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
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-6826-0
    Published: March 2022

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit Bookshop.org
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.


“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

“Building on the work of archaeologists, historians, and his own deep archival work, Brent Morris has produced a comprehensive history of freedom-seekers: a testament to the power of both individual courage and collective solidarity.”—Ed Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

"By taking the reader deep inside the "liberated zone" known as the Great Dismal Swamp, J. Brent Morris vividly illuminates the political will of enslaved African Americans to be free. This gripping saga recounts one of America's greatest freedom stories."— Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship

“Clear, straightforward, and lively—Dismal Freedom is an impressive, thorough, and meticulously researched historical narrative."— Douglas R. Egerton, author of Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments that Redeemed America

“Very revealing! This outstanding and genuinely novel contribution to the history of slavery and the South makes excellent use of recent archaeological discoveries yet puts them into a historical perspective for the average reader. This will be the go-to book on U.S. marronage.”—Timothy Lockley, author of Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record