Arthur Greene of Virginia knew what he was talking about. His friend Pattin and his family had lived hidden in the woods for fifteen years until “Lee’s surrender.” Like them, from the day Africans first set foot in what became the United States until the end of the Civil War, tens of thousands of men, women, and children made the forests and the swamps their home.
They were Africans two days off the slave ship and people who intimately knew the geographic and social environment, its constraints, and the way to navigate it. They were not “truants” who had absconded for a short while, to rest, avoid a beating or recover from one, take a break, or visit relatives and friends on neighboring plantations. They were not runaways making their way through the wilds to reach a Southern city or a free state or to cross international borders to find freedom under a foreign power. The people whose stories are the subject of my book Slavery's Exiles went to the Southern wilds to stay.
The study of their experience has led me to reconsider the various definitions and classifications used so far to describe maronnage, and to develop a more expansive vision to better reflect what happened on the ground. And below it as well, as I discovered with amazement.
The American maroons' diversity was also a revelation. They farmed in one place or moved around; established a range of social and economic structures; maintained various degrees of relations with the plantation world; traded with or worked for white men or cut off all links with the outside world. They fought when necessary and disappeared when survival laid in retreat. Their experiences were varied and complex; their lives difficult and dangerous. Yet they persevered and carved, out of the wilderness, a new life for themselves and their children.
Why their unique and extraordinary experience remained unknown and unexplored even as increasing numbers of monographs and articles were dedicated to the enslaved community in the United States surprised me. What I uncovered surprised me even more.