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Slave Patrols, Militias - And Runaway Slave Communities

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Slave Patrols, Militias - And Runaway Slave Communities

One factor that has been missed in the examination of the influence of slave patrols on the 2nd amendment of the US constitution, is the fact that in the more remote parts of the South and the national borders of the time, there were entire communities of runaway African Americans and Native Americans. Ultimately, this led to the 'Trail of Tears' and the movement of these communities to the state of Oklahoma.

There were Maroon communities throughout the remoter parts of the Americas, resulting either from permanent slave uprisings or temporary refuges. Especially the communities in Surinam, Venezuela, Haiti, Jamaica became famous, as well as the swampy areas of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

There is an excellent book called Maroon Societies - Rebel slave communities in the Americas, by prof. Richard Price. Part Three deals with the Americas.

The United States

AS in so many colonies, among the very first group of slaves to be landed in what is now the United States were the first maroons-to-be.

A Spanish colonizer, Lucas Vasquez de Allyon, founded, in the summer of 1526, a community whose probable location was at or near the mouth of the Pedee River in what is now South Carolina. The settlement consisted of about five hundred Spaniards and one hundred Negro slaves. Trouble soon beset it. Illness caused numerous deaths, carrying off, in October, Allyon himself. Internal dissension arose, and the Indians grew increasingly suspicious and hostile. Finally, probably in November, several of the slaves rebelled, and fled to the Indians. The next month what was left of adventurers, some one hundred and fifty souls, returned to Haiti, leaving the rebel Negroes with their Indian friends - as the first permanent inhabitants, other than the Indians, in what was to be the United States [Aptheker 1969:163].

There is considerable irony, but certainly little accident, in the fact that the study of North American maroons has been so largely neglected. It had long been known that periodic slave truancy, petit marronage, was an everyday feature of Southern plantation life. But Aptheker's pioneering 1939 paper, reprinted here, documented a staggering number of actual maroon settlements, scattered over much of the United States, and showed that many of them lasted for periods of years. ... Today, from the backlands of New Jersey through Appalachia, southwestward into Texas and even across the Mexican border, the descendants of many of those maroons who chose to cast their lot with Indians can still be found, largely forgotten, and often desperately poor. It seems quite likely that some maroon traditions are kept alive by these people. One enterprising student recently found a highly developed, innovative technique for "losing the hounds", which apparently originated among maroons from Georgia rice plantations, vividly remembered and discussed by local poor whites (Hodges 1971). The United States then, still represents challenging opportunities of both an ethnographic and historical nature for the study of maroons, one that should flesh out our understanding of North American slavery more generally,. Though Aptheker's paper is little more than a bare survey, it has not been superseeded. Suggestions to further readings are found in the bibliographical note to Part Three.

Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States
Herbert Aptheker

An ever-present feature of antebellum southern life was the existence of camps of runaway Negro slaves, often called maroons, when they all but established themselves independently on the frontier. These were seriously annoying, for they were sources of insubordination. They offered havens for fugitives, served as bases for marauding expeditions against nearby plantations and, at times, supplied the nucleus of leadership for planned uprisings.

IT appears that notice of these maroon communities was taken only when they were accidentally uncovered or when their activities became so obnoxious or dangerous to the slavocracy that their destruction was felt to be necessary. Evidence of the existence of at least fifty of such communities in various places and at various times, from 1672 to 1864, has been found. The mountainous, forested or swampy regions of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama (in order of importance) appear to have been the favorite haunts of these black Robin Hoods. At times a settled life, rather than a pugnacious and migratory one, was aimed at, as is evidenced by the fact that these maroons built homes, maintained families, raised cattle, and pursued agriculture, but this all but settled life appears to have been exceptional.

The most noted of such communities was located in the Dismal Swamp between Virginia and North Carolina. (2) It seems likely that about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or descendents of fugitives, lived in this area. They carried on a regular, if illegal trade with white people living on the border of the swamp. Such settlements may have been more numerous than available evidence would indicate, for their occupants aroused less excitement and less resentment than the guerilla outlaws.

The activities of maroons in Virginia in 1672 approached the point of rebellion so that a law was passed urging and rewarding the hunting down and killing of these outlaws (Hening n.d., II:299; Bruce 1896, II:115).

An item of November 9, 1691, notices the depredations caused by a slave, Mingoe, from Middlesex County, Virginia, and his unspecified number of followers in Rappahannock County (Order Book, Middlesex County, 1680-94:526-27 [Virginia State Library]; Bruce 1896, II:116). These Negroes not only took cattle and dogs, but, what was more important, they had recently stolen "two guns, a Carbyne & other things."

In June 1711, the inhabitants of the colony of South Carolina were kept "in great fear and terror" by the activities of "several Negroes [who] keep out, armed, and robbing and plundering houses and plantations" (Holland 1823:63; Wallace 1934, I:372). These men were led by a slave named Sebastian, who was finally tracked down and killed by an Indian hunter. Lieutenant Governor Gooch of Virginia wrote to the Lords of Trade, June 29, 1729, "of some runaway Negroes beginning a settlement in the Mountains & of their being reclaimed by their Master" (Virginia manuscripts from British Record Office, Sainsbury, IX:462, Virginia State Library). He assured the Lords that the militia was being trained "prevent this for the future".

In September 1733, the governor of South Carolina offered a reward of 20 pounds alive or 10 pounds dead for "Several Run away Negroes who are near the Congerees, & have robbed several of the Inhabitants thereabouts." The Notchee Indians offered, in April 1744, to aid teh government of South Carolina in maintaining the subordination of its slave population. Three nomths later, on July 5, 1744, Governor James Glen applied "for the assistance of some Notchee Indians in order to apprehend some runaway Negroes, who had shelted themselves in the Woods, and being armed, had committed disorders.." (Council Journal [MS.] V:487, 494; XI:187, 383, South Carolina Historical Commission, Columbia, S.C.).

The number of runaways in South Carolina in 1765 was exceedingly large. This led to fears of a general rebellion (Wallace 1934, I:373). At least one considerable camp of maroons was destroyed that year by military force. A letter from Charleston of August 15, 1768, told of a battle with a body of maroons, "a numerous collection of outcast mulattoes, mustees, and free negroes" (Boston Chronicle, October 3-10, 1768).

Governor James Habersham of Georgia learned in December 1771 "that a great number of fugitive Negroes had committed many Robberies and insults between his town [Savannah] and Ebenezer and that their Numbers (which) were now Considerable might be expected to increase daily." (Candler 1907, XII:146-47, 325-26).

Indian hunters and militia men were employed to blot out this menace. Yet the same danger was present in Georgia in the summer of 1772. Depredations, piracy, and arson were frequent, and again the militia saw service. A letter from Edmund Randolph to James Madison of August 30, 1782, discloses somewhat similar trouble in Virginia (Conway 1888:50-51). At this time it appears that "a notorious robber," a white man, had gathered together a grop of about fifty men, Negro and white, and was terrorizing the community.

The British had combated the revolutionist's siege of Savannah with the aid of a numerous body of Negro slaves, who served under the inspiration of a promised freedom. The defeat of the British crushed the hopes of these Negroes. They fled, with their arms, called themselves soldiers of the King of England, and carried on a guerilla warfare for years along the Savannah River. Militia from Georgia, together with Indian allies, successfully attacked the Negro settlement in May 1786, with resulting heavy casualties (Stephens 1859, II:376-78; Woodson 1928:123; Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on American Manuscripts, London 1904, II:544). Governor Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina referred in his legislative message of 1787 to the serious depredations of a group of armed fugitive slaves in the southern part of the state.

Roger Casement's picture
Roger Casement
Nov. 22, 2011 11:07 am

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