- 1729, June 29 – Virginia Governor reports attack by whites on Maroon settlement in Blue Ridge Mountains
1825, June 25 – Capture of Bob Ferebee, leader of Maroons in Virginia.
1858-59 May 8-10 – John Brown & Enslaved Afrikans Planned to Set up Maroon Communities in Virginia Appalachian Mountains
By studying the slave revolts of the Caribbean region, Brown learned a great deal about how to properly conduct guerilla warfare. A key element to the prolonged success of this warfare was the establishment of Maroon communities, which are essentially colonies of runaway slaves. As a contemporary article notes, Brown would use these establishments to “retreat from and evade attacks he could not overcome. He would maintain and prolong a guerilla war, of which… Haiti afforded” an example
The idea of creating Maroon communities was the impetus for the creation of John Brown’s “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States,” which helped to detail how such communities would be governed. However, the idea of Maroon colonies of slaves is not an idea exclusive to the Caribbean region. In fact, Maroon communities riddled the southern United States between the mid-1600s and 1864, especially theGreat Dismal Swamp region of Virginia and North Carolina. Similar to the Haitian Revolution, the Seminole Wars, fought in modern-day Florida, saw the involvement of Maroon communities, which although outnumbered by native allies were more effective fighters.
Outlaw Bob Ferebee & TheGreat Dismal Swamp Maroons
Dismal Swamp Maroons
The Great Dismal Swamp is over one thousand square miles today. In the time of the Maroons it was over two thousand square miles. Its beginning is on a hill from which seven rivers spring. Since the overall area is rather flat, a swamp developed. Several islands are above water level and villages developed on several. Lake Drummond, Paradise Old Fields, and Scratch Hill (mixed swamp and pine barrens) are prominent geologic features. Until the drainage of a large portion of the swamp in the twentieth century, there was an area of giant reeds known as the Green sea. The water of the swamp is black in color, highly acidic, and rumored to have health benefits. Sailors would fill kegs with it for sea voyages since it would stay fresh far longer than regular fresh water. The population of the area probably was never greater than two or three thousand individuals. Virginia Beach and the seer Edgar Cayce (called the sleeping prophet by followers) are the main things the area is known for today.
Life in the swamp was hard. Everything had to be made in the swamp and there was little area suitable for farming. Beds were made of fur and fallen trees and furniture was all hand-hewn. Houses were cleaner than the rural norm and man-made paths led to settlements deeper in the swamp. These did not connect with roads leading out of the swamp and had to be traveled with local guides, thus Maroons worried little from outsiders ambushing them. The developed body armor from turkey feathers stuffed into vests and carried on silver-smithing in the swamp. Shingle manufacture was an enterprise of the border areas, but no record of where the shingle’s Dismal Swamp wood source has come to light. The economic base of the Maroons was communal and they shared housing, food, and household supplies. They worked in gangs for the good of the community and all but the ill and pregnant shared in the work. Settlements were scattered, not clustered, and if one was discovered others likely would not be found easily.
In the Dismal Swamp region on the Virginia/North Carolina border, many slaves and indentured servants escaped to seek freedom. The area was also at the edge of a trading region. These Maroons fought many guerrilla wars to keep their freedom. The most famous was the Maroon war of 1801-1802. They attacked Norfolk, Virginia to free slaves held at the local jail and attacked the Pasquotank Militia. The leader of the Dismal Swamp Maroons at this time was named Peter the Second. He was named after Peter Legba – the Voodon messenger of the Spirits. The Maroons fought in the war of 1812 and gained a leader from a free Black community named Captain Mingo. In the swamp a community named Black Mingo Pocosin developed through his leadership. Some Tuscarora Indians lived in the village and contributed to the heritage that developed.
1823 to 1824 saw the greatest guerrilla warfare in the area since the Revolutionary war. The Maroon leader at that time was Bob Ferebee. Auntie Ferebee was a spiritual leader for the Maroons. One branch of the Ferebees became Maroon leaders and the other became prominent as one of the first families of the white upper South. Indian Town was originally called Culong after a vanquished North Carolina Indian Tribe and was the center for the White Ferebee clan.
The Nat Turner Revolt likely had Dismal Swamp aid since it occurred twenty-five miles from the area. However, Nat Turner proclaimed no aid from outside his area and historians have found no clear linkage. However, Turner and others in the Revolt did plan to retreat to the Dismal Swamp if defeated.
1831 to 1851 saw the development of the Dismal Swamp as a spiritual center. Leaders such as Father Gamby Gholar directed practitioners of Afician mysticism (a religion of the use of sorcery and spiritual powers for benign purposes). He held office for over thirty years. Father Alick, a Black Methodist minister, succeeded him. Father Alick was able to be a leader inside and outside the Dismal swamp, a bee keeper, and served as the area mailman. Father Alick also owned a mule that he claimed was Nat Turner’s mule. The mule had the uncanny ability to climb trees so some claimed it could fly!
The next great leader was Osman. David Hunter Strother was able to draw a charcoal sketch of him in 1856. Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) used him as the model for her Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. He died of a painful snakebite before the War Between the States.
The Maroons sided with the North in the War. Records of people in the Dismal Swamp are mostly twentieth century. A family Bible from the area dates to 1635 and has record of a Nansemond Indian linage for settlers from the Northern part of the Dismal Swamp. Wolf and bear trapping and canoe building techniques came from Native American influences as did carrying rabbit’s feet for good luck. However, dream reading, numerology and other religious practices have West Africa or European roots. A Congo Village was found when a portion of the swamp was drained. It was one of the largest and earliest settlements. Built on stilts, it survives as a model of other undiscovered Maroon villages. Besides the stilts, other Maroon villages probably looked similar to it. The leader of the village was King Jonah. He held court and was born on a litter and carried in a procession like in Bantu villages in West Africa.
The Maroons were religious as a whole, but the swamp itself was held as spiritual and their spirituality may derive from that. A group called the seven-fingered glister developed the hereditary spiritual leadership mentioned above. The seven rivers that the swamp grew from gave impetus to a seven-headed hydra-like leadership. If one head was captured, another could grow in its place. Each member was elected for fourteen year terms. Areas of the swamp held special significance, such as Paradise Old Field being a center for Serpent King worship. The symbol of the seven-finger glister was the snake. Besides the seven-headed glister, the area had ministers and witches as spiritual leaders. Grace Sherwood, a victim of a 1706 witch trial, hailed from the swamp. In popular folklore the area was haunted and a center of black magic and supernatural activity. In truth, Maroon freedom was the main fear that the swamp held for area Whites.
Nat Turner & The Great Dismal Swamp Maroons Wanted to a Black Nation
The white residents of Norfolk and other communities near the swamp were terrified of being attacked by the swamp’s maroons. Instead, they got Nat Turner’s insurrection of 1831—a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in which more than 50 whites were killed and then at least 200 blacks killed in reprisal. Turner was planning to hide in the Dismal Swamp with his followers, recruit the maroons and more slaves, and then emerge to overthrow white rule. But his rebellion was suppressed after two days, and Turner, after two months in hiding, was captured and hanged.
What became of the Dismal Swamp maroons? Olmsted thought that very few were left by the 1850s, but he stayed near the canals and didn’t venture into the interior. Sayers has evidence of a thriving community at the nameless site all the way up to the Civil War. “That’s when they came out,” he says. “We’ve found almost nothing after the Civil War. They probably worked themselves back into society as free people.”