The Real Resistance To Slavery in North Amerikkka
Long before the founding of the country, Africans were transported to what later became known as the United States of America. Some came as free individuals and companions of the Europeans from Spain and elsewhere. They were ship guides, sailors, soldiers, explorers, and adventurers. Others, however, were “enslaved” workers.
The earliest known enslaved Africans were brought by the Spanish to serve in a colony that was set up in what is today the Carolinas. There, within a couple of years (around 1528) the survivors are reported to have “rebelled and escaped to dwell amongst the Indians.”
In the mid 1500s, an even less-known but larger group came as “free colonizers” from South America. They numbered at least 300 and had been formerly enslaved but were part of a successful rebellion and takeover by enslaved Africans and English and “mixed-race” privateers, or pirates.
They, along with a larger group of *Indigenous South Americans were recruited by England to help shore up the failing English colony at Roanoke, Virginia/North Carolina. They eventually abandoned Roanoke and melted into the countryside — never to be heard from again.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Danish vied to control North, Central, and South America as well as the Caribbean islands. At that time, however, the Amerindians — contrary to popular myth — were still the strongest military power in all of those areas, not discounting the breakup and conquest of the large Aztec and Inca empires. Thus, Europeans were forced to use a strategy of “divide and conquer,” forming alliances of convenience with and using the various Amerindian ethnic groups and confederations to fight each other, primarily to enslave the defeated and sell them to the Europeans, keep all of them off balance while the European colonies were weak and, finally, to police the enslaved Africans and “indentured” whites.
Outside of a small number of coastal enclaves where the Europeans could concentrate their power with the aid of ships and cannons, the only leverage they had over the militarily strong Amerindians was the use of their “trade goods.” Many Amerindians deeply desired these goods and eventually allowed themselves to become “enslavers” — on a massive scale — in order to acquire the metal utensils, tools, jewelry, cloth, blankets, mirrors, guns and gunpowder, alcoholic spirits, knick knacks and other goods; either for use, status or in the case of the guns, powder, hatchets and knives — for sheer survival!
It is true that the Amerindians practiced a form of enslavement prior to any contact with Europeans, however slavery’s overall effect on their societies was relatively mild, mainly because although the Amerindians practiced farming on a broad scale, the plantation farming introduced by the Europeans, which demanded huge numbers of tightly disciplined and overworked enslaved people, was unheard of… and undesired.
Ironically, the Amerindians were successfully manipulated to become deeply involved in conflicts with neighboring groups, the same way that on the continent of Africa vast numbers of people and wide expanses of land were simultaneously falling victim to an equally disastrous cycle of wars to enslave people for trade goods and weapons to defend themselves against enslavement.
During this early period, race, as it’s viewed today, made little difference. After all. one could find Africans, Amerindians and whites all equally enslaved on the same plantations, in the towns and on ships. History shows clearly that all three cooperated with each other in rebellions, escapes and other enterprises. Indeed, such cooperation was always dreaded by the slave masters and was one of the primary reasons that the enslavement of whites and Amerindians was eventually phased out all over the western hemisphere.
Amerindians and whites found it easier to escape enslavement. The Amerindians knew the land and also had kinfolk to help or seek out. The whites could better blend in with free people, or join others moving to colonize other parts of the land. The Africans, on the other hand, had no such advantage. They either found sympathetic Amerindians to help them, or had to try to find and join with other runaways, called “Maroons,” fugitive enslaved people of North, Central and South America and the Caribbean islands who had set up their own communities.
Africans continually escaped enslavement, from as far back as 1502 when they were first brought to this hemisphere, and thus, Maroons were always active to a greater or lesser degree. The early Maroons were Africans, whites and Amerindians, and were viewed as a major threat to the entire institution of plantation slavery. In certain areas they threatened the elite colonizers domination and control of their colonies. In the elites’ calculation, any large Maroon community stood a good chance of uniting the Amerindians not addicted to their trade goods, with both the indentured and “poor whites,” and also the enslaved Africans — all of whom heavily outnumbered the landowning and other upper class whites.
This writer, contrary to popular practice, will not dwell on or attempt to outline the innumerable ways individuals resisted slavery, or detail the names of the multitude of known actors — except for a few that cannot go unmentioned. No doubt, one surefire way of mis-educating people of all races about the real resistance to slavery has been, and continues to be, the highlighting of the most spectacular instances of resistance, and afterwards burying the oppressed in the depressing day to day inhumanity of the slave system… a method that cannot help but sour most people’s desire to learn more about the overall subject.
Instead, I will help you see the more or less “hidden” resistance to slavery in North America by outlining three major, long running, and ultimately successful efforts to resist and overcome that system. Then, once you see how much crucial historical data has been kept under wraps, I’m confident that you will be stimulated to go beyond what is being taught in search of further knowledge on the subject, as well as deciding what lessons that knowledge holds for us today.
The successful 150-plus years of Maroon resistance centered on the Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina; The equally successful 150-plus year struggle of the Black Seminole Maroons and their Amerindian allies in Florida and throughout all of the areas they were forced to travel, and, The Underground Railroad of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The Dismal Swamp
The awesome, defiant and legendary Dismal Swamp straddles the eastern sections of southern Virginia and northern North Carolina. Even today it contains vast expanses of extremely harsh and dangerous wilderness areas, although much of the original swamp has been drained.
In the 15th – 19th centuries, however, it stretched at least one hundred miles one way, and sixty miles the other; which means it was almost as large as the state of Delaware. It was recorded to contain everything within it: from poisonous snakes and other reptiles. [text obscured] bears, big cats and insects unknown to the early colonists. Its swampy marshes and bogs were so treacherous until only the most daring and knowledgeable — or foolhardy — Europeans would venture far into them.
From all accounts, the first known Maroons to occupy and use this swamp as a place of concealment, a natural fortress, a liberated territory and a home were Amerindians. They were, sadly, escaping from the enslavement that had all but engulfed the eastern and southern sections of the continent. They were joined there by kinfolk and other Amerindians who had suffered defeats in wars with rival groups acting in league with European colonists.
It’s unclear whether the Amerindians were first joined by runaway Africans or whites. One would assume that white runaways would seek out more hospitable surroundings, but below I’ll lay out a much misunderstood social phenomenon that will help explain such an oversight.
It hardly matters though, as historical record reflects repeated examples of Amerindians, Africans and whites all using the swamp as a refuge from as far back as the early 1700s.
These early Maroons were able to overcome language barriers, mistrust, and the growing influence of racial doctrines that eventually evolved into the white supremacist cultural construct outside of the swamp. That is not to say that they didn’t have any racial or ethnic prejudices. It’s absolutely clear, however, that they overcame them enough to be able to live, support, protect, fight and die for each other for well over 100 years.
Obviously, there was also intermixing. Between the Amerindians and Africans it proceeded to the point where it became virtually impossible to know any difference between them. The whites on the other hand, though also mixing with the Africans and Amerindians, still by and large remained phenotypically Caucasoid*. That, however, worked to everyone’s advantage because the white Maroons and their descendants could still interact with the surrounding white society.
Indeed, white Maroons largely came to occupy areas of the swamp that bordered on the surrounding white-dominated society, while the other Maroons stayed in the interior. Such an arrangement helped to establish and sustain lively trade that was carried on by those in the interior, who would hunt, fish and trap wild game for sale through their white Maroon allies. Also, wood products were produced in abundance in the interior. So much so, until it began to effect the local economy, which caused George Washington — who would later become President — to find himself in hot water after being accused of using Dismal Swamp Maroons to provide his private company with wooden house shingles.
Interestingly, the white Maroons were probably the first to be labeled with the “poor white trash” derogatory epithet. When reflecting on the social evolution of things, consider the following — after escaping indentured servitude, one had to remain ever wary of being found out and returned. Over time, therefore, those who did not melt into the broader white society took on a self-protective, insular, standoffish, hostile to strangers, semi-outlaw mentality. Assuredly, they would trade with the broader white society, but they occupied (if they could be said to be “occupiers” of any permanent places at all) their own hardscrabble areas — places so inhospitable that they attracted only scorn. Generally, they wouldn’t dedicate themselves to being reliable employees of any land owner, mill owner, ship captain or even slave catcher! Plus, they were known by all as being under none of white society’s other social restraints… so the elites labeled them not “poor whites,” but since they were seen as unable to be restrained, unreliable and useless = trash! It is only much later that the epithet would be used to shame and discipline poor whites in general.
In fact this same phenomenon came to play itself out a little differently further west in the Appalachian mountains and foothills, except there the many descendants of runaway indentured whites came to be called “hillbillies.” Unquestionably, the latter’s legendary clannishness, hostility to all outsiders, secretiveness and fierce protectiveness of their kin and tiny communities, as well as the disdain and economic isolation and poverty that has systematically been imposed on them, leaves very little doubt as to their history!
Although they are generally viewed as being ultra-racists, placing their racism in the context of their hostility to and vision of outsiders as enemies… puts their “racism” in a different category all together. Furthermore, real hillbilly culture does not see itself as being in league with the dominant culture or system. Their loyalty is ultimately to their own small clans and communities. And all law enforcement authorities know it!
In addition, its such elements that bring a historically ultra-militant and violent posture to labor disputes between coalminers and mine owners, police and National Guards in Appalachia, and who have always been diehard operators of illegal liquor stills, and who nowadays are major marijuana growers. Yet, the primary difference between today’s hillbillies and the white Maroons of the Dismal Swamp (up until the end of the Civil War) is that the latter were the close and trusted allies of the African and Amerindian Maroons.
So, up until 1776 the Dismal Swamp Maroons lived as free people, protected by the harshness of the swamp and well organized and capable defenders from amongst their collective ranks: each Maroon settlement had its own armed members that were responsible for patrolling its surroundings, warning of intruders, decoying or attacking any hostiles — while giving the other Maroons enough time to escape to other pre-planned and built up settlements. And in the event of sustained, heavy searches by outside militia, posses or bounty hunters, the Maroons had gradually evolved a system of coordinating their defenses and a unified command structure — which was known to have been headed by individuals from all of the various racial and ethnic groups — and which saw its mission as one of driving the hostiles out of the swamp, or outlasting any intrusion. An attack of that nature was dealt with as an attack on all!
Moreover, within the swamp, the Maroons were unbeatable! The swamp itself was so treacherous until it could not be traveled without fear of being swallowed up at every turn. There were fast moving rivers concealed by thick vegetation, quicksand, heavy undergrowth encased mud, deadly sharp thickets and concealed protuberances, poisonous insects, snakes, reptiles [obscured text] and big cats. Then, there was the Maroon laid snares and traps, along with the possibility of being ambushed by the Maroon guerillas, who would lead pursuers into even more treacherous terrain that only they knew how to traverse. In fact, the Maroons developed and passed down effective ways to cross otherwise un-crossable terrain by using methods certain animals would employ.
Remember, we’re talking about a swamp that was one hundred miles one way, and sixty miles the other… The bottom line is, at no point in recorded history did outsiders succeed in capturing or killing all or even substantial numbers of the Dismal Swamp Maroons, or forcing them out of their lair. The outsiders even tried to drain sections of the swamp for commercial and travel reasons, but even that left an area almost the size of a small state.
Therefore, when the colonists’ efforts to shake off England in their so-called War of Independence reached the swamp, both sides found fully trained and tested militias among the Maroons. Only one side, however, offered anything of value. England, through its loyalists in Virginia and the Carolinas let it be known that anyone fighting for the British would be guaranteed freedom from slavery and indentured servitude, and could also look forward to dividing up some of the estates of any plantation owners in rebellion.
So, once the word got around, literally tens of thousands answered England’s call: Maroons, enslaved individuals from the plantations and towns, and poor whites who wanted to help break the strangle hold that the plantation elites had on the south.
The Dismal Swamp was not the only place that Maroons could be found. There were, astonishingly enough, thousands upon thousands of other Maroons throughout the backwoods and foothills of all of the states from Delaware to Georgia (Florida is a special case that will be discussed later). All characteristically lived in fiercely independent and semi-outlaw states, some the forefathers and mothers of the Appalachian hillbillies. Huge numbers of them answered England’s call and eventually received arms and went on to fight the entire war on England’s side.
Although most of today’s “teachers” of history are fond of reminding everyone that Blacks provided over five thousand fighters to the colonist cause during that struggle, they hardly ever highlight that at least ten times that number fought for England. Or, more accurately, fought to get the plantation ruling-elite and their followers off of their backs and out of power. Saying 50,000 plus Blacks fought for England is not historically correct. However it can be said that those 50,000 plus Africans, Amerindians, whites and mixed race individuals’ aspirations were closer to those of the overwhelming majority of the enslaved and oppressed Blacks of their time than to the rest of the colonial society.
Even so, England was forced to grant the colonists independence — not due to losing the war in most of the areas that saw massive Maroon participation (southern Virginia to Georgia), but because George Washington and his army held on in the northern states until France joined the war on their side. Afterwards, Washington and the French naval fleet trapped a major British force at Yorktown, Virginia, causing England to abandon the fight in the colonies in order to better carry out its worldwide struggle with France and other European imperial powers.
So, when the English navy evacuated what would become the United States, within its ships were hundreds of Maroons and their families. They were transported to English controlled islands in the Caribbean and to Canada. Thus, today one can find their descendants in places like Nova Scotia and the Bahamas.
Of course, although their cause was not successful outside of the Dismal Swamp, the surviving Maroons had absolutely no intention of becoming slaves! The Maroons, therefore, retreated back into their all but impregnable fortress within the swamp. Others migrated further south to join up with the Maroons already in Florida or the French claimed lands as far west as present day Louisiana; others still went into the Appalachians, mixing with the Amerindians there or trying to live as cut off from the dominant white controlled society as possible. Consequently, between the end of the Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War, the Dismal Swamp Maroons held onto their freedom inside of the swamp redoubt.
It was later discovered, moreover, that the Maroons who lived inside of the deepest sections of the swamp had located enough dry grounds to build any number of
of settlements that included well constructed living quarters and systems of log covered and otherwise concealed pathways. Some of these homes, nevertheless, were built on high platforms for protection from wild animals and sudden changes in the swamp’s water level. Furthermore, enough useful ground was found in order to plant crops and grow food, which, in addition to their fishing, hunting and trapping, allowed them to independently sustain their food needs.
On the other hand, the white Maroons living on the edges of the swamp relied on its still heavy undergrowth to conceal their homes which were usually separate structures connected by winding, all but invisible pathways. An outsider could travel through these areas and never run into their dwellings.
As mentioned, those in the interior and those on the edges of the swamp cooperated in facilitating trade with the surrounding white dominated society. This means of sustenance was maintained in addition to a certain amount of brigandage, mainly cattle rustling, for which the Maroons bred a ferocious line of dogs.
Needless to say, the collective Maroons under no circumstances would allow their people to go without the things needed to remain alive and safe, even if that meant mounting larger raids on the surrounding areas and coping with the resulting intensified searches of the swamp.
But mostly, from the end of the Revolutionary War up until the Civil War the thousands of Maroons known to occupy the swamp lived an independent existence, only periodically interrupted by mostly futile incursions and searches by posses, militias or bounty hunters.
Freedom fighter Nat Turner and his rebels were headed for the Virginia side of the swamp, but their rebellion was suppressed before they could get there (although some may have made it). More than anything, the Dismal Swamp of those times was viewed and accepted like it was a foreign, independent, hostile territory. It was a place, above all, never to venture into for fear of its fabled terrain and elusive, crafty and untamed inhabitants. It was a “spooky place,” or so the surrounding enslaved Blacks were taught to believe, which over time kept most of them from seeking refuge there amongst the Maroons. Thus, the losses that the plantations’ elites suffered because of the Maroon presence in the swamp were not enough to alter the elites’ course, so the Maroons came to accept and absorb what they couldn’t otherwise change.
When the cataclysmic events surrounding the beginning of the Civil War reached the Maroons of the Dismal Swamp, a new generation of Maroon guerrillas thrust themselves forward and almost immediately began to play a little known strategic role against the slave-holding system. Emerging from the North Carolina side of the swamp in particular, the Maroon fighters would eventually become so numerous and militarily powerful that they totally dominated and controlled whole counties and areas of the state. Of note is Henry Berry Lowery, who was one of their most effective leaders. After recruiting heavily amongst Blacks and Amerindians, mounted on fast horses, his forces would dominate large sections of the state for ten years, even after the war was over.
How, one may ask, could that happen in the very heart of the south?
It is true that since the end of the Revolutionary War the Maroons were never numerous or militarily strong enough to venture out of the swamp except by stealth or during quick pinpoint raids. The Civil War, however, forced the majority of the white males who supported the slave system to join the fight against the Union Army elsewhere. Assuredly, it was believed enough able-bodied men would be left behind to keep enslaved Blacks docile and terrorized. While that might have worked for a while, the Maroons expanded their numbers by recruiting among Amerindians, fed up “poor whites” and other Blacks who were beginning to flee in larger parties. Plus, one must remember that all of the Maroons were masters at using guerilla tactics: concealment, living off the land, improvising traps and deadly snares, the ambush, lightening raids and retreats. After proving their fighting qualities, they could gradually depend on more and more of the enslaved Blacks, poor whites and Amerindians providing them food, information about the weaknesses of the whites protecting slavery, munitions and recruits.
So, within two years of the outbreak of the war the Maroons had pulled together enough available forces. The slavers, in fact, sent official documents to the Confederate government announcing their complete withdrawal from their cause and the Civil War altogether! Afterwards, in those “liberated areas,” the Maroons and their allies set up a rudimentary framework for a new social order that the rest of the South would not know of until the Reconstruction era.
Even so, in other areas of North Carolina and Virginia the Maroons faced stiffer resistance. On the Virginia side of the swamp, undoubtedly, they had to be more aggressively combative simply because of the swamp’s closeness to the heart of Confederate productions at Portsmouth and that it was not far from the Confederate seat of government in Richmond. The latter, in particular, was always simultaneously being threatened by strong Union forces.
Therefore, these Maroons were able to tie down and neutralize sizeable numbers of Confederate troops through the use of their well honed guerilla hit-and-run tactics. The Maroons, even when unable to defeat the Confederates militarily, still found other ways to strategically undermine their war effort, the morale of the troops and their entire infrastructure. Due to their effective use of the Dismal Swamp, any Confederate officer
worth his salt knew not to send his men into Maroon territory!
Certainly, the Maroons’ most effective blows came from their helping to liberate multitudes of enslaved Blacks! This is a subject that’s rarely written about. But, if one wants to understand where the tens of thousands of mostly Black Union soldiers emerged from in those dark days when the North needed a lot of fresh troops in order to break the Confederates’ will, then one must turn to the so-called “contrabands” – the thousands upon thousands of enslaved Blacks who were running away from bondage. Indeed, these contrabands provided the overwhelming majority of the two hundred thousand Blacks who fought for the Union, and the Maroons of North Carolina and Virginia played a major role in that undertaking.
Just imagine all of Harriet Tubman’s exploits in liberating hundreds of captives, combined with John Brown’s vision of the wholesale escape of captives with the guns taken in his failed raid at Harper’s Ferry, then multiply that hundreds of times. Only then is it possible to grasp the magnitude of the numbers of captives liberated by the Maroons.
Secondarily, the Maroons’ experience in cattle rustling was put to good use, causing the Confederacy in their areas of operation to begin to suffer starvation.
True to their loyalties, the white Maroons who joined the Union force fought in the segregated “colored” units, although they didn’t have to.
After the end of the war, the Maroons would fully emerge from the swamp and play important roles in local affairs. Certainly, once one becomes knowledgeable of the hidden parts of history, s/he can better understand just why a country dominated by a white supremacist culture and institutions would go out of its way to keep this history undercover.
Books to read:
Hidden Americans: Maroons of Virginia and the Carolinas, Hugo Prosper Learning (Routledge, 1995)
Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, Richard Price (Johns Hopkins Press, 1996)
To Be Free: Studies in American Negro History, Herbert Aptheker (International Publishers, 1968)
The Exiles of Florida, J. R. Giddings (Black Classic Press, 1997 – originally published in 1858)
Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, William Loren Katz (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1997)
Underground Railroad, William Still (Dover, 2007 – originally published in 1872)