Maroon Communities: A Refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp

Maroon Communities: A Refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp

Thirty miles west of the Atlantic Ocean lies a vast, other-worldly wetland. The Great Dismal Swamp once covered over a million acres between Edenton, NC and Norfolk, VA. Native American tribes (the Algonquian-speaking peoples) inhabited this land for many thousands of years —long before it became a refuge for freedom-seeking slaves.

The first European settlers found this strange land to be desolate, dangerous and impenetrable. They found it so worrisome that they dubbed it ‘The Great Dismal.” Many settlers believed the swamp was haunted. And within a generation, it (in effect) was. This is the story of that great dark-water place and Maroon Communities, a refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp.

Slaves Take Shelter in North Carolina’s Swamps

By 1620 — almost as soon as they arrived in North America — African slaves began seeking freedom from bondage. Many took shelter in North Carolina’s swamps, the Great Dismal Swamp in particular. And the Dismal turned out to be a good place for slaves to disappear. Its treacherous waters and dangerous creatures very effectively discouraged trackers.

Some of the runaways stayed in the swamps only briefly, before making their way to the coast or north to freedom. But countless others lived out the rest of their lives in small hidden communities in the swamp, called “maroons.” Maroons were small colonies of refugee slaves, established on spots of higher ground scattered within the swamps.

On those islands, where the peat turns to solid ground, freedom seekers built huts and foraged off the land. Some of the Maroons earned money as loggers, working for free black shingle-makers who lived in or near the swamp. Others lived their entire lives deep in the swamps, never seeing a white man.

Public Domain image Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Great Dismal Swamp Maroons

Astoundingly, the Maroon communities of the Great Dismal Swamp lasted for several hundred years. In fact, the importance of the Great Dismal Swamp as both an Underground Railroad route and site of Maroon colonies was well-known well into the 1800s. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s second novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (published in 1856), did much to enlighten the United States public prior to the Civil War.

Archeologist Daniel Sayers has spent decades in the Great Dismal Swamp, searching for evidence of Maroon communities. He suggests that as many as 10 generations of escaped slaves lived in Maroon colonies in the Great Dismal Swamp. Sayers’s book, A Desolate Place for a Defiant People, catalogues his search and findings.

But about the time of the Civil War, evidence of the colonies virtually disappeared. And exactly where the people of the Great Dismal Maroons went remains something of a mystery.

Tragedy and Mystery

Even today, the Great Dismal Swamp, though we recognize its remarkable beauty, retains an air of tragedy and mystery. It’s still possible to get lost in the Dismal’s cypress stands and dark, wandering waters. There are tales of mysterious lights, of lives lost beneath its waters and of phantom voices and figures in the woods. Perhaps they are the voices of Maroons — slaves who sought refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp.

Learn more about North Carolina’s swamps or the roles they’ve played in black history. Or, if you already miss Halloween, revisit our series of haunted spots around North Carolina!