Maroons in Antebellum New Orleans: Independence at any Cost

Maroons were slaves who ran away from their plantations, not to head North to pass as a free person of color, but instead they chose to stay close to home and establish their own independent settlements, utilizing the area’s topography to evade capture. While one might expect maroons to avoid stepping foot in New Orleans again, the opposite was actually true. A popular way you could make money as a maroon was through selling firewood at night in this spot, on Rampart St. between St. Louis and Canal. But you’d have to risk coming into the city and being apprehended by a former acquaintance.

Wealthy plantation owners frequently had city property in New Orleans and would come into the urban area for recreation or business. Even if you had been enslaved on a plantation 100 miles away, you might still run into your former owner in the Crescent City. Furthermore, there might be an ad in the local newspaper describing you with a reward for your capture. Everyday free white citizens were empowered by local government to stop any person of color whom they deemed questionable and demand paperwork that proved their legal freedom or owner’s approval for being out.

Successful maroon communities existed around New Orleans in a variety of formations. There were small communities that created their own gardens and farmed on the hinterlands of the plantations of River Road. More nomadic groups moved in and out of the Cypress swamps that immediately surround the city. Either way, these brave men, women, and children had to be resourceful to survive, often making deals with people still living within slavery and even slave-owners who could rely on their services without having to pay the expensive price for a slave.

Formerly enslaved people would spend the day gathering and cutting wood in the wild and then bring it to Rampart Street to sell for steamships. An essential part of the hussle was that for some time enslaved men themselves could do this to earn a small sum of money, so maroons could blend in with those in bondage. After the dusk firewood sales, some maroons would retreat to the swamps and come back again between 10:00 pm and midnight. These returns would sometimes include robbing households for goods they needed to survive in the wild.

Far from being isolated communities, removed from society, maroons formed a network of the enslaved, free blacks and whites in order to survive. The economies of trade and labor formed by the maroons are an illustration of their clever and practical approaches to freedom. The maroons had opted out of the system of oppression and formed their own society. Their willingness to look past potential peril and include so many people in their network is proof of their confidence as well as their dedication to preserving their independence. They traveled through water or rubbed odorous, natural materials on their feet, so that dogs couldn’t track them. Some would lay dry leaves and cane palms across the entrances to their communities, so they’d be sure to hear whenever anyone entered.

One woman who had been a maroon for 16 years in a community 8 miles from New Orleans left in the fall of 1827 and reported that 50-60 people were living with her farming corn, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables, as well as raising pigs and chickens. Maroons also stole materials as needed. One theft by a few skilled men included a barrel of sugar, one of salt, one of lard, 100 bottles of wine, 2 soup dishes, a churn for butter, 2 oxen, and 6 pregnant cows.

In 1804, Governor Claiborne published a decree stating that maroons could return to their owners unpunished, if they hadn’t committed any other crimes. If they didn’t return, they could be pursued by their owners and receive whatever punishment their owners chose. Punishments throughout the years of slavery included branding, public torture such as whipping, flogging, wearing shackles and metal halters, as well as execution via hanging, dogs, and even live burial. While city laws varied over time in terms of legal punishment, slave-owners in plantation communities often didn’t have to answer to anyone.