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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 12: Slavery •


An engraving of a cotton machine used for punishing runaways, South Carolina, 1830s

Cotton machine used for punishing runaways, South Carolina, 1830s.

Moses Roper, A narrative of the adventures and escape of Moses Roper from American slavery (London, 1837), p. 51 (Copy in Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library). 2nd ed. (London, 1838; reprinted Negro Universities Press, 1970), p. 53.

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr.

Runaway slave communities in South Carolina

Tim Lockley, University of Warwick

Throughout the Americas maroon communities, formed by runaway slaves, existed wherever slavery itself existed. The large numbers of maroons in the Brazilian jungle, the swamps and forests of Surinam and the mountains of Jamaica created long-lasting settlements that were successfully defended from attacks by whites. The size of the slave population in these territories, and the close proximity of marginal lands that were unsuitable for plantations, combined to make marronage a viable proposition. Runaway slaves needed somewhere to run to, where they could not easily be found or returned to slavery, and swamps, forests and mountains met this requirement perfectly. White soldiers were rarely skilled in guerrilla warfare, and were more likely to succumb to disease themselves than to return from an expedition with large numbers of captured maroons. It was the persistence of the maroons that eventually led many white governments to seek peace treaties rather than continue fruitless military campaigns. Under these treaties maroons were formally accepted as being free and would be left alone, providing that they did not actively recruit more members from the slave plantations and instead returned new runaways to their masters. (1)

It has long been supposed that North America did not have a 'maroon problem' comparable to Jamaica, Surinam or Brazil. The slave population became naturalised more quickly in North America than elsewhere in the Americas because it was self-reproducing rather than being dependent on African imports. North America had a slave population that was mainly born into slavery in America long before the ending of their Atlantic slave trade in 1808. Elsewhere in the Americas maroons were disproportionately drawn from African-born slaves. Moreover, the much larger white population in North America meant there were far fewer marginal areas for slaves to flee to, even in the southern colonies/states. While large plantations dominated the coastal areas of Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia, small farmers also lived in these regions, occupying land that in other parts of the Americas might have been left as virgin forest. While North America had no shortage of runaway slaves, they can be divided into two distinct groups. Many runaways only absented themselves for a short period and returned to the plantation when hunger pangs grew too strong, but those who left determined never to return, it has long been supposed, were much more likely to head for certain freedom in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois rather than try to create independent communities in the south, where the threat of re-enslavement was very real.

While all these facts are true, they do not tell the entire story. In the eighteenth century, and indeed into the early nineteenth century, northern states were not the sanctuary that they would become after 1830. The Fugitive Slave Act meant that slaves fleeing to the north were likely to be captured and transported back to the place they had come from. Without a safe haven in the north, runaway slaves consequently sought out other places where they might be safe from pursuit. The Great Dismal Swamp on the border between Virginia and North Carolina acted as a particularly strong magnet for runaway slaves. This otherwise deserted swamp was relatively close to the plantation regions of Virginia and therefore it was comparatively easy for slaves to disappear into its dense forests. William Byrd came across 'a family of mullatoes' in the swamp when surveying the border between the two colonies in 1728, commenting 'It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this obscure part of the world'. A 1784 visitor noted that

Run-away Negroes have resided in these places for twelve, twenty, or thirty years and upwards, subsisting themselves in the swamp upon corn, hogs, and fowls, that they raised on some of the spots not perpetually under water, nor subject to be flooded, as forty-nine parts of fifty of it are; and on such spots they have erected habitations, and cleared small fields around them; yet these have always been perfectly impenetrable to any of the inhabitants of the country around, even to those nearest to and best acquainted with the swamps.

Consequently, runaways 'in these horrible swamps are perfectly safe, and with the greatest facility elude the most diligent of their pursuers'. (2)

The number of maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp can only be guessed at, although several historians have suggested that it may have been home to several hundred, maybe even more than a thousand, escaped slaves. Certainly, maroons resided in the swamp throughout the antebellum era. However, the relatively small size of the swamp, about 200-300 square miles, did not afford the same opportunities for the formation of maroon communities as the Amazonian forests of South America, or the mountains of Jamaica. Whites may not have populated the swamp itself, but they surrounded it, and there was little chance for maroons within the swamp to expand the territory under their control. (3)

Elsewhere in the south runaways also formed significant maroon groups in the environs of New Orleans: one group of 50 or 60 maroons raised 'hogs, poultry, sweet potatoes &c' in an area known as 'the Trembling Prairies, not far from the city... this spot has been supposed to be unapproachable on account of quick sands'. (4) Further east along the gulf coast a maroon group secreted themselves in a swamp at the confluence of the Alabama and Tombeckbe rivers, just north of Mobile. Some of the members of this group had 'been runaway for several years' and were led by a 'an extraordinary negro for size and bodily strength' named Old Hal. Following a battle with local planters in 1827, which led to the death of several maroons, even the newspapers were forced to conceded 'that old Hal and his men fought like Spartans, not one gave an inch of ground, but stood and was shot dead or wounded, and fell on the spot'. (5)

While marronage existed in all the southern colonies/states to a greater or lesser degree, it reached its greatest extent in South Carolina. South Carolina was unique in North America in having a majority slave population and in some coastal areas 80-90 per cent of people were enslaved. Its slave population was also less acculturated than elsewhere in North America having a higher proportion of African-born slaves, and indeed South Carolina continued to import slaves directly from Africa right up to the closing of the American slave trade in 1808. The geography of South Carolina also encouraged marronage. The tidal rivers used for growing rice were very close to large swamps that were not under cultivation, and once rivers stretched inland beyond the effect of tides then swamps became even more common. These swamps were densely forested with cypress trees, making any attempt to traverse them on horseback difficult, and were home to large numbers of alligators and rattlesnakes that together combined to deter many potential explorers. To the enslaved population of South Carolina, however, these swamps offered a tempting refuge where they could carve out their own lives free from white control.

Maroon communities most likely started small. A handful of slaves perhaps ran away together, or even met by chance in the swamp, and determined to live as a group. South Carolina's swamps were often inundated with water but there were normally some permanently dry areas, and it was on this land that maroons constructed buildings and planted vegetables and corn. The climate was rarely too cold, and the game and fishing were plentiful for skilled hunters. Once a community was established it did not take long for those remaining in bondage to learn about it, and to augment it by their own flight. For a community to become viable in the longer term it required women as well as men, and several communities contained both sexes and even children. These maroon communities were clearly intended to be permanent settlements, offering an alternative life for enslaved Africans in South Carolina.

With the swamp as protection whites clearly knew little about these communities. Runaway slaves were common enough anyway so it was hard for planters to notice any kind of pattern of flight and as long as the maroons kept themselves to themselves it was possible for them to maintain their communities for many years. Yet no maroon community could survive completely cut off from the outside world. While food could be grown, water was abundant and shelter readily fashioned, maroons could not make metal goods such as knives or pots for catching, killing and cooking game, and there was no way to replenish shot and powder for guns. The more cautious maroons obtained these items by trading with slaves from nearby plantations, but if this was not possible then they simply took what they wanted by force. However, raiding expeditions also raised the visibility of maroons and made it far more likely that they would face a military attack.

There are numerous examples of South Carolina's provincial government sending out the militia against small maroon groups. As early as 1711 action was taken against 'several Negroes runaway from their Masters... [who] keep out, arm'd, robbing & plundering houses & Plantations & putting ye Inhabitants of this province in great fear and terrour'. (6) But it was not until the mid 1760s that evidence exists of sizeable maroon groups. In late 1765 the Governor of Georgia wrote to his counterpart in South Carolina about a group of 40 maroons that had existed 'for some time past' in the Savannah River swamp on the South Carolina side who 'have frequently in the Night time come over on this side & killed Cattle and Robbed Several of the plantations on the South Bank of the River'. A party of the militia eventually found the maroons and after a short gun battle came upon their camp, described as 'a Square consisting of four Houses 17 feet long & 14 wide... the kettles were upon the fire boiling rice & about 15 bushels of rough Rice Blankets Potts Pails Shoes Axes & many other Tools'. (7) This camp was destroyed but most of the maroons escaped into the swamp and regrouped in a different location.

Simultaneously the Governor of South Carolina received information that '107 Negroes had left their Plantations... and joined a large number of Runaways in Colleton County'. With the prospect of a full-scale slave rebellion a real possibility the Governor not only ordered out the militia he also brought down nearly 50 Catawba Indians to hunt out the runaways, since 'Indians strike terrour into the Negroes, and the Indians manner of hunting render them more sagacious in tracking and expert in finding out the hidden recesses, where the Runaways conceal themselves from the usual searches of the English'. While a slave rebellion was averted, the Governor was forced to admit that 'there are several large Parties of Runaways still concealed in large Swamps'. (8)

The timing of these two events was probably not coincidental. The Stamp Act crisis had erupted in late 1765 and would not be over until mid 1766. The vigorous response among white colonists to the attempt by the British Parliament to raise taxes led to rhetoric that asserted the importance of liberty and autonomy. It is hardly surprising that slaves came to learn of this rhetoric and applied it to their own condition. South Carolina planter/politician Henry Laurens commented in early 1766 'that some Negroes had mimick'd their betters in crying out "Liberty" & these latter I do believe were apprehensive of an Odious Load falling upon their Shoulders'. (9)

The ending of the Stamp Act crisis in 1766 removed the language of liberty from popular discourse but it is likely that the large maroon groups near the Savannah River and south of Charleston continued to eek out an existence after the 1760s. There are sporadic references to maroons during the early 1770s and once war came to coastal Georgia and South Carolina in late 1778 then the opportunities for slaves to escape increased dramatically. With loyalist and patriot fortunes ebbing and flowing between 1778 and 1782 plantations were first taken and then restored to owners, and in the interim many slaves took their opportunity to leave. The situation was exacerbated by the decision of British authorities to arm a number of slaves and when they evacuated the low country in late 1782 they left behind a body of armed blacks who were well trained in military tactics and who had no intention of returning to bondage.

By 1786 a maroon group numbering more than 100 resided peacefully on an island in the Savannah River about 20 miles upstream from Savannah. Among them were a number who called themselves 'the King of England's soldiers', having been there since 1782. Initial attempts by the local militia to attack the camp failed and newspaper reports of the incident indicate clearly that the maroons were well versed in military tactics, having posted sentries, and distributed weapons to greatest effect. A second attack led by General James Jackson overran the maroon camp where they found enough rice to fill 25 barrels, '60 bushels of corn, and 14 or 15 boats'. About four acres of ground had been cleared and planted with rice and, after destroying the crops and 'a number of their houses and huts', it was hoped that the maroons would 'disperse about the country'. (10)

Such hopes did not last long. By March 1787 planters were complaining that their properties were being raided for replacement supplies and new recruits, and some even feared the involvement of 'our own indoor domestics'. (11) The South Carolina government decided to take firm action and they set aside funding for more than 100 militiamen, despite concerns that 'at this Season of the year it would be very inconvenient to keep Militia in the field for a length of time sufficient to suppress this Insurrection'. (12) On 21 April 1787 a 'warm skirmish took place' with inconclusive results, but in the early hours of 6 May 1787 a more decisive encounter resulted again in the maroons' camp being overrun. In the six months since the destruction of the old camp, the maroons had built a new one, 700 yards long and 120 yards wide, containing 21 houses and protected by a palisade or 'breech work about 4 feet high'. Once more 'cleared land was planted in rice and potatoes'. (13) The number of maroons actually killed was small – no more than 10 – and only a few were captured at the time, but in general there was a great deal of satisfaction that the maroons 'seated and strongly fortified in the midst of an almost impenetrable swamp' had been dispersed. (14)

It seems likely that this marked the end of the maroon bands in the Savannah River swamps, but they continued to exist and cause trouble elsewhere. Governor David Williams was forced to take action in 1816 against 'runaway negroes, concealing themselves in the swamps and marshes contiguous to Combahee and Ashepoo rivers, ... [who] formed the nucleus, round which all the ill-disposed and audacious near them gathered, until at length their robberies became too serious to be suffered with impunity'. (15) The most notorious maroon band in South Carolina was led by 'Forest' Joe and ranged the entire length of the Santee River from the coast to Columbia. The first complaints of maroon activity date from 1819, but Joe became a major thorn in the side of white planters after the murder of planter George Ford near Georgetown in May 1821. Ford was killed trying to prevent Joe from stealing cattle from his plantation, and while two of his gang were captured shortly afterwards and provided much information about Joe and his whereabouts, the man himself evaded capture. The local press praised 'the exertions of the militia... day and night occupied in scouring the woods and swamps to the distance of twenty or thirty miles from town, notwithstanding the extreme heat of the weather and the heavy showers to which they have been exposed', but the 'most dense and impervious swamps' in which Joe had secreted himself proved too much. (16) For the next two years Joe continued to raid plantations adjacent to the Santee River Swamp for supplies and recruits, apparently roaming fairly freely over its 150 mile length and easily eluding 'all attempts to take him'. One local newspaper observed ruefully that 'this accomplished villain has been pursuing his course of plunder in the most tranquil and uninterrupted manner'. (17)

Events came to a head in the late summer of 1823. On 20 August Joe killed a slave belonging to Colonel Richardson who had 'been the means of rescuing a negro woman of Dr. Raoul's whom he [Joe] detained against her will for some months as his wife'. (18) In early October local residents formed the Pineville Police Association 'to devise a plan for apprehending or dispersing a gang of desperate Runaways'. The heart of this plan was that 'by secret offers of Reward to certain negroes, their agency and assistance might so far be obtained, as to enable a party judiciously posted to surprise and take them'. (19) Ultimately this plan worked. On 4 October a slave named Royal

conducted a select party... to the camp of the Joe and his followers, and having the command of a boat, being a patroon, he with considerable judgement and address managed to decoy those whom we had long sought towards the boat, where were stationed a party expressly detailed for this duty... [and with] a single well directed fire from the party of whites in the boat Joe with three of his party fell dead. (20)

Joe's 'head was cut off and stuck on a pole at the mouth of the creek, as a solemn warning to vicious slaves' and several of his gang were later captured and hanged. Since it was 'the policy of this state to reward those slaves who thus distinguish themselves by way of inducement to others to do so likewise' Royal's owner was paid $700 by the South Carolina legislature to manumit him. (21)

Perhaps because the chance of freedom in the north held a greater allure than life in the swamp, especially with the growth of radical abolitionism, reports of maroon activity are much less frequent after 1830 than they were before. They did not disappear entirely, however – the Marion Star reported as late as June 1861 that

a party of gentlemen from this place went in search of runaways who were thought to be in a swamp two miles from here. A trail was discovered which, winding about much, conducted the party to a knoll in the swamp on which corn, squashes, and peas were growing and a camp had been burnt. Continuing the search, another patch of corn, etc., was found and a camp from which several negroes fled, leaving two small negro children, each about a year old... The camp seemed well provided with meal, cooking utensils, blankets, etc. The party returned, having taken the two children, twelve guns and one axe... (22)

Although it reached a zenith between 1760 and 1830 marronage in South Carolina was evidently something that endured for as long as slavery itself existed. Maroons were able in practice to exert control over large areas of land that were effectively beyond white control. In this manner maroons in South Carolina were able to gain a degree of autonomy and independence from slavery while never leaving the south. Some black children were born in the swamps and grew up never having known the terrors of slavery or the wrath of masters. The persistence of marronage in South Carolina significantly complicates our understanding of colonial and antebellum slave systems in North America.

  1. There is an extensive bibliography on marronage in the Americas, but in particular see Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, ed. Richard Price (2nd edn., Baltimore and London, 1979); Out of the House of Bondage: Runaways, Resistance and Marronage in Africa and the New World, ed. Gad Heuman (London, 1986); Richard Price, The Guiana Maroons: a Historical and Bibliographical Introduction (Baltimore and London, 1976); Daniel Lee Schafer, 'The maroons of Jamaica: African slave rebels in the Caribbean' (unpublished University of Minnesota PhD thesis, 1973). Back to (1)
  2. William Byrd's Histories of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (New York, 1967), 56; John Ferdinand Smyth, A Tour of the United States of America: Containing an Account of the Present Situation of that Country (Dublin, 1784), 65. Back to (2)
  3. The Roving Editor, or Talks with Slaves in the Southern States, by James Redpath, ed. John R. McKivigan (University Park, Pa., 1996), 275. Porte Crayon cited in Bland Simpson, The Great Dismal: a Carolinian's Swamp Memoir (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1990), 73, 76. Some interesting archaeological evidence suggests late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century occupation of a drier part of the Dismal Swamp called Culpepper Island (Elaine Nichols, 'No easy run to freedom: maroons in the Great Dismal Swamp' (unpublished University of South Carolina MA thesis, 1988), 119-29). Back to (3)
  4. Western Intelligencer (Ohio), 6 Feb. 1828. For another band in Cypress Swamp near New Orleans, see Macon Telegraph, 30 June 1836. Back to (4)
  5. New York Spectator, 17 July 1827; Vermont Chronicle, 20 July 1827. Back to (5)
  6. South Carolina Archives, Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, 20 June 1711. Back to (6)
  7. South Carolina Archives, Executive Council of South Carolina (1763-7), vol. 32, 672-7. Back to (7)
  8. The National Archives, CO 5/488, 2-4, South Carolina, Commons House of Assembly Journals; The National Archives, CO 5/378, 54v/55r, Lt. Gov. Wm. Bull to the Board of Trade, Charles Town, 25 Jan. 1766. Back to (8)
  9. Henry Laurens to John Lewis Gervais, 19 Jan. 1766 (The Papers of Henry Laurens, ed. George C. Rogers Jr., David R. Chesnutt, Peggy J. Clark et al. (Columbia, S.C., 1968-94), vol. 5, 53-4). Back to (9)
  10. Gazette of the State of Georgia, 19 Oct. 1786. Back to (10)
  11. South Carolina Archives, Governor's Messages, Roll 2, 1786-8. Back to (11)
  12. South Carolina Archives, Thomas Pinckney Letterbook, 1787-9, Thomas Pinckney to Col. Thomas Hutson, 23 March 1787. Back to (12)
  13. Gazette of the State of Georgia, 26 Apr. 1787; Georgia Historical Society, Joseph Vallence Bevan Papers, Folder 10, Item 84, Col. James Gunn to Brig.-Gen. James Jackson, 6 May 1787. Back to (13)
  14. Gazette of the State of Georgia, 10 May 1787. Back to (14)
  15. Message no. 1 from the Governor of South-Carolina, delivered to both branches of the Legislature, 26 Nov. 1816 (printed copy in the South Carolina Archives). Back to (15)
  16. Charleston Courier, 4 June 1821; Southern Chronicle, Wed. 17 Sept. 1823. Back to (16)
  17. Georgian (Savannah), 13 Sept. 1823. Back to (17)
  18. Southern Chronicle, Wed. 17 Sept. 1823. Back to (18)
  19. South Carolina Historical Society, Pineville Police Association Minutes, 2 Oct. 1823. Back to (19)
  20. South Carolina Archives, South Carolina General Assembly, Petition ND No. 1874. Back to (20)
  21. Southern Chronicle, Wed. 8 Oct. 1823; South Carolina Archives, South Carolina General Assembly, Committee Reports, 1825, No. 252. Back to (21)
  22. Star (Marion, S.C.), 18 June 1861 (cited in H.M. Henry, The Police Control of the Slave in South Carolina (1914; New York, 1968), 121). Back to (22)

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