Weird History The Unknown Band Of Escaped Slaves Who Abandoned Society To Live In A Swamp  

Amanda Sedlak-Hevener
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For centuries, fugitive slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp hid from slave catchers, masters, and those who wished to return them to their forced position in society. The Great Dismal Swamp maroon community served as a refuge for escaped enslaved people, indentured servants, and displaced Native American tribes from the 1600s up through the end of the Civil War. The name "maroon" comes from the French, and it is used to describe groups of escaped slaves who formed their own societies on the outskirts of towns, Native American reservations, and deep in wooded or swampy areas where no one would find them – and they could stay protected. Little is known about these communities of escaped slaves, mostly due to historians' focus on the Underground Railroad, although that narrative is changing. 

The community in the Great Dismal Swamp, which encompasses parts of modern-day Virginia and North Carolina, remained there for centuries, although barely any records exist of their time there. Thankfully, historians have pieced enough together that contemporary readers can begin to understand what their marooned existence might have looked like. 

The Dismal Swamp Maroon Community Started In 1680 And Was Dominated By Escaped African American Slaves


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Photo: David Hunter Strother/Slavery in America/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Archaeologists who've studied the area believe that escaped slaves found refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp starting around 1680, back when America was still a British Colony. The community thrived and grew between then and the Civil War, when the slaves were freed and could join society. It was dominated by African Americans during this period, although Native Americans, white indentured servants, and others fleeing standard societal norms lived there as well. 

Briar Bushes, Soggy Conditions, And Mosquitoes Made The Swamp An Unpleasant Place To Live – But A Great Place To Hide


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Photo: John Boyle O'Reilly/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The swamp now consists of 112,000 acres, but back in the 1600s, it had over 1 million acres of wetlands. The land is filled with prickly briar bushes and water-logged ground. It is home to mosquitoes, snakes – including water moccasins – bobcats, and in the 17th century, even bears. All of this made it an unpleasant location to call home, but those conditions also kept the determined people who lived there safe from their pursuers.  

They Lived On Islands Concealed In The Swamp Where Slave Catchers Couldn't Find Them


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Photo: O'Reilly, John Boyle/Wikimedia Commons/No Restrictions

The maroon community formed on islands well-hidden deep within the swamp. In fact, it was so well hidden that even historians and archeologists didn't know about it for decades. There was no way of finding the dry ground, until they stepped onto it and realized that it was firm underfoot. The main island that the community lived on consists of 20 acres of mostly dry land – a refuge within the swamp. Slave catchers, too afraid of walking through the swamp, never ventured there to look for escaped slaves that had a bounty on  their heads. 

People Also Lived On The Outer Edges And Canal Areas Of The Swamp


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Photo: State Archives of North Carolina/Wikimedia Commons/No Restrictions

Despite the fact that most historians and archaeologists believe that the main part of the maroon community lived on the islands deep within the swamp, there is evidence that some were brave enough to remain on its outskirts. The outer edges of the swamp had rougher terrain, as well as a series of canals that workers dug to control the water in certain parts. The people living in these areas are believed to have been mostly Native Americans, who didn't need to hide from slave catchers.