Author: Marcus P. Nevius

associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island at Kingston and the author of City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763–1856 (University of Georgia Press, 2020).

Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp in the coastal plain of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina was prime territory for petit marronage, a strategy of resistance to enslavement in which individuals or groups self-emancipated and sought refuge in inhospitable terrain near slave societies. There is archeological evidence of maroon communities in the Great Dismal Swamp dating back to the late seventeenth century. Beginning in the 1730s with the Chesapeake Rebellion, the Dismal Swamp became a place of refuge for Black insurgents as well as for African Americans fleeing slavery. These maroons mingled with Indians who had been driven off their lands. The formation of the Dismal Swamp Company in 1763 to drain the swamp for agricultural purposes brought the first enslaved laborers to the swamp. The subsequent growth of the timber industry in the swamp created a symbiotic relationship between the enslaved workers and the maroons, who forged an informal economy around shingle production. By the 1840s the Great Dismal Swamp had become an almost mythical place of enslaved resistance and rebellion. Abolitionists and other writers published a series of popular articles, books, and poems that brought the relationship between the swamp and its role in slavery to the attention of audiences beyond Virginia. The region’s slavery-based extractive economy became unsustainable as a result of the American Civil War (1861–1865), and the Dismal Swamp Company, renamed the Dismal Swamp Land Company, shuttered in 1871. During the era of slavery, several thousand individuals may have lived in the swamp, underscoring its legacy as a place of Black refuge and resistance.