Maroons were self-liberated slaves who learned to survive in and make adaptations to the southeastern American wetlands in which they took refuge, including the Great Dismal Swamp spanning parts of North Carolina and Virginia, and the Louisiana Central Wetlands, covering nearly 30,000 acres adjacent to Lake Borgne in New Orleans. The Africans and African Americans who came to dwell in these places between 1718 — after the founding of the French colony of Louisiana — and 1863 — when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued — chose not to travel north to seek freedom. Instead they created free communal societies in an environment that challenged them with swampy ground, extreme heat, insects, snakes, and alligators, yet at the same time nourished and protected them. These landscapes were places of danger, beauty, and secrets, two worlds at once — neither solid nor submerged; not completely safe from slaveholders and slavecatchers, but not easily navigable by them. Maroon communities were separated from relatives and friends still enslaved on the plantations, yet maintained regular if clandestine communication with them.
These landscapes were places of danger, beauty, and secrets, two worlds at once — neither solid nor submerged; hidden, yet never completely safe.
Marronage is a powerful example of resistance to captivity, and since the publication in 1973 of the pathbreaking volume Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, edited by social anthropologist Richard Price, historical accounts have proliferated of maroons in the southeastern United States as well as in Haiti, Jamaica, and South America. 1 Broadly speaking, this scholarship has focused on the political and theoretical importance of marronage, particularly as a catalyst for and model of revolt. As historian Sylviane A. Diouf puts it in Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (2014), “autonomy was at the heart of their project and exile the means to achieve it.” 2 Less often discussed is the knowledge of wetland ecology and management of swampland resources that these people carried with them — sometimes direct from Africa — and developed via onsite practice. In the territory that would become the state of Louisiana, the Central Wetlands were a mix of “bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) swamp, fresh marsh, and bottomland hardwood forest.” 3 It has been estimated that, prior to the arrival of the French, such habitats covered half the area in question. Today, it is less than a third. 4 Nevertheless, the ways in which maroons cultivated and cared for their unstable environment remain a vital cultural legacy that landscape architecture as a discipline should not overlook. More specifically, the maroons’ example is helping to inspire activists in New Orleans (and elsewhere) to consider how swamps and wetlands can be stewarded to support communities who are endangered, now, by climate crisis and environmental injustice.
Maroon Ecologies in the Bayou
Once home to 66 natural wetland community types, including those that lie within the sandy borders along a river, which are called battures, as well as natural levees, marshes, oxbow lakes, swamps, and bayous, the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, or Delta, was the largest of Louisiana’s five ecoregions. Here within a harsh and changeable landscape, maroons established enclaves of varying sizes and levels of permanence. Africans who were captured and transported to the Gulf Coast, mainly from Senegambia, arrived with expertise in rice cultivation and the conversion of swampland to cropland. Techniques for drainage, filling, and levee-building were further developed in the French colony as the city of New Orleans was built with enslaved labor in the early 18th century. 5
During marronage, such skills facilitated the growing of food and construction of shelter. Knowledge of tidal patterns, and observation of changes in plant growth and animal migration, allowed maroon colonies to relocate when areas they inhabited were in danger of inundation. They understood how wetlands’ capacities for biofiltration created freshwater for drinking and cooking. Their ability to read the stars facilitated navigation, as did their proficiency in building small craft or pirogues — some of which was learned from French Arcadians who had come into Louisiana from Canada, as well as from Indigenous tribes such as the Atakapa, Caddo, Choctaw, Houma and, most importantly, the Chitimacha, who also lived in the bayous. Tools for agriculture, construction, trapping, and fishing were made, received in trade or as gifts from compatriots who remained on the plantations, purchased, or sometimes confiscated. Weapons acquired in the same ways were used to hunt game, including turtle, fowl, and wild boar. In regard to cultural practices — prominent among them the stewardship and shaping of wetlands — Diouf observes, “the most remote border of the maroon landscape was Africa.” 6 Yet, of course, “many of the South’s most common trees — the pine, the cypress, and the sweet gum — as well as the wildlife and fruits, were new to the Africans,” who at times escaped into the swamps within days of their arrival on the Gulf Coast. “They had never seen a bear or eaten a blackberry.” 7 These self-freed people quickly learned that blackberries, mulberries, grapes, pawpaws, pecans, hickory nuts, and acorns could be foraged, while grasses, roots, and other plants such as arrowhead, sassafras, palmetto, and wild morning glory could treat injuries and ailments. 8
To the southeast of New Orleans in what is now Saint Bernard Parish, the bayous, creeks, and ponds that fed Lake Borgne belonged to what is still known as the “Bas De Fleuve,” the Lower River. By the late 18th century, this area was home to several maroon colonies, two of which are well documented. The first, established in 1780, was a “petit marronage” or what Diouf calls a “borderland” community, subsisting on the margins of a plantation owned by Albert Bonne; the second, founded in 1781, was a “grand marronage” or (again in Diouf’s terminology) a “hinterland” community residing at Terre Gaillarde or Gaillardeland, deep in the Bas du Fleuve. 9 French settlements around New Orleans were laid out using the arpent system, with plantations stretching in narrow bands from waterfront to cypress swamp. This allowed “petit” maroons to hide in the wetlands but remain close enough to plantation lands to procure food and supplies from those who remained enslaved.
Sites of grand marronage like Terre Gaillarde were more completely self-sufficient. The leader there was Juan Malo — or St. Malo, as he was also called — and, for several years, he and his followers controlled the swamps below New Orleans, between the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne.10 When Terre Gaillarde was violently raided, they established a second settlement nearby, at a place called Détour des Anglais or English Turn. But this hinterland enclave was broken up in 1784, by which time the area was under Spanish control. St. Malo’s people were hunted by a militia of “mulattoe” freedmen and Spanish authorities, and St. Malo was hanged.
While it lasted, the community at Terre Gaillarde could be entered only through Lake Borgne; approaches required wading through chest-high water, along a narrow channel that led to a stretch of high ground known as Terre aux Boeufs. There maroons planted corn, rice, squash, and sweet potatoes. Forest products including willows and reeds furnished materials for baskets, sifters, and other articles. There were fish, shellfish, fowl, and river otters to be caught. Vats for indigo dyeing were carved from cypress wood for trade in New Orleans. 11 Maroons also cut cypress to build dwellings, though they understood that any thinning of tree cover must be done judiciously, since the dense growth concealed their presence. Eventually, the timbering of cypress would be partly responsible for the demise of the swampland settlements, as clandestine inhabitants forged economic relationships with local sawmill owners who paid them to cut and haul logs. 12
Maroons understood tidal patterns and navigation, observed plant growth and animal migration, and exploited wetland biofiltration for fresh water.
The maroons’ methods of survival not only depended on the surrounding environment, but in some senses mimicked it. Trees nourish each other through interconnected root systems; underground networks created by mycorrhizal fungi link individual plants and transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals. In an analogous manner, maroons shared what they had, supporting and protecting each other during times of need, while carving out complex yet sustainable ways of using the wetland forest. Consider the example of basket weaving. Maroons in the Bas de Fleuve learned basketry techniques from members of the Chitimacha tribe, who lived in Bayou Bienvenue and were (and still are) known for skill in weaving river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) and switch cane (Arundinaria tecta). 13 Hinterland maroons passed baskets they fashioned to borderland maroons, who traded such articles with slaves on adjacent plantations for food, seed, implements, and armaments. Additional articles were entrusted to contacts who participated in the Sunday African market at Congo Square in New Orleans, where Blacks both enslaved and free sold crafted wares and agricultural products. Profits were passed back from market participants to folks on the plantation to borderland maroons to hinterland maroons in what Diouf calls a “network of complicity.” 14 Such systems of exchange drew from the wetlands, extended into the city, and cycled back into the swamp communities.
The Chitimacha, whose name means “those living on the grand river,” are estimated to have had a population of least 4,000 around the year 1650, with numerous villages along the region’s natural levees; as colonization took hold, the Chitimacha took refuge in the swamps, where they sometimes hid runaway Africans. 15 Skills and practices they taught to the maroons included not only basketry, but the weaving of Spanish moss; the fashioning of blow guns, mortars and pestles, and pottery; and the construction of palmetto lean-tos and simple timber structures mortared with mud. 16 At the same time, the culture of marronage drew on beliefs carried from Senegambia and Congo regarding the power of nature for healing and protection, and the importance of living in moral, spiritual, and physical harmony with natural systems. 17 Bambara people, who came from the upper regions of the Senegal River near the Niger River, were instrumental in the development of Louisiana’s Afro-Creole culture. The agricultural commune was foundational to Bambara society, with sorghum and millet being the major crops; fishing and hunting added to the food supply. People in this region were skilled metal workers, able in the arts of blacksmithing and the forging of weaponry. 18 All this expertise was transported into marronage.
Their methods of survival not only depended on the environment, but in some senses mimicked its interdependent systems.
The wetland landscape connected peoples of African descent, Indigenous tribal groups, and poor Whites (including the Arcadians) in spatial and cultural practices that contradicted hierarchies imposed by Europeans in their conquest of the Americas. Through these exchanges, maroons deepened the ethnobotanical knowledge they brought with them into the swamps. They learned where it was safe to build and which channels to widen, so as to allow for the construction of shacks and cabins, and the maintenance of travel routes. In so doing, they developed a way of living communally and sustainably in precarious circumstances. The dire threats that maroons faced in the manmade environment of enslavement forced them into circumstances in which they had no choice but to attune themselves to a radically unstable natural environment; the constant variability of the ground beneath their feet had to be embraced as a condition of survival. As ecologically sophisticated landscape architects and lay scientists, the maroons evolved methods and techniques for navigating this landscape in a symbiotic manner, acclimating themselves to a forbidding setting in order to turn its instabilities to their advantage.
Today, we should acknowledge the practical and intellectual legacies of this history, along with the landscape ecologies practiced by Indigenous cultures, as a past that is usable both symbolically and technically. Symbolically, marronage represents a vital chapter in the protohistory of American landscape design. Technically, it offers a powerful model for coping with the risks we face in the era of sea-level rise and climate disruption — dangers that have again been brought about by human activity, as byproducts of racial capitalism.
Cypress Forest — Then and Now
The maroon way of life depended, first and foremost, on preserving the cypress forest. This in turn protected hydrological and biotic systems that extended past the swamps, from batture systems along rivers to alluvial plains where agriculture and other forms of development occurred. As biologist Janine M. Benyus has observed, “Large patches of natural vegetation are the only structures in a landscape that protect aquifers and interconnected stream networks, sustain viable populations of most interior species, provide core habitat and escape cover for most large-home-range vertebrates, and permit near-natural disturbance regimes.” 19 Such understandings can and should be applied to the present-day restoration of swamplands and the evolving understanding of wetland tidal movement, both of which are vital in protecting cities from rising seas and intensified storm surges — as well as mitigating the impact of dredging and other industrial interventions that raise salinity levels; ensuring the freshwater supply; and planning for sustainable development.
The maroon way of life depended on the cypress forest, a protector of hydrological and biotic systems that extended past the swamps.
In Louisiana, the protection of cypress forest in particular remains critical. On August 29, 2005, storm surge from Hurricane Katrina traveled through the Central Wetlands up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet or MRGO, a 76-mile channel completed in 1968 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to connect the Port of New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Lake Ponchartrain Conservancy, construction of the MRGO had “converted 20,000 acres (31.2 square miles) of wetlands to open water, and allowed saltwater to flow inland from the Gulf, eventually damaging an additional 7,600 acres (11.8 square miles) of wetland and lagoon habitat.” 20 When Katrina struck, the freshwater cypress-tupelo forest of the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle, already depleted by decades of industrialization and saltwater inundation, could no longer buffer the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Instead, storm water rushed into the Industrial Canal, another USACE project, completed in 1923 to connect Lake Ponchartrain to the Mississippi River. Levees were overtopped, and the city flooded. The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies estimates that cypress forest as it existed in Bayou Bienvenue prior to construction of the MRGO would have slowed the surge enough to lower water levels by two feet. 21 This would have prevented the levees’ failure.
The MRGO was deauthorized for use in 2009, and passage along it was prevented by a 950-foot rock dam, laid to follow the contours of a natural barrier, the Bayou La Loutre Ridge, that had been breached when the MRGO was built. 22 This positive change resulted from years of agitation by the MRGO Must Go Coalition, a group of seventeen local and national NGOs and community organizations that lobbied Congress to pass the Water Resources and Development Act of 2007, mandating that the channel be closed to navigation. The USACE has since developed a plan for estuarine restoration, focusing on the revitalization of submerged aquatic vegetation, oyster reefs, riparian forest, and wet prairie. 23 But a specific project for the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle (which is itself the extreme northwestern portion of the 28,000-acre Bayou Bienvenue Central Wetland) has yet to be outlined.
In Louisiana, the protection of cypress forest and the restoration of wetland ecologies remains critical.
Nineteenth-century planters and city-dwellers tended to view the swamps as wasteland; landowners and lumber companies sent Black laborers, both enslaved and free, to cut cypress and other timber apparently without understanding how deforestation harmed the delicately balanced bayou ecosystem, including the increased flood risk posed to their own properties. 24 Construction of the MRGO exacerbated this type of exploitation. Now, as neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish face the escalating dangers of stronger and more frequent storms, large-scale restoration is needed in the 427-acre Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle. This would require the creation of new wetland forest through the halting of saltwater intrusion; the addition of freshwater, sediments, and nutrients; and the replanting of cypress and other plant species. 25 As Benyus puts it, “once we see nature as a mentor, our relationship with the living world changes.” 26 Drawing on this insight, at the policy level, would improve our ability to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of natural processes.
Marronage for the 21st Century
The Lower Ninth Ward borders the Bas du Fleuve, stretching from the Mississippi to Bayou Bienvenue. Measuring 20 blocks long by 25 blocks wide, the Lower Ninth is cut off from most of the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal. The Wetland Triangle lies directly adjacent to the portion of the neighborhood known as “back-a-town” or Backatown. Here, at the eastern corner of the Triangle, is the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board’s East Bank Sewage Treatment Plant; on the western corner, barely separated from Backatown by Florida Avenue, is the New Orleans Stormwater Pumping Station No. 5. The people of the Lower Ninth Ward thus have an intimate relationship with the Triangle, which provides fishing or crabbing one day, and the next day threatens flooding and environmental pollution.
While residents wait for the USACE and other authorities to act on a large scale, activists in the Lower Ninth Ward, and across the river in neighborhoods along the West bank, have been looking to the maroons for inspiration. Needless to say, there are profound differences — cultural, economic, environmental, and political — between life in and around New Orleans in the late 18th century and in the early 21st. Yet the ephemeral interventions that made marronage possible, including the building of raised structures, the opening of channels for small boats, and the sustainable exploitation of wetland flora and fauna, continue to offer broad lessons.
While residents wait for authorities to act, New Orleans activists have been looking to the maroons for inspiration.
One citizen ecologist inspired by this history is John W. Taylor. Now in his seventies, Taylor grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, fishing, harvesting crawfish, trapping turtles, and foraging for herbs in Bayou Bienvenue. Like the maroons before him, he sold much of his bounty at market while bringing some home for his mother’s creole cooking. The swamp, says Taylor, “used to be so thick with cypress trees that my brother and I boated it without paddles. We just grabbed onto trunks and pulled ourselves forward. The water was full of crawfish and cypress trout or mud fish.” 27 But the saltwater intrusion brought about by dredging in the MRGO created “a ghost swamp of brackish water. What used to be an old-growth swamp filled with cypress trees, water lilies, and freshwater wildlife such as fish, alligators, otters, birds, and crawfish, is mostly open water today.” 28 Taylor has made it his mission to tell the story of the wetlands; he guides tours of the bayou and works with the National Fish and Wildlife Federation to advance community-scaled sustainable coastal projects and to mount interpretative exhibits about the Wetland Triangle, providing access and stewardship opportunities for nearby residents. 29
Another activist who links his work to the maroons’ example is Malik Rahim, also a New Orleans native, a former Black Panther and long-time advocate for housing justice and prisoners’ rights. In 2005, in the aftermath of Katrina, Rahim co-founded Common Ground Collective, a network of disaster-relief nonprofits that organized thousands of volunteers to gut damaged homes, establish community health clinics, and help to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward and the neighborhood of Algiers, across the river. 30 Rahim has been honored as a “living legend” in New Orleans activist communities, and he connects his thinking explicitly to the figure of Juan Malo. “Malo was a saint to the maroons and the bogey man to others,” Rahim notes.
Children were told that Malo would take you from your bed if you were bad. And it’s true that one tactic maroons used would be to take a child [from a plantation] who could learn to speak their African dialect. One of the amazing parts of maroon culture was that they might have built up a small village with eight different dialects between twelve families. One had to learn how to communicate, the skills to survive in the bayou, how to avoid the slave hunts. Malo evaded capture for almost 20 years. And even after he was murdered, the culture still survived, even up to the 1811 slave revolt. Many of those participating in the revolt were also maroons.
Maroons taught Cajuns, French people from Canada, how to survive — what to eat and what not to eat. Catfish, crawfish, shrimp, and alligators were plentiful, and Cajuns knew nothing of this when arriving in the wetlands. New cuisine was created from the transfer of knowledge and customs between Native Americans, maroons, and Cajuns. The word “gumbo” derives from an African word for okra; much of Cajun cuisine is maroon cuisine. Maroons would cut down cypress trees and trade them to Cajuns for supplies. Both Cajuns and maroons became buccaneers, and Cajuns and maroons created the first real integrated community, a unique kinship, from surviving in the bayou.
There were two periods of maroon occupation in the wetlands, one when maroon communities thrived, and a second period when maroons were co-contributors to wetland destruction, which contributed in turn to their demise. And there were two types of maroons, the grand maroons and the petit maroons. A petit maroon had no intention to stay in the bayou; he might have come out there to visit relatives. A grand maroon decided he would die in the bayou before he would be a slave. 31
Each year since Hurricane Katrina, Common Ground and its partner organizations have planted thousands of bald cypress trees and herbaceous plants. More recently, in order to inspire young environmental activists through knowledge of the maroons, Rahim has founded a second project, the Clovese and Hellen Juilien Community Cultural House, that has purchased property in Algiers, where they are raising cypress seedlings for future restoration projects.
Marronage enabled more than liberation of the subjugated. It also entailed liberation of the land.
Marronage, according to Diouf, should be “apprehended, explained, and understood as being anchored in and making use of interconnected areas within the larger landscape …. Maroons inhabited the fluid landscape of the borderlands that shifted with the tides and was remodeled by the floods and the droughts.” 32 Marronage, that is, enabled more than liberation of the subjugated. It also entailed liberation of the land. The institution of slavery damaged the landscapes on which it depended. Yet ecologically inventive and sensitive approaches also arose in opposition to the peculiar institution. The maroons’ legacy speaks to an ethics of land care and a fostering of human/nonhuman connections across landscapes types, illustrating the exquisitely specific ways in which resilient relationships to place can be established — even in places that are, at first sight, uninhabitable and unimportant.
As we confront the profound precarity of climate crisis in a period of advancing autocracy, the maroons’ understanding of their physical landscape and elegant manipulations of the wetland ecosystem remain essential. For, what is freedom? To be free is to live without fear, with the ability to make choices. It was fear of capture, violence, forced labor, and the loss of self-determination that haunted maroon communities. Today, perils that menace us include flooding, fire, food scarcity, and the failure of our water systems. If urgent ecological and environmental lessons — including those still to be gleaned from maroon life — are not heeded, and new ways to interact with the earth and with one another are not sought, then the choices we can make in the near future — and therefore the freedom we can claim — may be very limited indeed.