A call to the descendants of the maroons

Published 4:45 pm Tuesday, March 2, 2021

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By Tonya S. Swindell

A unique story in our nation’s history sheds light on a surprising mystery that happened locally during the difficult days of slavery. The events were truly amazing. And I learned about them while taking a bike ride with my family where slaves took a chance to be “free.”

During our leisure time, my family took a ride through a beautiful biking trail called the Dismal Swamp Canal. It was amazing for me to think of what happened among those trees in our nation’s history before the 20th century. It changed my whole perspective and I learned a valuable lesson about the resilience of a people who were treated so unequal.

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People lived within that swamp to avoid being caught by hunters who were paid to take human chattel back to slave states. And many of the families who hid, built a community there and lived on islands deep within the swamp until the Civil War came to a halt. The terrain did not seem conducive, but runaway slaves remained elusive. They were people who valued being free; and they were known as “maroon colonies.”

The history of that location was such a revelation. Many people lost their lives while others learned to thrive. Native Americans lived there too. Some whites and freed slaves dwelled there in groups. But runaway blacks simply sought a reprieve from the degradation of slavery.

I could not help but think that in previous centuries, people who look like me chose to live among those trees. They were surrounded by thickened woods while in search of what was good — to escape extreme oppression that was prevalent throughout our nation. As bounty hunters pursued, runaway slaves wore few clothes or no shoes; but they did not let that stop them from making a home where others could not block them.

I could not help but think of the severely cut up feet of families on the run — mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. They hid among tall trees surrounded by crackling leaves that threatened to reveal their location because of the sound that they were making. Despite the mosquitoes, bears and snakes, the maroons did whatever it takes to live somewhat peacefully and have a semblance of being free.

The maroons likely used their hands to capture food and work the land. They built systems to filter the rain and ate meals from crops of grain. They made tools out of sticks and stones to build and protect their homes.

Many historians tend to believe that the maroons decided to leave after they were informed that the Civil War ended. Then they moved out and likely blended — back into society, into towns near you and me.

There is a search for possible descendants who may have heard through oral tradition, about the maroons who lived to tell about their lives near the Dismal Swamp Canal. Many stories may yet be untold, but they still have the potential to unfold into a living tapestry of this unique American story.

Tonya Swindell is an occupational therapist. She is also a teacher for Kingdom Building Institute (kingdombuildinginstitute.org). She can be reached at tonyathewriter1@gmail.com.