Grand Marronage Colonies in Jamaica
Enslaved Africans and people of African descent regularly sought freedom in Virginia and elsewhere. Many self-emancipated from enslavers in individual or group action that aimed to create sustainable communities of resistance. When these freedom seekers claimed difficult-to-access terrain—forests, mountain valleys, riverine islets, hummocks in swamps—near slave societies, they engaged in a form of resistance to slavery known as marronage. Grand marronage refers to large, long-term colonies that held sovereign land claims, such as the towns that maroons established in the Jamaican mountains in the eighteenth century. In contrast, petit marronage is most often applied to small, more mobile maroon groups.
As a large, marshy, inhospitable tract of land in the coastal plain of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, the Great Dismal Swamp (dismal was a European term for a swamp or bog) was prime territory for marronage. Archaeological evidence dates petit marronage in the Dismal to the late seventeenth century. When William Byrd II surveyed the North Carolina portion of the swamp in 1728, he recorded finding a “family of mulattoes that called themselves free,” and warned that the area was likely to become a “city of refuge for all debtors and fugitives” if a maroon community was allowed to take root. The earliest substantial archival evidence dates marronage in the swamp to the 1730 Chesapeake Rebellion, when several hundred enslaved people in Princess Anne County revolted after they were denied the freedom they believed that King George I had granted baptized, enslaved Africans in the British colonies. After the uprising was quelled by county militia, at least 200 enslaved people fled into the Great Dismal Swamp’s eastern fringe to avoid reprisals. Some were captured by colonial militia and Pasquotank allies, but others remained in the swamp, inaugurating its history as a place of refuge, where African American fleeing slavery mingled with Indians who had been driven off their lands and poor whites who existed on the fringes of the swamp.
The Dismal Swamp Company
Beginning in the 1760s, land-speculating Virginians targeted the Dismal Swamp’s resources. A veritable who’s who of late colonial Virginians, including George Washington, speculated in land claims through the Dismal Swamp Company, which was incorporated in May 1763 to drain the swamp for rice cultivation. The company’s shareholders directed its agents to establish a slave labor camp in the swamp’s northwestern sector near Suffolk. In 1764, fifty-four enslaved people were brought to Dismal Plantation. Efforts to drain the swamp proved futile, but an extractive industry grew up around the harvesting of the swamp’s cedar trees, primarily to make shingles, with the labor provided by enslaved workers who were hired from the people who owned them. These enslaved workers lived for much of the year in a semi-autonomous society at Dismal Plantation, earning money by working overtime to produce extra shingles for their employers. As the timber industry in the swamp expanded, they forged an informal economy with some of the maroons who lived in the swamp, subcontracting shingle production to them and paying them with the money or goods they earned through overwork. This symbiotic relationship between enslaved workers and the maroons, often tacitly accepted by the those who sought to exploit the swamp’s resources, helped sustain petit marronage in the swamp. Some of these enslaved workers joined the ranks of the maroons. Beginning in the late 1760s, newspaper advertisements appeared that were seeking the return of enslaved people who had self-emancipated from the ranks of the swamp’s workforce. For instance, on for the return of an enslaved man named Tom “who is supposed to be about the Dismal Swamp.”
In 1775, the swamp saw another influx of refugees after Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation drew thousands of enslaved people to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). When forces were routed at and retreated northward, some African American members of what was known as the Ethiopian Regiment took refuge in the Dismal Swamp.
By the early 1790s, speculation was again rampant in the swamp, with plans to build a canal to create an inland waterway connecting the Chesapeake Bay to Albemarle Sound in North Carolina under the Dismal Swamp Canal Company. (In 1814, the Dismal Swamp Company reincorporated as the Dismal Swamp Land Company to distinguish it from the Dismal Swamp Canal Company.) Between 1793 and 1805, enslaved laborers working under brutal conditions dug the first stage of the canal, twenty-two miles along the eastern edge of the swamp, which was completed in 1829.
The Great Dismal Swamp and Rebel Insurgency
In the early nineteenth century a series of conspiracy scares, including Gabriel’s Conspiracy in 1800 and the 1802 Easter Conspiracy (in which enslaved rivermen plotted a rebellion in Halifax County, not far from the border of the swamp), spread rumors of imminent slave revolt in the area. Over time, the impenetrable nature of the swamp and the ability of fugitives from slavery to evade capture in its depths created its reputation as an almost mythical place of enslaved resistance and rebellion. Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831 occurred in a county not far from the Dismal Swamp, where some of the perpetrators were said to have hidden and new insurrectionists were believed to be massing, cementing its legacy among whites as a feared place of Black insurgency.
By the 1840s, the Dismal Swamp was widely known as a place of marronage. Some of those fleeing enslavement stayed only a short time, either returning to their place of enslavement after a brief respite or using it as a gateway to emancipation in the north. Other inhabitants were more permanent, settling on the swamp’s areas of drier, high ground, where they built dwellings, foraged for plants and berries, and hunted deer, wild turkey, and hogs. The presence of these runaways, noted historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, was “a constant source of fear and anxiety for whites.” Contemporaries described maroons who pillaged local properties to gather subsistence goods as “banditti” and “lurkers.”
The Great Dismal Swamp in Popular Culture
It was around this time that the swamp entered popular consciousness as a place of African American refuge from slavery. In December 1842, William Lloyd Garrison published Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp,” with its haunting opening, in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator:
In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.
Moses Grandy, a waterman who worked on the swamp’s canals, publishedin 1843, in which he described the patterns of enslaved labor and marronage in the heart of the swamp. His book, which included the heart-rending story of how he was cheated out of the savings he accumulated to free himself, helped bring the swamp and its role in slavery to the attention of abolitionists. In 1848, Frederick Douglass’s North Star newspaper reprinted an article entitled “Slaves in the Dismal Swamp,” originally published in the Zion’s Herald, that recounted the horrible conditions enslaved people labored under in the swamp and its role as an “asylum from oppression” for the maroons who lived there.
Frederick Law Olmsted visited the swamp in the early 1850s and published an account of the maroons in A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856) in which he noted that there were “people in the swamps now that are the children of fugitives and fugitives themselves all their lives.” He wrote that these maroons sustained themselves by stealing from neighboring plantations or through irregular employment by the enslaved African Americans who worked for the lumber camps.
After a visit to an enslaved workers’ camp in the swamp in 1856, David Hunter Strother described the informal economy that had evolved between enslaved shingle getters and maroons in Harper’s Magazine. He described his encounter with a man called Osman who was a long-term inhabitant of the deeper reaches of the swamp, writing that his “every movement betrayed a life of habitual caution and watchfulness.”
Several novels brought further attention to the Dismal Swamp’s maroon communities, most famously Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), in which the titular character, Dred, who was inspired by Nat Turner, is a maroon who lives in the swamp and helps enslaved people who flee to its relative safety.
The Civil War brought disruptions to Virginia’s economy that changed marronage patterns in the Great Dismal Swamp. Land and canal companies continued to utilize enslaved labor in the war’s earliest months, but as enslaved people fled to Union lines, the region’s slavery-based extractive economy became unsustainable. The ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the in December 1865 brought slavery to an end and the swamp’s difficult environment lost much of its appeal as a refuge. By 1871, the Dismal Swamp Land Company had shuttered. But more than a century of efforts to exploit the Dismal’s natural resources altered its hydrology, leading to a dramatic reduction in swampland as the swamp’s peatlands dried out. Today the remaining peatlands in the Great Dismal Swamp are recognized for their important role in carbon sequestration and efforts are underway to protect and expand this natural carbon sink.
It is difficult to estimate how many people took refuge, either temporarily or long-term, in the Great Dismal Swamp. Descendants of some of the maroons and others who took refuge in the swamp have formed the Great Dismal Swamp Stakeholders Collaborative to lobby the U.S. Congress to designate the Great Dismal Swamp as a National Heritage Area, a place where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape.