp. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.