For a century and a half during the American slavery era, some of the men, women, and children who fled captivity found refuge in Florida. Some gained sanctuary under the Spanish colonial government, while others joined the Seminoles in the peninsula’s interior. Members of both groups built thriving communities and gained a reputation as formidable warriors. But they came increasingly under threat from pro-slavery interests in a newly independent United States eager to extend its reach in the Americas. Of those who survived the ensuing wars, raids, and repeated forced displacements, most eventually left Florida, either for the Caribbean or for the US west and Mexico.
Their experience was part of a broader history of maroons (long-term escapees from slavery) in the Americas. This book reviews some highlights of that history, and then focuses on the Florida leg of a long journey to freedom that has become an enduring part of the American legacy.
For maroons, escape was only the first in a long line of challenges. They had to cross forests, swamps, and mountains to find a hiding place, build homes, feed and clothe themselves without attracting unwanted attention, keep a lookout for enemy forces, and be ready to defend themselves or flee, sometimes at a moment’s notice. The rough and dangerous terrain that discouraged their pursuers was equally hard on them; they just had to be more determined and skillful.
As time went on and the crisis of escape turned into the routine of daily living, they had to organize themselves and choose leaders, create and maintain a security system, and reach a modus vivendi with the people they encountered — whether other maroon bands, Indian communities, or members of the slaveholder society from which they had fled. They had to find safe ways to incorporate newcomers into their community. And in this uncertain environment, they had to establish families and raise children. Some maroon communities survived for generations; others were cut short much sooner.
Relations between maroons and enslaved people ranged from support and cooperation to conflict and betrayal. A study of marronage in Suriname found “an absolutely staggering amount” of contact between maroons and slaves there. And a recent history of colonial-era Louisiana described slaves meeting with fellow slaves from other plantations as well as with maroons and legally free people, in the cypress swamps behind the plantations and at parties in the slave quarters.
Information found its way along the “grapevine telegraph,” which crossed plantation boundaries and sometimes stretched hundreds of miles. One plantation owner warned that “no overseer, or Planter should speak on such subjects even before a small house boy, or girl, as they communicate all that they hear to others, who convey it to the spies of the runaways.”
In spite of the obvious dangers, people who remained enslaved often helped the fugitives. One man told Fisk University sociologist Ophelia Settle Egypt, who interviewed former slaves in Tennessee and Kentucky in 1929 and 1930, “I’ve known my mother to help them [runaways] the best she could; they would stay in the thick woods and come in at night, and mother would give them something to eat.” In his memoir From Log Cabin to the Pulpit, William H. Robinson described his escape as a teenager from a North Carolina plantation and his search for a maroon band that he knew was nearby: “I went to an old mother — we were taught to call each old woman mother, and they called us son or daughter … She gave me a chunk of fat meat and half of a corn dodger and directed me the way to a hiding place. Then with her hand upon my head she prayed.”
But relations could turn bad as well. Throughout the Americas, black soldiers sometimes fought on the slaveholders’ side, and maroons sometimes signed treaties promising to turn in slaves who sought refuge with them later. Maroons who turned to banditry sometimes preyed on people of color; some maroon allies were pressured or tempted into betrayal. A slavery survivor named Green Cumby told an interviewer in Texas in the 1930s, “To see de runaway slaves in de woods scared me to death. They’d try to snatch you and hold you, so you couldn’t go tell.”