Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dismal, but Free

Marronage, slaves' practice of running away from their masters and forming autonomous communities in remote areas, has received less attention from U.S. historians than it deserves. In part, this is because the largest and most famous runaway-slave communities in the hemisphere were in Caribbean and Latin American colonies, like Jamaica and Brazil, where planters lacked British North Americans' resources: a white majority population from whom officials could recruit slave patrols, and Native American neighbors willing to work as slave-catchers. Partly, this neglect is due to a lack of records; runaway slaves didn't leave many, and there were no large-scale military operations against maroon communities in the U.S., unless one includes the marginal example of the Seminole Wars.

Some of this neglect may now be ending. One of the largest harbors of maroons in North America, the Great Dismal Swamp, is the subject of an archaeological excavation by a team from American University. African slaves began running away to this immense wetland, situated in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, around 1700, and by mid-century there were a number of small maroon communities on the region's few patches of high ground, whose inhabitants subsisted off of "corn, hogs, and fowls," and probably also the wild cattle that white travelers sometimes spotted in the region. Initially, the runaways received protection from white "borderers," squatters who were themselves taking advantage of the region's disputed political status to avoid eviction, and who received in-kind payment from maroons in exchange for looking the other way. Later, reinforced with African-American slaves who'd run away during the Revolutionary War, the maroons began to protect themselves by intimidating travelers who came too close. By the early 19th century, some were even working as wage laborers for local resource companies, including the contractors who built the Dismal Swamp Canal and thereby brought the region's isolation to an end. (See Isaac Weld, Travels through the States of North America, [2 vols., London, 1807], 1:180; Charles Royster, Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company [New York, 1999], 11-12, 250)

Archaeologist Dan Sayers and his assistants have located the remnants of several likely maroon dwellings in the Dismal Swamp, along with a small selection of material leavings and artifacts - "knife-cut bone," lead shot, and ceramics. Mainly these are very small remnants, suggesting that the locals threw very little away (and had little to throw away). Many of these artifacts show signs of re-use, and were probably originally Native American artifacts that runaways salvaged. Sayers and his team are therefore researching a group of people who lived lives of great privation, but were nonetheless free and able to hold off - or negotiate with - white Virginians and Carolinians who would otherwise have ended their "self-emancipation." (Marion Blackburn, "American Refugees," Archaeology, Sept./Oct. 2011, 49-58, quote p. 50.)

[For more on maroons in the Dismal Swamp, see this well-researched essay from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.]


Nate said...

Here is another interesting excavation of a North American maroon community.

Dave Nichols said...

Thanks, Nate! I'm glad to see there's more than one team working on this important but mostly forgotten chapter of African-American (and American) history.