In a September 1789 letter to Dismal Swamp Company officials, agent John Driver lamented the challenges he faced in compelling enslaved people at Dismal Plantation—the Great Dismal Swamp’s earliest slave labor camp—to maintain the property’s infrastructure for rice and other crops. Recalling the four enslaved people who had been sent away from the property four years earlier as “an intire Tax” on the plantation’s operations, Driver was still faced with slave resistance. Marcus Nevius’s book, City of Refuge, traces the long-standing phenomenon of petit marronage in the Dismal—indefinite slave flight—that company agents tacitly accepted as vital to company operations. Archaeologists and historians have recently brought to the forefront the pervasiveness of marronage in the Dismal’s history of black resistance and in the broader early republican United States. Taking the scholarship of the subject as a point of departure, this lecture reconsiders select archival records of Dismal Plantation, the Dismal Swamp Company, and the early iteration of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, and of local company agents, members, and merchants. For two generations between 1780 and 1820, company officials and agents compelled enslaved people to construct and to maintain the swamp’s “internal improvements”—its canals, shingle roads, shingle camps, and sawmills. But, as key records reflect, company aspirations faced subtle forms of slave resistance—petit marronage—at nearly every turn. The net result was a context of slavery—unfreedom—unique for the time period. This lecture considers a core question and invites discussion of its attendant implications: what might we learn in the exercise of reconsidering the Dismal’s history of marronage?
Dr. Marcus P. Nevius is assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Rhode Island, jointly appointed in the Africana Studies program. He is currently a Mt. Vernon Washington Library fellow and his previous research support includes a Mellon Fellowship from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Nevius has written scholarly reviews for the Journal of African American History, the Journal of Southern History, and H-Net Slavery Reviews and is the author of City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763–1856.
Banner Lectures are free for VMHC members and $10 for nonmembers. Admission is available at the door, and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.