Maroons in Antebellum New Orleans: Independence at Any Cost
Stop 8 of 9 on the Urban Slavery and Everyday Resistance tour
The term ‘Maroon’ refers to enslaved people who ran away from slave owners and remained in the south to join or establish independent, hidden settlements. Maroons utilized the area’s topography to evade capture. While one might expect maroons to avoid stepping foot in New Orleans for fear of recapture, the opposite was actually true. A common way for a maroon to make money was by selling firewood at night in this location on Rampart Street between St. Louis Street and Canal Street. By coming into the city, Maroons risked the possibility of being apprehended by a former acquaintance or slave trader.
Wealthy rural 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 hundreds of miles away, you might still run into your former owner in the Crescent City. There might be an advertisement in the local newspaper describing you as a financial 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 River Road plantations. More nomadic Maroon 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 or even slave-owners who could rely on their services while avoiding the high upfront costs of purchasing a slave.
Formerly enslaved people might spend the day gathering and cutting wood in the wild and then bring it to Rampart Street to sell to steamship operators. An essential part of the clandestine trade was that at times enslaved men were permitted to sell wood to earn a small sum of money, 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 enslaved, free blacks and whites in order to survive. The economies of trade and labor formed by the Maroons are an illustration of their intelligent, resourceful, and practical approach to freedom. Maroons removed themselves from slavery’s 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 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.