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Slavery’s Exiles: The American Maroons and How They Survived

Sylviane A. Diouf shares how slaves escaped and survived in the Southern wilderness. 

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  • 'The Maroons In Ambush On The Dromilly Estate In The Parish Of Trelawney, Jamaica', 1810.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Covering a little-known slice of American history, Sylviane A. Diouf tells the story of the American maroons: slaves who, instead of living in bondage, escaped and trekked off on their own or in maroon communities to build lives of freedom for themselves. But that’s not to say it was an easy task. We know about the runaway slaves from the South who moved up North to free states, even as far as Canada. What about those who remained in hiding among the trees, swamps, and caves of the South?

Using a wide variety of research sources, Diouf portrays the everyday lives of the so-called American maroons. She describes who they were, why they chose the maroon life, the different types of marronage, how individuals lived versus how groups lived together, and the numerous ways in which they equipped themselves for survival. Her detailed book Slavery's Exiles also tells us how the American maroons’ existence impacted the slave resistance movement, and what their definition of freedom actually looked like in practice.

Discover a passage from Slavery's Exiles below, then download the book to keep reading!




Slavery's Exiles

By Sylviane A Diouf

For the people of the woods life really started at night, particularly, as one former maroon stressed, when the moon was not too bright. It was then or in the early morning hours that they looked for victuals. They could gather provisions on their territory, help themselves in the plantations’ outbuildings, and receive supplies in the quarters. Each locale had its risks and rewards, and the maroons generally combined all three sources. 

In the borderlands and deeper into the woods, they gathered nuts, roots, parched corn, persimmons, pawpaws, grapes, and berries. Edinbur Randall lived several months in the Florida woods “on berries, the stem or pith of Palmetto leaves, and other vegetable substances.” It is possible that a few maroons planted vegetables. But given their locations near populated areas, it would have been perilous to cultivate: a garden would have clearly signaled their presence, unless it was located among those that plantation people sometimes grew into the marginal lands.

 Maroons trapped, snared, or shot deer, rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, geese, ducks, opossums, raccoons, wild cats, and wood rats. They fished in rivers, creeks, and swamps, and slaughtered the cattle and hogs that belonged to white farmers and planters but lived half wild, in the woods and marshes. Nobody kept a precise count, and maroons, bondspeople, and poor whites alike preyed on them. Most accounts establish that the provisions maroons managed to get on their own were in general insufficient, both in quantity and diversity. 

In some areas, as the clearing of land increased, what was left of the woods bordering plantations had little game and other foodstuffs and the lizards that rested on fences were game for the most famished or the least skilled. Moreover, a number of items that people grew accustomed to could simply not be found in the wilds. Regularly, then, they reached into the outer limits of the maroon landscape to fill their needs. What they wanted, as Solomon Northup—the free New Yorker kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana— put it, often “escaped from smoke-houses.”

Dora Franks of Mississippi, recounted that her Uncle Alf “would come [at night] out on de place [the plantation] an’ steal enough t’ eat an’ cook it in his little dugout.” Echoing her, a woman from North Carolina said of her own uncle, who was raised by his family in a cave, that he lived on berries and “stold stuff.” Essex, who spent three years in the swamps and forests of Georgia and South Carolina, “did his foraging for food after nightfall. The henroosts along the Savannah he knew much better than some of their owners knew them, and thought it not a crime to levy toll whenever his appetite called for fresh, fat fowl,” recounted the son of his former owner.

“Stold stuff” was an important supply of food for the maroons and the people on the farms and plantations. “Fak’ is dey didn’t call it stealin’, dey called it takin’,” explained Sarah Fitzpatrick of Alabama. This was also the assessment of a maroon: “I did not think it was wrong to steal enough to eat. I thought I worked hard to raise it, and I had a right to it.” John Little, who lived for two years in the woods near his mother’s cabin in North Carolina, acknowledged, “I ate their pigs and chickens,” and added, “I did not spare them.” 

The reappropriation was as much a practical measure to better one’s welfare as it was an act of covert resistance, but the maroons went one step further than the people who still labored in bondage. They took what they needed from the planters and farmers even though they had stopped working for them. Their prior years of free labor were more than ample compensation, in their view, for whatever they pilfered.

In the fields, pastures, and gardens, maroons plucked corn, dug up potatoes, and milked cows. They butchered livestock on site or took them alive. It is difficult to imagine anything more conspicuous than a wanted man walking away from a plantation with a hog or cow in tow, but examples are abundant.

In Louisiana, for instance, Jean Deslandes declared to the court in June 1748 that two weeks earlier he had found one of his cows coming from the woods with a rope around its neck; he was sure the people of the swamps had taken it. As another cow went missing he sent two men to patrol the area behind his plantation, where they saw a group of maroons armed with guns and hatchets, smoking meat. Joel Yancey, Thomas Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello, was incensed at the maroons’ raids. He informed his employer, “Billy is still out and have joind. a gang of Runaways and they are doing great mischief to the neighboring stock, considerable exertions have been made to take them, but without success.” He added, “[H]e and his comraids takes a shoat or lamb every day from us.”

 Similarly, planter Thomas B. Chaplin of Tombee on St. Helena, South Carolina, complained in his journal: “[O]n Friday night, 6th inst. [July 1855], 2 sheep were stolen out of my pen. Followed the tracks the next morning to a swamp … but saw nothing of meat or rogues. I am sure they are two of Isaac Fripp’s Negroes, runaways & the same fellows, by the tracks, that broke into my corn house a while back.”

Recollections about domestic animal thefts by the maroons and their acquaintances are consistent with the planters’ recriminations and denunciations. Arthur Greene stated that Pattin, who had seventeen people to feed, “got food by goin’ bout nights an steal a hog, cow, eranythin’ an’ carry down dar [his family’s cave].” Jack Gist was discovered with a hog, chickens, and geese, he had appropriated much earlier.

A live animal offered much more than whatever meat an individual or a small group could carry on their back or their head. The piglet, once fattened, would supply a great number of meals. The strategy of taking live animals, dangerous as it was, enabled the maroons to abstain from raiding for longer periods of time, thus increasing their chances of remaining undetected.

A major problem for the nightly visitors was the presence of guard dogs on the farms and plantations, and they had to find ways to neutralize them. The fact that maroons were able to regularly walk the grounds without the dogs sounding the alarm made Solomon Northup wonder. “It is a fact,” he stated, “which I have never been able to explain, that there are those whose tracks the hounds will absolutely refuse to follow.”

Emily Burke of New Hampshire, who lived in Georgia in the 1840s, had a down-to-earth explanation. “You may ask where the watch dogs are all this time, when these depredations are going on in the fields and yards,” she wrote. “[T]hose who are on thieving excursions, are careful to go where they are acquainted with the dogs.” Harry Grimes from North Carolina concurred: “I had been in the habit of making much of them [the dogs], feeding them, [so] they would not follow me.” Even more intimate with the plantation hounds was Jake of Greenville, South Carolina. He lived in the cane thickets, going back to the quarters at night to get food; and when it was cold, he slept with the dogs to keep warm.

With the dogs silent, the maroons could start their cautious approach to the most desired outbuildings where meat and other hard-to-get products were stored. All the activities in the fields, and hog and cow pens, regardless of how risky, paled in comparison to those that took place in the more exposed and tightly controlled territory. 

The landscape surrounding the Big House was, by design, not conducive to secrecy. It was mostly bare, except for flowerbeds and decorative trees that stood at regular intervals. Treading on that ground was to expose oneself with little chance for cover; so every incursion had to be very carefully planned and executed. Despite the danger, even kitchens were visited, sometimes with the complicity of the cooks. Burke was aware that maroons went into the same kitchen night after night, to cook their stolen vegetables and meat. You may ask … why the cook did not lock the kitchen door? … the very cook who is so loud in her vociferations about the operations that have been going on all night in her kitchen, in all probability is accessory to the whole affair.

Some people were quite inventive when trying to get food from their old places. One man, arguably a unique case, devised an audacious plan to get his hands on provisions. He killed snakes and dried and strung them around his neck, his wrists, and his waist. In this garb, looking wild and fearsome, he walked openly on to the plantation. The planter’s wife ordered his companions to catch him but they refused, telling her they were scared. It was as good an excuse as any to support him without getting whipped for not following orders. The man grabbed meat and meal and went back to the swamps. It was said that he was never caught.

Although one might think that a few people foraging for food could not inflict much harm, it goes without saying that the borderland maroons’ thefts came in addition to those perpetrated by runaways, hinterland maroons, and enslaved people themselves. The exasperated Patrick Mackay of Hermitage plantation on Sapelo Island ran a notice for three months that exposes vividly the kind of activities that could go on at night on some estates:

WHEREAS the Subscriber’s plantation, lately Chief Justice Grover’s, now named Hermitage, is grievously and insufferably annoyed and disturbed by negroes, who come there by land and water in the night-time, and not only rob, steal, and carry off hogs, poultry, sheep, corn, and his potatoes, but create very great disorders amongst his slaves, by debauching his slave wenches, who have husbands, the property of the subscriber; and some are so audacious to debauch his very house wenches: These therefore are to give notice to all proprietors of slaves, that, after the 16th September 1763, the subscriber is determined to treat all negroes that shall be found within his fences, after sun-set, and before sun-rise, as thieves, robbers, and invaders of his property, by shooting them, and for that intent he has hired a white man properly armed for that purpose.

The quantity of goods carried off by just two men, Tom and Patterson of South Carolina, gives an idea of the damage that determined and well-organized individuals could inflict in a single night. They made off with one piece of pork, a piece of bacon, sixty pounds of flour and molasses, three pairs of pants, two coats, one shirt, one bag, one pocketbook, and one handkerchief. They managed to carry their loot to the edge of another plantation. In Louisiana, three men got away with three shirts, two pairs of pants, one jacket, some money, a petticoat and a woman’s chemise, a sheet, a woolen blanket, three sacks, a bucket, a sifter, half a barrel of rice, a third of a barrel of salt, two pounds of meat, some fresh cheese, and five barrels of corn.

The mention of clothes being part of these men’s booty is noteworthy. Maroons, whether they lived on the borderlands or in the hinterland, were constantly in search of clothes. Those who had left with only what they had on were hard pressed to replace their rags, as Edinbur Randall explained: “At length my clothes were nearly all scratched off by the brush and briars; my torn shirt and coarse blanket were the only pieces of clothing I had left.” After he escaped several times and was either caught or returned, Charles Thompson of Mississippi went to the woods in a piteous state: “I tore my already much-worn clothes almost in shreds,” he recalled, “and lacerated my flesh severely, especially on my arms and legs.” At best, the maroons who settled close to their homeplaces could get access to the clothes they had left behind before going to the woods. As planter Edward Thomas acknowledged, “At night they would leave their hiding places and sneak to their respective cabins to get a change of clothing from mother or wife.”

How quickly clothes could disintegrate and to what lengths a maroon could go to get his hands on a new set can be inferred by an ad posted in the summer of 1777 in the North Carolina Gazette. Two men, Dublin and Burr, were hired out to Richard Blackledge on February 12 and immediately escaped. Because they were “supposed to be lurking about committing many Acts of Felony,” they were outlawed. Anyone could legally shoot them on sight. Dublin, about thirty, was a newly arrived African who had “never since surrendered, or been taken.” Burr, sixteen and country-born, returned to Blackledge shortly after he left, but he was already “quite naked.” After being clothed, he escaped again.

The maroons’ shortage of clothes was so well-known that each time somebody ran away from the McWhorter plantation in Greene County, Georgia, Aunt Suke would go to the spring, ostensibly to do her laundry, but in reality to leave old clothes there for the fugitives. Clothes were hard to procure and the fact that maroons sometimes used sand in lieu of soap—also a rare item—to clean them did not help in their conservation.

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