The Great Dismal Swamp maroons were freed and escaped slaves who inhabited the marshlands of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina. Although conditions were harsh, research suggests that thousands lived there between about 1700 and the 1860s. Harriett Beecher Stowe told the maroon people's story in her 1856 novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. The most significant research on the settlements began in 2002 with a project by Dan Sayers of American University.
The Great Dismal Swamp spans an area of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina between the James River near Norfolk, Virginia, and the Albemarle Sound near Edenton, North Carolina. The swamp is estimated to have originally been over 1 million acres (4,000 km2), but human encroachment has destroyed up to 90% of the swampland. Today, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is just over 112 thousand acres (450 km2).
In all likelihood, the words "Maroon" and "Seminole" share the same etymology in the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning "wild" or "untamed". This word usually referred to runaways or castaways and is ultimately derived from the word for "thicket" in Old Spanish.
The first African slaves brought to the British colonies in Virginia in 1619 came on a Dutch ship. At the time, slaves were treated similarly to indentured servants, becoming free with the passage of a certain period of time. Others gained freedom by converting to Christianity, since the English of that time did not typically enslave Christians. Slave labor was used in many efforts to drain and log the Great Dismal Swamp during the 18th and 19th centuries. Escaped slaves living in freedom came to be known as maroons or outlyers. The origin of the term "maroon" is uncertain, with competing theories linking it to Spanish, Arawak or Taino root words. Maroonage, runaway slaves in isolated or hidden settlements, existed in all the Southern states, and swamp-based maroon communities existed in the Deep South, in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Maroonage in the Upper South was largely limited to Virginia and the Great Dismal Swamp.
At the beginning of the 18th century, maroons came to live in the Great Dismal Swamp. Most settled on mesic islands, the high and dry parts of the swamp. Inhabitants included slaves who had purchased their freedom as well as escaped slaves. Other escaped slaves used the swamp as a route on the Underground Railroad as they made their way further north. Some slaves lived there in semi-free conditions, but how much independence slaves actually enjoyed there has been a topic of much debate. Nearby whites often left enslaved maroons alone so long as they paid a quota in logs or shingles, and businesses may have ignored the fugitive nature of escaped slaves who provided work in exchange for trade goods.
Herbert Aptheker stated already in 1939, in "Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States", that likely "about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives" lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, "The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp", say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal. A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860. While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that "several thousand" were living there by the 19th century. However, fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites. A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp. However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.
Little is known of Native American activity in the area prior to 1600, though the presence of hunting bolas indicates that the area may have served as a hunting ground as far back as 5,000 years ago. Native American communities were already in existence in the swamp when the maroons began to settle there. Because leaving the area could inevitably lead to recapture, the inhabitants often used what was readily available in the swamp, even recycling tool remnants left by Native Americans. Since the maroons had few possessions, the few small artifacts that have been recovered have given historians little insight into their day-to-day lives. To date, excavation has yet to find any human remains. According to Sayers, historical archaeologist at American University who has led research on the maroons of the swamp, it is possible that the acidity of the water disintegrated any bones which may have been left behind.
Some maroons were born to escaped slaves and lived in the swamp for their entire lives despite the hardships of swamp life: dense underbrush, insects, venomous snakes, and bears. The difficult conditions also made the swamp an ideal hiding place, not just for escaped slaves but also for free blacks, slaves who worked on the swamp's canals, Native Americans, and outcast whites such as criminals. Maroons are known to have often interacted with slaves and poor whites to obtain work, food, clothes, and money. Some fugitive slaves plundered nearby farms and plantations, stole from anchored boats, and robbed travelers on nearby roads; those caught were tried for murder or theft. Some maroon communities were set up near the Dismal Swamp Canal, built between 1793–1805 and still in operation. These maroons interacted more with the outside world than those who lived in the swamp's interior, and had more contact with outsiders once canal construction began. Some took jobs on the canal, and with increased contact with the outside world, some people living in the swamp eventually moved away. During the American Civil War, the United States Colored Troops entered the swamp to liberate the people there, many of whom then joined the Union Army. Most of the maroons who remained in the swamp left after the Civil War.
The Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study began in 2002 and was led by Dan Sayers, a historical archaeologist at American University's Department of Anthropology. In 2003, he conducted the first excavation in the swamp, and in 2009, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which manages the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge) and American University, initiated the annual research program titled the Great Dismal Swamp Archaeology Field School. This effort continues the work of the landscape study. It examines the impact of colonialism, slavery, and development on the swamp, especially on the self-sustaining maroon settlements in the swamp's interior. It also studies native lifestyles before European contact. Prior to Sayers' efforts, no field research had been done on the Great Dismal Swamp maroons. Even today, the swamp is impenetrable in places; a research group gave up in 2003 because it lost its way so many times. Sites deep in the swamp's interior are still so remote that a guide is needed to find them. The National Endowment for the Humanities gave the "We The People Award" of $200,000 to the project in 2010.
In fall 2011, a permanent exhibit was opened by the National Park Service to commemorate those who lived in the swamp during pre-Civil War times. Sayers summarizes: "These groups are very inspirational. As details unfold, we are increasingly able to show how people have the ability, as individuals and communities, to take control of their lives, even under oppressive conditions."