Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom

…Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These people and their descendants are known as “maroons.” The term probably comes from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning feral livestock, fugitive slave or something wild and defiant.

…By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative. They’ve also revealed the shortcomings of their methods: “Historians are limited to source documents. When it comes to maroons, there isn’t that much on paper. But that doesn’t mean their story should be ignored or overlooked. As archaeologists, we can read it in the ground.”

…The Dismal Swamp covered great tracts of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and its vegetation was far too thick for horses or canoes. In the early 1600s, Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier took refuge here, and they were soon joined by fugitive slaves, and probably some whites escaping indentured servitude or hiding from the law. From about 1680 to the Civil War, it appears that the swamp communities were dominated by Africans and African-Americans.

…British traveler J.F.D. Smyth, writing in 1784, gleaned this description: “Runaway negroes have resided in these places for twelve, twenty, or thirty years and upwards, subsisting themselves in the swamp upon corn, hogs, and fowls….[On higher ground] they have erected habitations, and cleared small fields around them.”

…The Great Dismal Swamp, now reduced by draining and development, is managed as a federal wildlife refuge. The once-notorious panthers are gone, but bears, birds, deer and amphibians are still abundant. So are venomous snakes and biting insects. …The swamp teems with water moccasins and rattlesnakes. The mosquitoes get so thick that they can blur the outlines of a person standing 12 feet away. 

…We step onto the shore of a large, flat, sun-dappled island carpeted with fallen leaves. Walking toward its center, the underbrush disappears, and we enter a parklike clearing shaded by a few hardwoods and pines.

…Apart from some water catchment pits with fire-hardened floors, there’s not much he can show me. But Sayers is an expressive talker and gesticulator, and as he walks me around the island, he conjures up clusters of log cabins, some with raised floors and porches. He points to invisible fields and gardens in the middle distance, children playing, people fishing, small groups off hunting. Charlie, the ex-maroon interviewed in Canada, described people making furniture and musical instruments.

…Before 1660, most people at the nameless site were Native Americans. The first maroons were there within a few years of the arrival of African slaves in nearby Jamestown in 1619. After 1680, Native American materials become scarce; what he identifies as maroon artifacts begin to dominate.

…“Everything we’ve found would fit into a single shoe box,” he says. “And it makes sense. They were using organic materials from the swamp. Except for the big stuff like cabins, it decomposes without leaving a trace.”

…Sayers has evidence of a thriving community at the nameless site all the way up to the Civil War. “That’s when they came out,” he says. “We’ve found almost nothing after the Civil War. They probably worked themselves back into society as free people.”

Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom | History | Smithsonian



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