The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

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Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

In his 1939 article “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, (historian) Herbert Aptheker stated 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 (being built in the Swamp). 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. 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.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in a collection called  Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.

Osman, a Great Dismal Swamp Maroon, by David Hunter Strother, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856; image of an escaped slave in the North Carolina part of the Great Dismal Swamp
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Wisconsin Union Soldiers and Runaway Freedwoman

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Cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862.
This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 25 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

This Civil War era image depicts a self-liberated teenaged woman (AKA runaway slave) from Kentucky who was eventually escorted to freedom with the aid of Union soldiers from Wisconsin. Recollect that Kentucky, while loyal to the Union, was a slave state throughout the course of the Civil War. (Maryland and Missouri, which were also Union slave states, abolished the institution before the war ended.)

The story behind the picture is provided at the Oxford African American Studies Center website. The two men in the photograph were part of Wisconsin’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, which was “composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause.” They escorted the young woman in the picture from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of Levi Coffin, an Underground Railroad operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, disguising her as a “mulatto soldier boy.” The picture was taken in Cincinnati. The young woman, whose name is not identified, was eventually sent to Racine, Wisconsin. An expanded version of the story is below the fold.

I want to offer a hat tip to Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthhamer for highlighting this interesting image in their book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.

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Betrayed by a Fortune-Teller, He Dresses Like a Woman: An Odd Tale from the Underground Railroad


Generic crystal ball/fortune teller like image
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Lewis Williams… dude, what were you thinking?

Lewis Williams was a slave to one Marshall, in the State of Kentucky. He escaped when he was quite a boy, and stopped in the city of Cincinnati for several years. It was thought by some of his friends not necessary to send him to Canada, because, having escaped at an early age, he would soon grow out of his master’s knowledge. So he was permitted to remain with a friend, a short distance outside the city limits. When he came to manhood, he became acquainted with a girl, to whom he became much attached. He paid every attention to her, and thus evinced his own love; but not being very certain as to whether he was loved in return, he thought he would ascertain this piece of information from a Dutch woman, who was known in that city as a “fortune-teller.”

He proceeded to this woman’s place of business, and said to her he wanted his fortune told. She said she must first have the sum of 4s. 2d., or one dollar, before she could tell anything; and it must be paid in silver, or the cup would not turn well. Lewis at once advanced the sum required.

She then commenced by asking him to tell his origin. He began as follows:–“I was born in the State of Kentucky, and was held as a slave until a few years ago. I escaped, and came to this city.” To this the fortune-teller listened with profound attention. She asked Lewis to tell his master’s name, which he did. After further details, she was made acquainted with the post-office address of the master. She then informed Lewis that he would be successful, and that the girl was deeply in love with him. Besides, she told him in three months’ time he would be married to her. This was encouraging news to Lewis. He felt that his money had been spent for useful information.

As soon as Lewis left the house, however, she told her husband of Lewis’s revelations, and they immediately addressed a letter to Mr. Marshall, Lewis’s master, saying if he would pay them the sum of 200 dollars they would tell him where he might find his slave. Lewis’s master was glad to accept the proposal, and came immediately to Cincinnati, and paid the fortune-teller the sum required. Lewis was soon arrested by one of the marshals of the United States, and brought before Commissioner Carpenter, of the said city.

But Lewis had help in the name of Rev. William Troy, a local abolitionist. Troy notes that fortunately for Lewis, they all look alike:

The news of the arrest was soon noised abroad; and, as I went out to see what was the matter, I met the marshals having the boy in custody. I went immediately to a lawyer, John Jolliffe, Esq., who is always ready to plead in such cases, without any charge whatever. He, without delay, repaired to the court house, in order to appear as the boy’s counsel.

I went to spread the news among the coloured people of the city, in order that some plan might be devised to get the boy out of the court house, if possible. We became a sort of committee of ways and means. At last, we concluded that our best plan would be to crowd the court room, and get the prisoner free by some stratagem. There was a man in our company who was very like the prisoner in complexion, and it was arranged that he should occupy the prisoner’s place temporarily, while he should put his own hat upon the prisoner’s head, and thus allow him to make his way to freedom. The wink given Lewis was understood; the hat was placed upon Lewis’s head, and he immediately moved slowly out of the chair, and this other person took his place in the chair.

The attention of the marshal at this time was attracted by certain points in dispute between the counsel, and the prisoner by this time had made his way through the great crowd, on his hands and knees, to the door, and out he slipped and made to the forest. He went as though he was on the most urgent errand. When the point in dispute was partially settled, the marshal missed the prisoner. He exclaimed, “Where is the boy?” Some person standing at the door out of which the boy had passed, said, “The child left some time ago; no use to look, for the creature is going to the Queen; he don’t like this country,” &c. This was quite tantalising to the marshal; but the fact was, the boy was gone: and great excitement consequently prevailed throughout the city.

But Lewis was not yet gone. How would he escape? There’s always the old cross-dressing trick:

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