One Head and One Heart:
300 Years of Resistance in the Great Dismal Swamp
Though it now occupies only 10% of its original size, the Great Dismal Swamp once covered over one million acres of land, reaching from what is now Norfolk, Virginia to Edenton, North Carolina. That vast expanse of forested wetlands holds a secret history, the story of resistance to the violent economy of the colonies and the nation they became. In this morass, people of different origins and ideas came together to create a life outside of and in refutation of the plantation system that came to dominate the surrounding region.
Early European settlers of the property owning class considered the Swamp a godless wilderness, a place of witches and devilry. They slowly undertook, or rather forced others to undertake, the difficult task of taming the swamp. George Washington and his brother John oversaw the digging of canals to facilitate trade routes through the watery terrain. (The description of the Washingtons’ treatment of their enslaved workers is one of the more harrowing elements of the history of the Great Dismal.) Despite their efforts, there was too much swamp to control, and thus this terrain unfriendly to industry became a refuge to those who wanted to live outside of the colonial economic system.
In the first half of the 17th century, the Great Dismal was primarily a haven for members of the Tuscarora confederation, who were under siege by land owning settlers. Over time, escaped indentured servants of European descent, Africans fleeing enslavement, and political radicals of various creeds joined the Indigenous people in the swamp. By the 1700’s, the Great Dismal community was predominantly African and African-American as more and more people escaped the violence of the plantation system to seek refuge in this land deemed inhospitable by moneyed whites. The Great Dismal Swamp held the largest Maroon—the term for Africans and African-Americans who escaped enslavement—community on the continent. Over the course of 300 years, thousands of people lived there. People were born, lived and died there, never leaving the safety of the swamp.
What was life like in the swamp? From the accounts of Africans and African-Americans who were part of the Maroon community there along with recent decades of archaeological work, we have an idea. The community worked together to create the means of subsistence. They raised hogs and chickens, cultivated rice and grew vegetables. They found and repurposed arrowheads and projectile points from previous eras, continually reworking these artifacts until they were no longer of use. Some community members worked for and traded with enslaved canal workers to acquire industrial made tools. Such tools were kept in good repair and used until they were beyond help. Such was the life of making the most with limited outside inputs.
Maroons in the Great Dismal worked to reclaim the spiritual traditions the plantation overseers had sought to eradicate. Though the inhabitants of the swamp hailed from a variety of West African tribes, they shared many memories of the old ways. Together, they reclaimed customs and traditions that harkened back to their ancestral lineages. While Europeans saw the lights of swamp gas as demonic, the Maroons saw soft lights sent by their gods and ancestors, leading them to safety. In the 1700’s, the Maroon community created a council of spiritual leaders, a group of Conjure men and women called the Head. Conjure folk are individuals who act both as spiritual leaders and doctors in communities within some West African tribal and diasporic communities. After the formation of the Head in the Great Dismal, Conjure folk who worked in the surrounding plantations had to travel into the swamp to undergo initiation into the lineage of spirit workers. This network was essential to the conspiracies and insurgencies of the late 1700’s/early 1800’s.
The impenetrable terrain of the swamp made life more secure for the Maroons there than other, less protected locales. While many Maroon communities throughout the African diaspora existed in a near constant state of war, the Great Dismal Maroons were able to focus more of their energy on community labor and subsistence work. There were leaders who helped organize the community for defense, security and who facilitated the resolution of disputes. Together, inhabitants of the Great Dismal worked to create lives in opposition to life within the plantation system. One man who escaped slavery and spent time in the swamp before making his way to Canada said of this community that they acted with one head and one heart to do the work needed to get along in the swamp. He described them as the most accommodating people he had met before or since.
At any point in the history of the Great Dismal Maroon Community, members were in danger of abduction to be sold back into the planation economy. Likewise, plantation owners wanted to know the location of the center of Maroon activity in the swamp. For these reasons, secrecy was an essential component of defense. New members were led on a twisty water way to the hub of the community blindfolded. They were not permitted to know direct ways out of the swamp until they had been in the community for several years.
Over the decades, the swamp became more than a haven for people who had escaped the plantation system, it became a hub for conspiracy against that violent system. From the Tuscarora confederacy, to the multi-racial era, to the time of the Maroons, inhabitants of the swamp worked to sabotage the plantation economy. They rustled cattle, burned plantation structures, destroyed cash crops and liberated enslaved people.
American history books fail to tell the long and storied history of the resistance and campaigns of enslaved Africans and African-Americans. Instead, we learn a false narrative of complacency and acceptance among the enslaved. We are told that a handful of white abolitionists and the Great Emancipator ended the institution of slavery. The truth is, as always, much more complicated and interesting. As long as there have been slaves, there have been slave rebellions, from acts of everyday sabotage to escape to all-out battle. By the late 1700’s, Maroon-led insurrections blossomed throughout the Caribbean and North and South America. On this continent, the Great Dismal Maroon community was central to several decades of anti-slavery uprisings in the surrounding area. Militant Maroons and enslaved rebels found sympathetic white allies to hide caches of guns and ammunition, creating a network of supplies for military campaigns. Anti-slavery factions staged attacks on pro-slavery cities and political centers. As the resistance to the plantation economy grew, the climate of constant unrest and paranoia wore down the plantation owning families and other wealthy whites. Once the civil war began, Maroon communities helped destabilize the Confederacy by raiding their supplies and waging guerilla warfare against the troops. These fierce fighters from the swamp helped defeat confederate forces and their sympathizers in the area around the Great Dismal. After the Civil War and the subsequent abolition of slavery, the Great Dismal Maroon community dissipated. They left the swamp to return to the families and extended communities they had left behind under the promise of a more just, less violent regime. The Jim Crow South would no doubt lead many to question that exodus.
There is a growing interest in Maroon communities and theories of Maronnage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery, for good reason. For within the horror of racialized slavery, these people found a path to freedom, forged a new society and created lives in opposition to the atrocity of Plantation life. In a wild and challenging terrain, surrounded by hostile forces, they lived autonomously for three centuries. We have much to learn from their example.
Today the descendants of the Maroons are still with us
some living in the cracks
many more have blended into the crowds of the nameless.
You may be one, in blood, or spirit, or both.
Search the dark, rough recesses of your heart and mind.
See if you can find traces of that Other America,
the one that did not build its celestial city
on a foundation of cruelty, murder and deceit.
but gathered the exiles of four continents
in its Great Dismal City of Refuge.
—from Legend of the Great Dismal Maroons by James Koehnline
Sakolsky, Ron and Koehnline, James ed. 1993. Gone to Croatan, Origins of North American Dropout Culture. Autonomedia, Brooklym.
Sayers, Daniel O. 2015. A Desolate Place for a Defiant People, The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Saul, Quincy, ed. 2018. Maroon Comix, Origins and Destinies. PM Press, Oakland.
Shoats, Russell Maroon. 2013. Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz. PM Press, Oakland.
Shirley, Neal and Stafford, Saralee. 2015. Dixie Be Damned, 300 Years of Insurrection in the South. AK Press, Oakland, Edinburgh, Baltimore.