Celebrating 17 years

Fugitive Communities in Colonial America

In the 17th century, the settlers of Jamestown described the "tawny half-breeds" they encountered in the forests, who strangely preferred the freedom of the wilderness to the safety and comfort of Jamestown. Who were these people, these "half-breeds"? Theories as to the identity of this people range from the romantic (the survivors of the Roanoke colony) to the fantastic (the descendants of early Viking, Welsh or Phoenician settlers). In fact, they were members of fugitive (also called maroon) communities that existed on the outskirts of European settlement from the earliest days of colonization.

The people called Melungeons (of eastern Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky,) were again encountered by European explorers of the Appalachians in 1654. They were described as dark-skinned, but with European features. They lived in log cabins and practiced Christianity and even spoke English, being able to communicate to the explorers that they were "Portyghee". The origin of the Melungeon people has become controversial, at least among Melungeons. The anthropologically accepted theory is that early Spanish settlers, explorers or castaways inter-married with Native Americans.

Yet the French explorers mentioned above noted that the Melungeons they encountered spoke English (but called themselves Portuguese). This could indicate the amazing diversity of the Melungeon communities, or maybe the necessity of trading with the English settlements on the coast. Genetic researchers using the Mean Measure of Divergence (MMD) have concluded that Melungeons are most closely related to Libyans (0.017) and most distantly related to the Seminoles of Florida (0.308) [1] .The closest match with a European people (0.022) is Italian, followed by Portuguese (0.024). It's known that Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke for some months on his way back from raiding Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. He had several hundred Muslim seamen with him who had been freed from the Spanish and were being returned to Morocco and the Ottoman Empire. These would include Berbers and Arabs from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Greeks, Armenians, Albanians, Bosnians and Turks from Anatolia and the Balkans. They stayed several months in Virginia, and it's more than possible that they would have left progeny among the local Native American population. Some of them may have stayed and actually joined the Indians.

The Delaware Moors are a mixed race people living in Kent and Sussex Counties, Delaware and southern New Jersey. How they came to be there is open to conjecture. Community legend tends toward three possibilities. In the first, an 18th century Spanish pirate ship with a Moorish crew is wrecked on the Delaware coast. The survivors are taken in by the local Nanticoke Indians and eventually marry Indian women. In the second, when the English abandoned Tangier in the late 17th century, the English garrison is given land in the Americas (Delaware). When they come they bring their Moorish wives with them. (There is an island in Chesapeake Bay called Tangier Island, and no one seems to know how it was named.) The third legend is of the truly romantic variety. This involves a beautiful woman and a dark-skinned slave. The woman was wealthy and either Spanish or Irish. She purchased a male slave who turned out to be a Moorish prince. They fell in love and had mixed-race children. Being ostracized by the white community, they moved inland and joined the Indians. Another version of this has the wealthy woman purchasing a number of Moorish slaves who ran away and joined the Indians.

Washington surveying The Great Dismal Swamp

Piracy was well-known along the Delaware coast from the 17th to mid-18th century, with several recorded instances of Spanish and French pirates way-laying ships in Delaware Bay. The English did occupy Tangier briefly, and then abandoned the city in 1684. The early colonial period had many instances where women and men of mixed race were forced to make their own way in the wild, and the fact of slaves running away and joining the Indians is also well recorded. Whichever, if any, of the legends is true, the fact remains that the Delaware Moors are most likely a mixture of the Native American tribes that occupied the Delmarva region (Nanticokes and Lenni Lenape), European whites, and Africans of some sort. The Moors perhaps best illustrate the singular status that tri-racial groups occupy in America. Being barred from attending the white schools of Kent and Sussex counties, and refusing to attend the African American schools of the area, the Moors created their own schools. The Moors, like most other tri-racial groups, did not consider themselves part of either the white or African American communities. Although Indians, whites and blacks could marry into the group, once they did so they became part of the tri-racial community.

The Red Bones, Brass Ankles, Turks and Lumbees of South Carolina combine the mixture of Native American, African American and European (or Asian) peoples. The origins of these peoples has been more clearly identified. Fugitive slaves and runaway indentured servants joined with the remnants of Native American tribes ravaged by warfare and alien diseases. The death rate for some Native communities was %100. It soon became clear that children of mixed parents (white/native, black/native) had a much better chance of surviving European and African diseases. This could have been sufficient motivation for existing Indian groups to accept the fugitives. In this way, Native Americans of the east were genetically absorbed into the emerging tri-racial groups, as their own distinct tribes were destroyed. That fugitives would band together for survival isn't unusual. The runaways and refugees would have a common enemy, the colonial governments of the coast and the slave masters of the plantations. The plantation fields of the early colonial period also incorporated a wide diversity of forced labor. There would have been Native Americans of the coastal tribes, kidnapped Africans, Gypsies (who were transported to the new world by all the colonial powers), and British and Irish prisoners working out their sentences. [2] It's not hard to imagine that all the individuals interested in escaping would have been drawn to the Native Americans, who knew the land and had contacts in the wild.

Getting beyond the reach of dominant social authority was of great importance, since that authority prescribed harsh punishment for runaways, and extinction for racially mixed people. The "Free Land" of the Melungeons was a strip of disputed territory between the colonies of North Carolina and Virginia. Being a "neutral zone", claimed by both colonies but administered by neither, it naturally attracted people who were less than fond of government supervision, including mixed race peoples and the many fugitives that would add to thatmixture.

The cedar swamps and pine barrens of Delaware and New Jersey were also noted refuges for runaways. Pennsylvania ads for runaway slaves in the 18th century specifically mention the cedar swamps of Delaware as a runaway destination. It should come as no surprise that it's in these very areas that current mixed race communities now exist.

The Redbones of Louisiana originated from the mixed-race Red Bone people of South Carolina, arriving in Louisiana in the late 18th century. They gravitated to the area of Louisiana called the "Neutral Strip", a 5000 square mile expanse of land between the Calcasieau and Sabine rivers claimed by both Spain and the United States, but administered by neither. Both Spain and the United States agreed that the strip would be off-limits. Despite this, the United States sent troops into the Neutral Strip on several occasions, as pirates made their bases there (including John Murel and Jean Lafitte). But the Neutral Strip was a wilderness of swamps and canebrakes, and many who went in uninvited never came out again. The flight of runaway slaves to the safety of the Neutral Strip was such that infamous "land pirate" John Murel planned to organize a slave revolt, based on a fugitive army that would have placed him at the head of an autonomous fugitive republic encompassing much of southern Louisiana. Even after the border dispute was settled in 1819, the former Neutral Strip remained a place that the authority of the state was reluctant to invade.

The Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina was the site of an extensive fugitive community from at least the early 18th century. It functioned as an autonomous region, immune to outside interference because of the twisting trails and waterways of the swamp. Trade, in the form of shingles cut from swamp Cyprus, was even conducted with outside communities. It's status as a refuge for fugitives led such a prominent figure as George Washington to recommend its draining and conversion to farmland. Washington and a number of other Virginia planters paid $20,000 for 40,000 acres of the Great Dismal. This happened in 1763, the same year as the Slave Revolt in the South American Dutch colony of Berbice (Guyana). It seems more than a coincidence that Washington and other slave owners should decide to eliminate the Great Dismal Swamp, a noted haven for runaway slaves, in the same year as the largest slave revolt in the Americas to that date. This was also the year after the suppression of a slave revolt in the Crown Colony of Bermuda. It was widely believed by slave owners that the existence of maroon communities made slave revolts all the more likely, so much so that in 1671 Virginia specifically offered a bounty on the heads of maroons. The root of the word maroon is the Spanish "Cimarron", for runaway livestock that had "gone wild". In any case, being at the time in excess of 2000 square miles, draining the swamp was beyond the 18th century capabilities of Washington and his partners, though they did succeed in cutting down a lot of trees, and did oversee a number of "wild fires" that burned large sections of swamp. Unable to turn a profit, Washington eventually gave his share in the "Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp" to "Lighthorse Harry" Lee.

In the years prior to the Civil War the fugitive community of the Great Dismal Swamp became a major stop on the underground railway. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Dred: A Story of the Great Dismal Swamp, told of runaway slaves hiding in the depths of the swamp, yet never mentions the permanent fugitive community that existed there, perhaps because she was unaware of it, or perhaps because she didn't want to tip their hand. No doubt many of the runaway slaves decided to remain in the swamp. During the war, the Great Dismal Swamp was an area which confederate forces stayed clear of.

The swamps of Florida gave refuge to thousands of runaways in the years of Spanish rule. In 1738 the Spanish offered freedom to any slave who fled the English colonies and came to St. Augustine. This wasn't out of any anti-slavery sentiment on the part of Spain. They disputed English ownership of Georgia and South Carolina. Inciting slaves to run away was an effective way of disrupting those colonies. The British copied this tactic during the War of Independence (Dunmore's Proclamation), with the same success. Once in Florida the fugitives encountered the refugee remnants of the southeastern Indian tribes who had also fled to the Florida swamps. They also found maroon communities that had been there since the 17th century. The fugitive communities they established in the Florida swamps became the strongest in the country. The Seminole Wars (beginning 1816) pitted United States military forces against irregular units of Indians, fugitive whites ("renegades" or "border ruffians") and runaway slaves. Runaway slaves and other fugitives fled to these strongholds throughout the Spanish colonial period and after 1819, when the United States took Florida from Spain.

The early colonial period was the heyday of the fugitive communities in North America. Europeans usually only occupied a small portion of a colonies available land. This left vast expanses of wilderness open to the fugitives. By the beginning of the 19th century expanded settlement and increased European populations had pressed the fugitive communities (with a few exceptions) ever further into the wild. The Melungeons were driven from their farms in the Shenandoah Valley by the mid 18th century. Other tri-racial groups were driven deeper into the mountains and swamps. In the period prior to the Civil War, tri-racial people were classified as "free persons of color", a classification which has led many researchers to erroneously identify tri-racials as freed slaves. After the Reconstruction period, with the rise of the Eugenics movement of scientific racism, tri-racial groups were classified as African Americans in many locations (based on the "one drop" rule: if you have ANY Negro ancestry, you are a Negro). These measures did much to destroy many tri-racial communities, since those who could "pass for white" eagerly did so to avoid the racist restrictions placed on Negroes. Those tri-racials who exhibited the most prominent Negro features were forced to dissolve into the African American community, where they became "mulattos". Those that exhibited the most prominent European features dissolved into white society, where they explained their dark features by various acceptable means. Tri-racial communities still exist, and many occupy lands that their fugitive ancestors settled generations ago. Their story is an important example of the determination and resilience human beings can achieve, as well as of the many complex possibilities that presented themselves in the early colonial period.


Further Reading:

Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810
James Sidbury
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Gone to Croatan
Edited by Ron Sakolsky and James Koehnline
1993. ISBN: 0-936756-92-6

Maroon Societies:

Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas
Edited by Richard Price
Johns Hopkins University Press
1996 (3rd edition)

The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People
N. Brent Kennedy and Robyn V. Kennedy
Dogwood Press
1997 (2nd edition)



[1] Mean Measure of Divergence: 0.000= identical match 9.999= furthest possible divergence

[2] " You can't discount the notion that black and white servants and slaves were going to unite over their common oppression. We have evidence of them running away together. We have evidence of them rising against their masters together. They lived together. They slept together. So yes, there was a possibility of a lower class surge against the elites. So that's a very important consideration for the Virginians, in terms of wanting to create one kind of labor force." Margaret Washington, Associate Professor of History, Cornell University "A: There are many ways that human beings divide themselves up. Class is one, [and] gender, race, ethnicity. There's a number of ways that people divide themselves up. And in early Virginia, race was a category that people recognized. Black people recognized difference, and sometimes, I would even argue, celebrated difference. But in this highly competitive, depressingly abusive world, poorer whites and poorer blacks -- people who were marginalized in this system of dependent labor -- oftentimes reached out to each other in ways that suggest that, at least in the first 50 or 60 years of Virginia, ...people of African background and English background were able to work together in ways that, again, in later period of American history, were impossible." Timothy H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University