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Maroon Slave Society

“Slavery Days was Hell…It’s bad to belong to folks dat own you body and soul.”

Delia Garlic, former slave


In many ways, the colonial era presented enslaved Africans with more opportunities to escape than did the more settled and legally restrictive American society of the nineteenth century.  More runaways before the American Revolution than afterward may have tried to form maroon societies.  Large sections of all the colonies were uninhabited by whites.  Vast tracks of forests and swamps, not yet claimed and settles, offered deep cover for runaways.  Colonies were only just beginning to develop laws to protect slaveholders.

Bald cypress trees

 Maroon societies were bands of communities or fugitive slaves who had succeeded in establishing a society of their own in some remote areas, where they could not easily be surprised by soldiers or slave catchers.  Maroon societies had several degrees of stability.  At the least stable end would be gangs of runaway men who wandered within a region, hiding together, and who sustained themselves by raids.  Other, more stable societies included men and women and might have developed trade with outsiders.  Some maroon societies felt safe enough to plant crops and maintain some semblance of permanency.

By the time of the American Republic, such refuges were fewer.  Native Americans, themselves retreating in the face of Anglo settlement into their homelands, already inhabited the North American backcountry.  Florida and the Texas-Mexico border had several active communities, as did Louisiana, before its acquisition by the United States.  In 1783, the Spanish governor of Florida offered freedom to slaves who escaped from the British colonies.  Spain, fearful of British land claims, made this appeal to try and destabilize British colonies.  After this edit, slaves ran away in groups to St. Augustine and nearby Florida villages.  In response, slave-owners organized slave patrols over land and water.  Many of the Florida village’s slaves escaped to also contained remnants of Southeastern Indian tribes, gathered together for survival.  This group later became known as the Seminoles. 

Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia, David Edward Cronin, 1888, oil on canvas, on display at the New-York Historical Society.

The Great Dismal Swamp, Okefenokee, and other sites were also briefly home to bands of runaways, some of whom left after a period and other who planned to stay on and out of sight. Perhaps the most famous fugitive outpost was Fort Negro, occupied by the British until the end of the War of 1812.  Freedom seekers occupied the fort after the British departure had used it as a base to harass slave owners.  This threat to slavery did not last long.  American troops led by General Andrew Jackson destroyed the outpost in 1816, killing or enslaving all inhabitants.