Thomas on Morris, 'Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp'

J. Brent Morris
Adam Thomas

J. Brent Morris. Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022. 256 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6825-3

Reviewed by Adam Thomas (Western Carolina University) Published on H-Environment (May, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

Long a subject of interest for historians of slavery and resistance, the study of marronage—fugitivity from slavery—has benefited in recent scholarship from renewed interest in enslaved people’s tactical knowledge of geography. Work by scholars such as Vincent Brown, Crystal Eddins, Marjoleine Kars, and Shauna Sweeny has shown how enslaved people negotiated their environments, whether mountains, forest, or urbans spaces, to pursue and prolong escape from bondage. Much of the work on marronage in the British North American colonies and United States has focused on the Great Dismal Swamp, a vast area of morass and thicket stretching from Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay to North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound. Sylviane A. Diouf, Marcus P. Nevius, and Kathryn Benjamin Golden have all detailed key features of the refuge that fugitives created from this ostensibly inhospitable landscape. J. Brent Morris’s Dismal Freedom adds important new insight to this growing historiography of the swamp and its maroons.

Morris sets his examination apart from this prior work in two key ways. First, he encourages a shift away from previous theoretical definitions of marronage in terms of how long maroons planned or managed to remain in fugitivity, the geographical distance they created from sites of enslavement, or their degree of withdrawal from capitalist modes of production. Instead, marronage in the Dismal Swamp should be seen to include “the whole of [participants’] ‘fugitive’ experiences.” This capacious definition, emphasizing “the act of marooning as a verb,” accounts for those absent from enslavement briefly or permanently, whether they “settle[d] into a quiet life in the wilderness” or took “up arms against their oppressor” (p. 5). Second, Dismal Freedom makes extensive use of archaeological evidence produced by the Great Dismal Swamp Landscape Study (GDSLS). Working on the project since 2009, Morris has secured access to information available to “no other historian” (p. 10).

The book proceeds chronologically, beginning with the natural history of the swamp’s formation through to slavery’s end in the aftermath of the Civil War. After Europeans invaded the land they would come to call Virginia and North Carolina, the swamp posed a direct challenge to their Enlightenment-inspired vision for the region. While “landowners composed landscapes … to make clear planters’ dominance over nature and society,” their inability to drain the swamp and clear its forests made clear that “the ideal ordered world of the Tidewater could never fully be achieved” (pp. 44, 45). Just as the landscape of the Dismal defied the will of colonizing enslavers, so too did the Indigenous and African people who made the swamp their home.

Morris skillfully frames the early part of his narrative in terms of an unresolved tension between these white authorities who wished to survey, subdue, and exploit the swamp—including figures such as William Byrd II and George Washington—and the subaltern subjects who used the Dismal as cover to live beyond the reach of such men’s power. The title of “North American Maroon Wars” for the chapter covering 1775 to 1831 is provocative considering, as Morris acknowledges, no campaign by Dismal maroons reached the scale of events usually accorded that name in places like Jamaica or Suriname (p. 69). Yet the chapter documents more than enough examples of attacks on enslaver power to justify Morris’s choice. Campaigns by maroons such Tom Copper, General Peter, and Pompey Little proved so numerous and frequent over this period that a permanent state of warfare arguably existed between the maroons and their would-be captors. The most destructive war against slavery in the area—the Southampton County uprising named for Nat Turner—was ultimately enacted by those enslaved beyond the Dismal’s boundaries. But the swamp nonetheless offered sanctuary to those fleeing white retaliatory violence and raised for enslavers the “terrifying possibility, and not at all an unreasonable one” that an army of fugitives stood ready to destroy them (p. 89).

Dismal Freedom then departs from its chronological trajectory for a flagship chapter analyzing the nature of maroon life within the swamp. It is here that Morris makes the most extensive and effective use of archaeological evidence from the GDSLS. The result is crucial new knowledge of the swamp’s interior, confirming that “self-emancipators formed dozens of separate communities,” some of which endured over centuries (p. 94). Like the initial focus on the geological and climatic formation of the swamp, this chapter, showing how fugitives utilized this unique landscape for escape and survival, will be of particular interest to environmental historians.

Morris develops this analysis by distinguishing between three groups. “Fringe maroons” settled primarily at the edges of the swamp and interacted most with those outside it (p. 97). “Deep swamp maroons” formed communities on or near “dozens of mesic islands many miles into the … interior” (p. 108), exchanging information and goods via a “cross-swamp reciprocity network” (p. 125). They interacted little with people beyond the swamp’s boundaries, except enslaved laborers who ventured in to dig canals and procure wood for a booming shingle industry. “Liminal maroons” worked in timber camps alongside these enslaved people, living permanently in the swamp but in sustained contact with the world beyond it. This typology, appearing to build from the distinction Sylviane Diouf draws between “hinterland” and “borderland” maroons, provides rich insight into the varied lives maroons created within and around the Dismal.[1] Yet it also appears to contradict Morris’s emphasis in the introduction on a more expansive definition that includes all forms of marronage together in a single analytical category. The departure here, if surprising, is nonetheless productive. If the more inclusive approach risked conflating very different experiences of fugitivity, this typology grounds those differences in the geography of the swamp itself and the material conditions of possibility it afforded.

Dismal Freedom concludes by returning to its chronological framework, examining the decades between the Southampton uprising and the Civil War. Though the encroachment of the canals and timber industry, and enslavers’ redoubled efforts to surveille, patrol, and punish fugitivity, threatened to finally subdue the swamp, Morris makes a powerful case that its maroon communities endured. He goes further, however, arguing that their presence significantly “contributed to the hysteria that ultimately led to disunion and civil war” (pp. 137-138). This latter point is less persuasive. While Morris is convincing that the Dismal’s existence symbolized a rebuke to enslavers’ claims of absolute control, it is less clear how forceful that rebuke was in shaping the road to Civil War and emancipation. Though the shingle industry that the swamp supported is a notable exception, the most dynamic branches of the slave economy were spreading southward and westward away from the Tidewater region during this time.

Indeed, it is possible that the cotton boom, and the traffic in enslaved people that fed it, may have undermined some of the radical power of the Dismal. Abolitionists cited its maroons as evidence of enslaved people’s desire for freedom in the antebellum era, and perhaps John Brown even drew some inspiration from them too. But the constant threat of attack posed by the swamp’s inhabitants, so palpable before 1831, was likely mitigated by enslavers’ increased ability to sell the most militant among the enslaved—those most likely to become or aid maroons—to the slave markets of the Deep South. Indeed, many enslaved people convicted of participating in the Southampton rebellion met this fate. While Dismal maroons surely remained a source of anxiety, it was likely reduced in part by this new means to limit the flow of fugitives to the swamp. If fears did increase, it is not clear that they contributed significantly to secession or the end of slavery that ultimately followed.

But the larger value of Dismal Freedom is not contingent on this small part of Morris’s analysis. The swamp’s true success came in its endurance, its ongoing ability to protect Indigenous and Black people from the worst depredations of colonization and slavery. It did not have to lead to the Civil War to have been triumphant. As Morris notes in the introduction, “resistance did not need to have revolution or a direct critique of slavery as its goal” (p. 13). Regardless of whether the Dismal maroons forcefully shaped the path to general emancipation, they created a space for fugitives to build kinship, community, and security—and, as Morris notes, a space in the South, quite apart from the Underground Railroad on which historians have traditionally focused (p. 12). By providing crucial new insight about how maroons lived that life apart from slavery, especially the multiple interrelated and cooperative communities deep in the swamp’s interior, Morris has done a great service to historians of both slavery and the environment.


[1]. Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: New York University Press, 2014).

Citation: Adam Thomas. Review of Morris, J. Brent, Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.