Maroons and the Dismal Swamp

One road out of slavery took you straight into the boggiest place you’ve ever been.

| Fall 2017

  • In the Great Dismal Swamp's Maroon people we have an essentially Stone Age culture existing in absolute self-reliance and isolation on the heavily populated East Coast until the mid-19th century.
    Photo by Adobestock/Baluzek

I keep thinking of what it must have taken to escape, and to a place like this no less. Who would have had the courage? A slave on the run—let’s call him Elijah—might have heard barking and other sounds of hounds chasing him. Running low and hunched over, Elijah would have made his way through fields of wheat, their tawny stalks swaying in the slight nighttime breeze. The heat of the Tidewater region could be stifling, but the chance to run didn’t come every day. Maybe his master had left the plantation to join the Continental Army, leaving fewer men to supervise. Elijah would have grown up hearing whispered rumors of a nearby refuge for escapees in the sprawling swamp that lay near his master’s fields. Men like Elijah, hundreds of them, had worked to dig canals into the peaty soil to drain the wetlands and expand the workable farmland. More than a few slaves probably thought about seeking their own liberty. But it must have taken a certain kind of courage to leave, and to seek freedom in the Great Dismal Swamp.

Located in southeastern Virginia, the lone surviving remnant of a sprawling wetlands that formerly stretched over one million acres of coastal plain, the Great Dismal Swamp is now largely confined to 112,000 acres of wildlife refuge. Though modified by centuries of human encroachment, it remains one of the largest intact wild areas left on the Atlantic Coast. From a Native American legacy reaching back at least 6,000 years to a motley assemblage of criminal fugitives, moonshiners, poachers, and outlaws that flourished until relatively recently, the swamp has seen its share of vibrant American history. Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the story of the Maroons, a hybrid band of fugitive slaves and isolated Native Americans that held out deep in the inaccessible interior from the 1600s until after the Civil War. Today, the story of the Maroons is finally coming to light through groundbreaking archaeological work.

Beginning in the early 17th century, the swamp was slowly surrounded by English agricultural plots worked by slaves. Its unapproachable interior was a powerful attraction for slaves desperate to escape servitude. Arriving with little more than their clothing, some runaways established a relationship with the Native American peoples, a loose collection of several Algonquian tribes who had been hemmed in by colonial development and separated from other Indians. From the Indians, escaped slaves learned subsistence techniques of hunting, fishing, and cultivation of the scattered hummocks that still rise in places above the black waters. 

Tools were scarce. The thick peat foundation of the swamp provided few stone outcrops for the fashioning of essential knives, axes, or arrowheads. Maroons sometimes resorted to digging up and refashioning discarded stone implements brought into the swamp during millennia past. Dan Sayers of American University, an archaeologist who pioneered the first systematic excavations of the Great Dismal Swamp’s human past, is one of the country’s leading authorities on this long-lived subculture. His team’s groundbreaking surveys, involving less than 1 percent of the swamp, have uncovered cabin foundations, fire pits, middens, and heavily used and reused stone implements, what he calls “resuscitated” tools, made of chert, quartzite, and flint—a careful reuse of ancient stone implements not previously known to science.

In the Great Dismal Swamp’s Maroon people we have an essentially Stone Age culture existing in absolute self-reliance and isolation on the heavily populated East Coast until the mid-19th century. At that point, lumber interests built extensive canals into the swamp to access the old-growth cypress and white cedar of the interior, introducing trade, conflict, disease, and resulting in the dissolution of Maroon culture.

The nearest historic drainage canal—which had originally been commissioned by a young George Washington—is a mere three miles from where archaeologists have been digging. They have been working in a strata corresponding with the 1850s, where the first iron tools were found. Their appearance coincides with the demise of the Maroon culture and the final abandonment of the swamp after which very little is known about these people. 

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