I’ve been reading about the maroons, the escaped slaves who didn’t try to go all the way north to a free state. Instead, they either fled into the countryside and formed their own little colony, or they hovered around the edges of plantations, hiding in the woods but coming in close to accept food from the slaves remaining on the place.
I didn’t realize how common these latter were, the so-called borderland maroons. By remaining on the edges of the plantations, they could see their loved ones now and then and receive clothes or food. In some instances, the white master knew his slaves were aiding and abetting the runaways, but they were hard to catch at it, and the runaways themselves were hard to catch. Well, some of them weren’t, and they were soon back in the quarters “where they belonged.” Others, though, managed to stay out for weeks, months, even years. Of course they had to be constantly vigilant – the country was full of slave catchers. And some of them were not very good at living on the land and would eventually stagger back onto the plantation emaciated and sick.
The ones who established a life for themselves hidden from the white world were the most successful maroons. Camps built in the swamps were the hardest to find, but in parts of the South, there were plenty of undeveloped, even unexplored forest areas to hide in. Some of these camps grew quite large. Apparently some had scores of people and some even had a third generation growing up on the site. More often, sadly, small encampments of maroons were found after a few years and the captives enslaved again.
It was not practical to try to live completely independent of the greater world, so oftentimes maroons produced goods from cypress to trade in the cities as well as bringing in game and pelts. They mostly needed guns and shot and powder, not just for defense, but also for hunting. They needed metal-goods like knives, hoes, axes, saws, and shovels. And seed to sow. And textiles – clothes did not last long in the woods.
That they achieved the level of self-sufficiency they did is a measure of their resourcefulness, inventiveness, hardiness, determination, courage and grit.
And why did these capable people choose the maroon life rather than make a run for it to New Hampshire or Canada?
Because running was a little bit crazy. The odds were incredibly low that a runaway would get very far or survive the journey. There were slave patrols and scenting dogs on the trail. There were snakes and mosquitoes, gators, bears, panthers. Hunger, heat, cold. There were hue and cry notices in the papers alerting all the whites with an escapee’s description. Some made it, of course, and that is testament to great courage and maybe some luck thrown in.
The better bet was to join a group who had set up a camp deep in the woods or swamp. Their greatest fear may have been betrayal by one of their own for the rewards offered, but their vigilance against the white hunters had to be constant. Still a better life than slavery.