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The Courage of a People Enslaved

Today I marvel at Beidler Forest’s ancient bald cypress trees, its beautiful blackwater sloughs, and the sounds of birds and bugs and breezes that have echoed through these woods for centuries.

But go back 200 years or so, and you’d find people who appreciated the swamp for entirely different reasons. Called Maroons, they were enslaved people who had escaped from local plantations and work sites. They’d band together in small communities deep in the swamp, eluding capture, healing their wounds, living off the land, creating trade goods to barter for tools and other necessities, and sometimes even managing to escape to freedom in the North.

Solitude and solace for me today. Safety and salvation for the Maroons back then.

James Williams’ Story

So in celebration of Black History Month, the Audubon Center at Beidler Forest is honoring the memory of these brave survivors by hosting a Maroons Cultural Heritage Day on February 24th.  In particular, we’re highlighting the life of James Williams, an enslaved man born near Four Holes Swamp in the early 1800s.

Williams’s recollections of slavery were captured in The Emancipator, an abolitionist publication, in 1838.  Williams vividly described his life as the property of several different plantation owners and his various labors and trials over time.  On several occasions, he escaped temporarily to Four Holes Swamp.

Escaping later to the shipyards in Charleston, Williams met a kind sailor who told him that freedom might be found outside the slave states.  The sailor hid him in the hold of a vessel bound for Boston, sustained him with water and crackers, and found extra garments for the shivering runaway.

As Williams described the month-long voyage:  “Sometimes the vessel would be rocking and pitching so that it seemed as though my feet were up and my head down; but it was all nothing to what it would be to go back to slavery.”

Eventually, Williams made it to Maine.  There he spent the rest of his life a free man, most likely in a small town populated with abolitionists — "a congenial place," notes one historian, "for a man seeking community and protection."

Honoring the Maroons

At our Maroons Cultural Heritage Day, a reenactor will portray Williams’s life, helping us envision the tribulations he faced two centuries ago.

In addition to the reenactment, we’ll recreate a sample Maroon encampment and demonstrate several “swamp technologies” that the Maroons would have used in their quest for survival. Herbal medicines, shingle riving, split-oak basketry, some unusual old-time swamp fishing techniques, and outdoor cooking will be on display along the boardwalk.

So please join us on the 24th to salute James Williams and other courageous runaways who were forced to make the swamp their home.  As one historian says of Williams’ recollections:  his “voice emerges … as a piercing testament not only to the cruelty of slavery, but as an assertion of his own manhood, his own honor, and his willingness to claim his humanity.”