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Great Dismal Swamp maroons

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Subject: Slavery, Demographics of North Carolina, History of slavery in Virginia, Code Noir, Compensated emancipation
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Great Dismal Swamp maroons

Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia, by David Edward Cronin, 1888

The Great Dismal Swamp maroons were freed and escaped slaves who inhabited the marshlands of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina. Although conditions were harsh, research suggests that thousands lived there between about 1700 and the 1860s. Harriett Beecher Stowe told the maroon people's story in her 1856 novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. The most significant research on the settlements began in 2002 with a project by Dan Sayers of American University.


The Great Dismal Swamp spans an area of southeastern [3][4] Today, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is just over 112 thousand acres (450 km2).[5]


Osman, a Great Dismal Swamp Maroon, by David Hunter Strother, 1856

The first African slaves brought to the Louisiana, and South Carolina.[2] Maroonage in the Upper South was largely limited to Virginia and the Great Dismal Swamp.

At the beginning of the 18th century, maroons came to live in the Great Dismal Swamp.[3][11] Most settled on mesic islands, the high and dry parts of the swamp. Inhabitants included slaves who had purchased their freedom as well as escaped slaves.[12] Other escaped slaves used the swamp as a route on the Underground Railroad as they made their way further north.[11] Some slaves lived there in semi-free conditions, but how much independence slaves actually enjoyed there has been a topic of much debate. Nearby whites often left enslaved maroons alone so long as they paid a quota in logs or shingles,[12] and businesses may have ignored the fugitive nature of escaped slaves who provided work in exchange for trade goods.[9]

Herbert Aptheker stated already in 1939, in "Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States", that likely "about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives" lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp.[13] Results of a study published in 2007, "The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp", say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal.[14] A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.[3] While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that "several thousand" were living there by the 19th century.[15] However, fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites. A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped.[16] In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.[1][9] However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.[3]

Little is known of [3] Because leaving the area could inevitably lead to recapture, the inhabitants often used what was readily available in the swamp, even recycling tool remnants left by Native Americans.[18] Since the maroons had few possessions, the few small artifacts that have been recovered have given historians little insight into their day-to-day lives.[11][18] To date, excavation has yet to find any human remains. According to Sayers, historical archaeologist at American University who has led research on the maroons of the swamp, it is possible that the acidity of the water disintegrated any bones which may have been left behind.[11]

Some maroons were born to escaped slaves and lived in the swamp for their entire lives despite the hardships of swamp life: dense underbrush, insects, poisonous snakes, and bears. The difficult conditions also made the swamp an ideal hiding place, not just for escaped slaves but also for free blacks, slaves who worked on the swamp's canals, Native Americans, and outcast whites such as criminals.[2][11][19] Maroons are known to have often interacted with slaves and poor whites to obtain work, food, clothes, and money. Some fugitive slaves plundered nearby farms and plantations, stole from anchored boats, and robbed travelers on nearby roads;[16] those caught were tried for murder or theft.[10] Some maroon communities were set up near the Dismal Swamp Canal, built between 1793–1805 and still in operation. These maroons interacted more with the outside world than those who lived in the swamp's interior, and had more contact with outsiders once canal construction began. Some took jobs on the canal, and with increased contact with the outside world, some people living in the swamp eventually moved away.[9][11] During the American Civil War, the United States Colored Troops entered the swamp to liberate the people there, many of whom then joined the Union Army. Most of the maroons who remained in the swamp left after the Civil War.[1][9]

References in literature and art

In 1842 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem "The Slave In Dismal Swamp".[12] The poem uses six quintain stanzas to tell about the "hunted Negro", mentioning the use of bloodhounds and describing the conditions as being "where hardly a human foot could pass, or a human heart would dare".[20] The poem may have inspired artist David Edward Cronin, who served as a Union officer in Virginia[21] and witnessed the effect of slavery, to paint Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia in 1888.[22]

In 1856, Harriett Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, published her second anti-slavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. The title character is a maroon of the Great Dismal Swamp who preaches against slavery and incites slaves to escape.[2][12][23]


The Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study began in 2002 and was led by Dan Sayers, a historical archaeologist at American University's Department of Anthropology. In 2003, he conducted the first excavation in the swamp,[9][11] and in 2009, in partnership with the [3][17][24] Prior to Sayers' efforts, no field research had been done on the Great Dismal Swamp maroons. Even today, the swamp is impenetrable in places; a research group gave up in 2003 because it lost its way so many times.[1] Sites deep in the swamp's interior are still so remote that a guide is needed to find them.[9][11] The National Endowment for the Humanities gave the "We The People Award" of $200,000 to the project in 2010.[2][11]

In fall 2011, a permanent exhibit was opened by the National Park Service to commemorate those who lived in the swamp during pre-Civil War times.[25] Sayers summarizes: "These groups are very inspirational. As details unfold, we are increasingly able to show how people have the ability, as individuals and communities, to take control of their lives, even under oppressive conditions."[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge" (PDF). The Great Dismal Swamp and the Underground Railroad. Fish and Wildlife Service. September 2003. Retrieved January 30, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Digging Up the Secrets of the Great Dismal Swamp". Popular Archaeology. May 15, 2011. Retrieved February 11, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Freedom in the Swamp: Unearthing the Secret History of the Great Dismal Swamp". Physorg. May 16, 2011. Retrieved February 5, 2012. 
  4. ^ "Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge". About us. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved January 30, 2012. 
  5. ^ "Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge". Welcome!. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved January 30, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Colonization". National Park Service. Retrieved February 12, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b "Great Dismal Swamp" (PDF). Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved January 30, 2012. 
  8. ^ a b "Maroons in the Revolutionary Period 1775–1783". Public Broadcasting System. Retrieved January 30, 2012. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Blackburn, Marion (September–October 2011). "Letter from Virginia: American Refugees". American Institute of Archaeology (Archaeological Institute of America) 64 (5). Retrieved February 5, 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Lockley, Tim. "Runaway Slave Communities in South Carolina". University of London Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved February 11, 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i Bartel, Bill (January 29, 2012). "Escaped slaves may have lived in Great Dismal Swamp". The Virginian Pilot. Retrieved February 11, 2012. 
  12. ^ a b c d e Tidwell, John (August 2001). "The Ghosts Of The Great Dismal Swamp" (PDF). American Heritage Magazine. Retrieved February 11, 2012. 
  13. ^ Aptheker, Herbert (April 1939). "Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States". The Journal of Negro History (Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc.) 24 (2): 167–184.  
  14. ^ Sayers, Daniel; Burke, P. Brandan; Henry, Aaron M. (March 2007). "The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp". International Journal of Historical Archaeology (Springer) 11 (1): 60–97.  
  15. ^ "Maroon in the United States". New York Public Library – The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  16. ^ a b "The Underground Railroad". Camden County, NC. Retrieved February 11, 2012. 
  17. ^ a b "The Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study". Anthropology Summer Field Study. American University College of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved February 5, 2012. 
  18. ^ a b "Escaped Slave Settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp". Houghton Mifflin Current Events. October 2011. Retrieved February 6, 2012. 
  19. ^ "What were a few Routes Along the Underground Railroad?". National Underground Railroad Freedom Research Center. Retrieved February 4, 2012. 
  20. ^ "The Slave in the Dismal Swamp". A Maine Historical Society Website. Retrieved March 14, 2012. 
  21. ^ The American archivist. The Society of American Archivists. January 1, 1954. p. 173. Retrieved March 9, 2012. 
  22. ^ "Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia". New York Historical Society. Retrieved March 10, 2012. 
  23. ^ "Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811–1896 Dred; A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. In Two Volumes. Vol. II". University of North Carolina. Retrieved February 11, 2012. 
  24. ^ "Partnerships: Great Dismal Swamp Archaeology Field School". Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved January 30, 2012. 
  25. ^ Breen, Tom (July 5, 2011). "Swamp Holds Clues About Runaway Slaves". Daily Herald. Associated Press. Retrieved February 6, 2012. 

Further reading

  • “‘Running Servants and All Others’: The Diverse and Elusive Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp, 1619–1861” (2007 Federal Jamestown 400th Conference: Voices From Within the Veil).
  • "The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp" by Daniel O. Sayers, International Journal of Historical Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 1, March 2007 (available on JSTOR)

External links

  • Discussion of Dismal Swamp maroons
  • Historical photos related to the Great Dismal Swamp
  • History of Great Dismal Swamp
  • New York Historical Society background on the Cronin painting
  • National Park Service North Carolina and Virginia Underground Railway Designations
  • North Carolina law concerning Dismal Swamp slaves
  • Professor Daniel Sayers biography
  • Royster Guide: A Visit To The Great Dismal Swamp
  • Slavery in America – quotes from Strother's description of Osman
  • Virginia Tourist Guide – Great Dismal Swamp
  • Weekly Reader: The Great Dismal Swamp: A Path to Freedom
  • 2011 Great Dismal Swamp Fire
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