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.

Petit Marronage

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.

Hand-colored map of Great Dismal Swamp with Lake Drummond at the center

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

Hand-written two page docut signed by George Washington and other

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 April 13, 1769, John Mayo advertised in the Virginia Gazette for the return of an enslaved man named Tom “who is supposed to be about the Dismal Swamp.”

Lord Dunmore's Proclamation

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 Dunmore’s forces were routed at Great Bridge 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

Nat Turner & His Confederates in Conference.

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.

Bald cypress trees emerging from Lake Drummond in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

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.”

Enrgved two-sided newspaper masthead with enslaved men, women, and children being sold on one side, and happy scenes of libertaion on the other side

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, published Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy in 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 as a young man with mustache, brimmed cap, and a striped overcoat with an attached cape

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.

Self-emancipating man hiding in the Great Dismal Swamp crouches in the thick undergowth and cradles a rifle

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.

Self-Emancipated Blacks Behind Union Lines

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 United States Constitution 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.


William Byrd II records a “family of mulattoes” living in the Great Dismal Swamp.

Fall 1730

At least two hundred enslaved people flee to the Great Dismal Swamp following the failed Chesapeake Rebellion.

May 1763

The Dismal Swamp Company is incorporated.

Summer 1764

Fifty-four enslaved people are brought to the Dismal Swamp Company's enslaved labor camp called Dismal Plantation.

April 1769

Tom, identified as a runaway in an advertisement published in the Virginia Gazette, becomes one of the first documented people to engage in petit marronage in the swamp.

November 1775 – early 1776

Nearly 1,000 enslaved people join Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment. After their defeat at Great Bridge, some seek refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp.


Work begins on a canal connecting the Chesapeake Bay to Albemarle Sound under the Dismal Swamp Canal Company.


The first stage of the Dismal Swamp Canal spanning twenty-two miles is completed.


The Dismal Swamp Company is reincorporated as the Dismal Swamp Land Company to distinguish it from the Dismal Swamp Canal Company.


The Dismal Swamp Canal is completed.

August 1831

Insurgents involved in Nat Turner's rebellion are rumored to have taken refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp, cementing its legacy as a place of Black insurgency.

December 1842

William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator publishes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Slave in the Dismal Swamp."


Moses Grandy's story of his life in the Great Dismal Swamp is published in London, then Boston, helping to bring the swamp and its role in slavery to the attention of abolitionists.

March 1848

Frederick Douglass's North Star newspaper reprints an article titled "Slaves in the Dismal Swamp," originally published in the Zion's Herald, detailing the symbiotic relationship between enslaved laborers and maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp.


A series of novelists finds inspiration in the Great Dismal Swamp's story of slavery and marronage, most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe in Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856).

Early 1850s

Frederick Olmsted visits the Great Dismal Swamp and publishes an account of the maroons and their informal economy in A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856).


David Hunter Strother tours an enslaved workers' camp in the Great Dismal Swamp and details his encounter with a maroon called Osman.


The Dismal Swamp Land Company disbands.

June 2019

The first meeting of the Great Dismal Swamp Stakeholders Collaborative is held.

  • Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Holden, Vanessa M. Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2021.
  • Nevius, Marcus P. City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763–1856. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020.
  • Sayers, Daniel O. A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.
APA Citation:
Nevius, Marcus P.. Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp. (2022, April 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/petit-marronage-in-the-great-dismal-swamp.
MLA Citation:
Nevius, Marcus P.. "Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (25 Apr. 2022). Web. 20 May. 2022
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