Contrary to their bad reputation, swamps offered sanctuary for centuries to slaves who escaped hard labor and torture on plantations from Virginia to Brazil and the Caribbean.
Known as “Maroons,” likely derived from the Spanish word “cimarrón” for wild or untamed, the slaves made their way onto high ground deep inside swamps where they found fresh water, fish, game, and wood for shelter and even making products for trade, such as construction shingles.
They often lived close enough to plantations that they would sneak back to visit with relatives and friends and even trade for tools and other necessities, or steal them.
Other Maroons were known to escape into mountainous regions for similar cover and sustenance.
On Saturday, Feb. 24, the story of their bravery, resilience and independence will be the focus of the Maroons Cultural Heritage Day at Beidler Forest at the Audubon Center, 336 Sanctuary Road in Harleyville.
The event will feature guided 1.75-mile walks, departing at 20-minute intervals from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Participants will encounter a model maroons encampment, a re-enactor, demonstrations of several "swamp technologies" that allowed Maroons to survive and a talk by Dr. Drew Lanham, a Clemson wildlife professor, Audubon Society board member and author of "The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature."
The event is part of a larger effort by Ken Battle, the president of the Summerville-Dorchester Museum, to raise awareness of lesser-known and more empowering parts of African-American history, such as the Maroons.
“The Maroons represent stories of liberty, freedom and success,” says Battle, who started researching the Maroons in 2014 shortly after retiring from the Air Force as a chief master sergeant.
His awareness of their story was raised in part by the book, “Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons,” written by Sylvanie A. Diouf and published in 2014.
Battle says among the Maroon heroes is Gaspar Yanga, a Gabon native who in the late 16th century fled slavery near Veracruz, Mexico, and became a leader of a Maroon colony which fought the Spanish so fiercely that the colony actually gained self-rule. It was called San Lorenzo de los Negros, now Yanga.
Closer to the Lowcountry, Battle says slaves who worked in the timber industry near Charleston would flee into swamps.
“They were working 15 miles from Charleston, but were often only a 500-yard run to freedom,” says Battle, who says they became adept at hiding as well as subsisting from the swamps. “It was a tough life, but they were free.”
Part of Saturday’s presentation will be a re-enactor based on James Williams, a slave who fled into the swamps and then later made his way to Maine. His accounts were detailed in “The Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave,” in an abolitionist journal in 1838.
Sunday’s event is a bit of a departure for the Audubon Center, which has focused primarily on natural history the past 40 years, says center director Mike Dawson.
“It’s a big difference for us in the past 40 years of interpreting the natural history of the place, but we’re beginning to realize there’s some pretty interesting human history stories associated with the swamp as well.”
Last year, Dawson says the center offered a general cultural heritage day that spanned a range of people, including Native Americans, African Americans, Revolutionary War troops and people who made a living in the forest, from loggers and shingle-makers to moonshiners.
This year, the center wanted to focus on Black History Month and telling the link between the Maroons and the resource-rich swamps of the Southeast.
“The swamp would have been a source for everything they needed to survive,"says Dawson.