Marronage and the Great Dismal Swamp

The Great Dismal Swamp (alliecat1881, Flickr)

For recent scholars, the Great Dismal Swamp—an ecological treasure that stretches across present-day Virginia and into North Carolina—stands as a symbol of mysterious natural wonder and a refuge to resisters. They commonly recognize the Great Dismal Swamp as one of the most important sites of enslaved people’s struggle against a system of exploitation, disfigurement, and social disruption. In City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1765-1856, Marcus P. Nevius promises a careful exploration of this much celebrated geography and those who inhabited it. In taking on such a task, Nevius joins a host of scholars including Sylviane Diouf, Daniel Sayers, and Ted Maris-Wolf who have tried to piece together the tattered history of this refuge from slavery.

In a time when understanding histories of resistance is paramount, an exploration of the Great Dismal Swamp and the enslaved people who shielded themselves within its dusky waters and thick brush seems particularly timely. At the beginning of City of Refuge, Nevius suggests that the Great Dismal Swamp was an important site of petit marronage in mainland North America and seeks to place the swamp and its inhabitants in the larger context of marronage in the Americas. He explains that enslaved people engaged in petit marronage were those who escaped “oppressive slave societies in the short term, without intending to remain indefinitely in flight or to escape permanently from the region in which they lived” (7). Nevius attempts to demonstrate that the swamp was a center not only of refuge, but also of exploitation. White-owned swamp companies—who sought to extract the natural resources of this ecological wonder—forced enslaved people to transform mud into canals and trees into profitable products that could be transported on swamp highways. He explores these ideas within a tight volume of less than one hundred fifty pages, divided into an introduction, prologue, six short chapters, and an epilogue. A wide net of secondary sources along with a collection of letters, record books, ledgers of enslaved workers, narratives, reports, newspapers, and court records are the bricks that help him reconstruct the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century interactions among the people of the swamp.

The book’s early sections seek to provide key insights into petit marronage and the developing extractive economy centered within the eighteenth-century Great Dismal Swamp. Using the limited sources available, Nevius details early recollections about the presence of maroons within the swamp. These early maroons are largely nameless figures, mentioned briefly as interesting asides for white narrators. Nevius knows that they are important but can only go so far to illuminate their significance. He pads their stories with what he can find about the emerging industries that existed alongside the maroons. The story of the Dismal Swamp Company is key to his exploration of the Great Dismal Swamp during the 1700s. The Dismal Swamp Company, founded by several elite colonists including George Washington, sought to use the labor of enslaved people to transform the swamp from a nearly impenetrable natural barrier into the location of a profitable venture. Nevius briefly explores the daily labors of these enslaved workers and what their everyday lives might have been like under the company. He also notes that the enslaved workforce occasionally challenged these investors’ will to extract benefits from the swamp, transforming their worksite into a refuge by running deep into the swamp in search of shelter.

As Nevius begins to engage his nineteenth-century sources, he is able to provide a more in-depth picture of the lives of the enslaved people who worked in and inhabited the swamp. In chapter four, he discusses the experiences of Moses Grandy, an enslaved man who worked in the swamp and eventually made his way to freedom in the North. His investigation of the life of Edmond Boothe, a onetime enslaved laborer in the swamp, presents new questions about the ways that the swamp offered freedom to enslaved persons outside of running away. He contextualizes these sources with discussions of key moments of enslaved people’s resistance, including Gabriel’s failed attempt at rebellion and Nat Turner’s insurrection in nearby Southampton County, Virginia. Nevius also highlights how nineteenth-century antislavery activists imagined the Great Dismal Swamp as a site of resistance.

Yet, in many ways, City of Refuge is a top-down history that focuses heavily on swamp companies and their employees, leaving many questions about the enslaved and free populations living around the swamp unanswered. What did the demographics of the communities around the swamp look like? How did they change over time? Were enslaved people a significant portion of the population of people living around the swamp throughout the period covered by the book? How many white people and free people of color lived near the swamp and what were their connections to this vast wilderness? A closer examination of the local communities surrounding the swamp would have done a great deal to build a backdrop for the interesting individuals who appear in the book. Nevius provides basic population figures in some sections. Yet census records and tabulated data, especially for the nineteenth century, could have provided more contexts about the people who lived near the swamp. A deeper dive into the Virginia and North Carolina county court records might have revealed examples that could have provided more insights about regular people including enslaved workers and maroons. More engagement with sources about the slaveholders who leased enslaved people to the swamp companies or whose bondspeople escaped into the swamp would have provided readers with a better sense of exactly who enslaved people were escaping and precisely why they sought refuge.

While taking these limitations into consideration, City of Refuge still has plenty to offer. Those interested in learning more about the Great Dismal Swamp, enslaved people’s resistance, and extractive industries will gain much by engaging with Nevius’s work. Nevius identifies primary and secondary sources that will be of great use to those interested in the Great Dismal Swamp and marronage. City of Refuge will serve as an important foundational text for those studying the Great Dismal Swamp and its maroon population in the future.

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Warren Milteer

Warren Milteer is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His interests include free people of color, slavery, race, and Native America. He is the author of 'North Carolina’s Free People of Color, 1715-1885' (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020) and 'Beyond Slavery’s Shadow: Free People of Color in the South' (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021). Follow him on Twitter @WEMilteer.