Dismal Freedom

A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

By J. Brent Morris

256 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 halftones, 2 maps, notes, index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6825-3
    Published: July 2022
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6826-0
    Published: March 2022
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5180-2
    Published: March 2022

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The massive and foreboding Great Dismal Swamp sprawls over 2,000 square miles and spills over parts of Virginia and North Carolina. From the early seventeenth century, the nearly impassable Dismal frustrated settlement. However, what may have been an impediment to the expansion of slave society became an essential sanctuary for many of those who sought to escape it. In the depths of the Dismal, thousands of maroons—people who had emancipated themselves from enslavement and settled beyond the reach of enslavers—established new lives of freedom in a landscape deemed worthless and inaccessible by whites.

Dismal Freedom unearths the stories of these maroons, their lives, and their struggles for liberation. Drawing from newly discovered primary sources and archeological evidence that suggests far more extensive maroon settlement than historians have previously imagined, award-winning author J. Brent Morris uncovers one of the most exciting yet neglected stories of American history. This is the story of resilient, proud, and determined people who made the Great Dismal Swamp their free home and sanctuary and who played an outsized role in undermining slavery through the Civil War.

About the Author

J. Brent Morris is professor of history at Clemson University.

For more information about J. Brent Morris, visit the Author Page.


“Morris’s solid monograph skillfully presents how Great Dismal Swamp maroonage changed over time, moving from sixteenth-century slaves and servants to nineteenth-century maroons who assisted Union troops.”—Journal of American History

"Thoroughly researched and highly readable . . . Morris’s clear and compelling work sheds a light on the maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp whose experiences has been overlooked or minimized for far too long."—North Carolina Historical Review

"Morris provides glimpses of what life might have been like in the dozens of separate maroon communities, some very small and near the edges of the swamp and others larger and sometimes on islands within the swamp"—Trend & Tradition: The Magazine of Colonial Williamsburg

"A welcome addition to the history of enslavement, self-emancipation, and maroons in the United States. . . . Dismal Freedom deserves high praise. Morris has written a readable and engaging account of the Dismal Swamp maroons and their contributions to ending slavery."—Civil War Book Review

"J. Brent Morris provides a comprehensive look at those who sought refuge in the swamp’s embrace. . . . For anyone interested in slavery, resistance, or marronage, Dismal Freedom is a worthwhile read."—Virginia Magazine of History & Biography

“Brent Morris has provided a fascinating exploration of the maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp and how their fellow Americans reacted to those people who lived outside the spaces governed by white Americans and controlled by their economic systems. Using literature, archeological studies, and more-traditional historical sources, this book delineates the important physical space in the Dismal that permitted freedom within enslavement and recovers the psychological meaning of that space to both Black and white Americans. In the process, this elegant volume recovers a key piece of the history of enslavement in the United States.”—Heather Cox Richardson, author of How the South Won the Civil War