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Maroons


The Lowcountry's swamps and creek beds harbor many secrets with their inaccessibility and isolation, but archeologists are uncovering at least part of that hidden history with research into the societies of escaped slaves who found shelter and freedom in such formidable surroundings. Called "maroons" by antebellum plantation masters (the name likely derived from the Spanish cimmaròn, meaning 'wild' or 'fierce'), these fugitives concealed themselves deep in forbidding terrain, often finding high ground on which small villages were built, surviving by hunting, fishing, occasional raids on plantation storehouses and trading with Native Americans.

Excavations in the Great Dismal Swamp

It's been estimated that as many as fifty such hidden enclaves existed in the Lowcountry during the two hundred years between European settlement of the coastal southeast and the outbreak of the Civil War, from as far north as Virginia and as far south as Florida. In South Carolina, maroon communities were long-established deep inside swamps along the Congaree, Ashepoo and Combahee rivers, as well as Goose Creek and Bear Creek in Dorchester and Colleton counties, respectively.


As early as the 1730's, South Carolina's colonial government was offering a reward of twenty pounds for the return of a maroon, or ten pounds for the scalp of a murdered one. During the Revolutionary War, many maroon communities established relationships with, and fought alongside, the British in the belief a British victory would bring their freedom to live openly. One of the most famous maroon communities established on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River in those times called themselves "the King of England's Soldiers", but were attacked and scattered by white colonialist militias soon after the war ended. Most notorious to white colonials was "Forest Joe", who led a band of maroons in raids along the Santee River until he was captured and executed in 1823. Similar violent confrontations thundered up and down the Lowcountry before the Civil War, including near Georgetown in 1820 and Jacksonboro two years later.

The Savannah River maroon fortress figures prominently in George Dawes Green's 2022 novel "The Kingdoms of Savannah". Green, a Savannah native, grew up listening to family stories of these secretive groups and is now spearheading an effort to locate the "King's Soldiers" site thought to be along Bear Creek, which flows into the Savannah River from South Carolina. No sign of the fortress has turned up so far, but Green says that's fine with him. "I like the fact that it's been two-hundred-and-thirty-five years," he told The New Yorker, "and it doesn't necessarily wish to be found."

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