Dismal Freedom: Self-Emancipation, Marronage, and the Resistance Communities of the Great Dismal Swamp

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 9:10 AM
Salon C (Hilton Atlanta)
J. Brent Morris, University of South Carolina Beaufort
The Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina was and remains one of the most inhospitable tracts of land in America, yet it was occupied by and served as a beacon to thousands of self-emancipated and semi-free maroons who took advantage of the remoteness of the swamp and formed permanent resistance communities within its depths. These communities varied in structure and appearance over time and swamp geography. Where a particular maroon might settle depended on a variety of personal factors, not the least of which were an individual's motivation for seeking the swamp initially and the degree to which they sought scission from the outside world. All together, these communities were central to a unique social, cultural, and economic world that endured for centuries, yet also went under-recorded in the documentary record.

Scholars have largely ignored North American maroons and maroon communities like that of the Dismal Swamp, yet in doing so they have unwittingly undermined the full telling of the complex human dimension of flight from slavery. For many maroons, the Great Dismal Swamp was their destination, not simply a stopover on a route to freedom elsewhere in a northern state or Canada. Thus these people not only escaped their bonds, but they also often thrived in communities in the very midst of the Tidewater slave society. Their self-determined, autonomous resistance thus complicates our understanding of fugitivity and freedom. Using the example of the maroons and maroon communities of Great Dismal Swamp as a case study and drawing on new archival discoveries and recent archaeological fieldwork, this paper suggests that scholars must expand their focus from the act of escape itself—of focusing on a limited aspect of each self-emancipators life—to a perspective of flight from slavery as a dynamic process.

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