In 2016, the story of the Free State of Jones made it to the big screen. Based on real history, the film follows the story of Newell Knight, a Confederate deserter who ran into a Mississippi swamp to evade authorities and teamed up with a colony of other deserters and fugitive slaves. This is one of the parts of the film that is true to history, and it sheds light on a topic that isn’t often discussed.
We usually think of escaped slaves traveling to freedom via the Underground Railroad. While many did, others took up residence in isolated areas of the South, sometimes even forming communities in such places.
One such story comes from Clarke County, Alabama. Most of the story has been passed down through oral history, and different versions have conflicting details.
The hero of the story is Hal, a slave owned by Colonel Alexander Hollinger of Poll Bayou in the early 1800’s. According to legend, the Hollinger family moved from Poll Bayou to Claiborne, and it was during this move that Hal escaped along with his wife and a few other slaves.
Hal led his followers deep into the swampy wilderness of southern Alabama, near where the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers meet. In the depths of the swamp, Hal discovered a body of clear water.
The lake was home to deer, alligators, bears and other game animals that could be hunted for food.
Hal and his followers settled in the area and built cabins. They survived by hunting and rafting downriver to Mobile to sell animal hides. For many years, their settlement went undetected. And as other escaped slaves found their way to Hal’s Lake, the colony grew.
As the founder of the community, Hal was the leader. In fact, many called the settlement Hal’s Kingdom. As he and his followers earned money from the sale of animal hides, they bought guns and ammunition and fortified their colony. Years passed, and many of Hal’s followers began raiding nearby plantations, stealing crops and cattle in the dead of night.
Hal himself became more tyrannical, demanding absolute obedience from his followers. One man, named Joe, refused to obey, Hal exiled him from the colony. Bent on revenge, Joe made his way back to his master and told him about Hal’s colony. Some said that like Judas, he did in exchange for 30 pieces of silver.
Word of Joe’s confession spread among the local plantation owners, and they banded together to attack Hal’s Kingdom.
The July 12, 1827, edition of the National Gazette and Literary Register in Philadelphia wrote about the fall of Hal’s Kingdom:
A nest of runaway negroes was discovered last week in the fork of the Alabama and Tombeckbee [sic] Rivers, by a party from the upper end of Mobile County… The negroes were attacked and prisoners and others escaped. They had two cabins and were about to build a Fort. The encampment is probably broken up entirely. Some of these negroes have been runaway several years, and have committed many depredations on the neighboring plantations. They fought desperately.
Another account says that Hal was killed in the attack.
In his book A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South, Jonathan Dean Sarris mentions communities similar to Hal’s Kingdom in northern Georgia during the Civil War:
“[Escaped slaves] fled to the wooded coves or high ridges near their homes, living off the country and hiding from patrollers for weeks or months at a time. Groups of these refugees formed small maroon communities to avoid or at least delay recapture, aided by a network of spies and collaborators within the enslaved community. They sometimes resorted to violence to keep their freedom for even a few more days. One runaway overturned a pot of boiling lard on a group of white pursuers. Others “stretched ropes or grapevines across the road where they knew the patrollers would be riding,” disabling horses and riders. Eventually, almost all these escapees were swept up by patrollers, or else they returned voluntarily due to hunger or hopelessness. But despite harsh punishments, many of these slaves ran away again and again. Some of them, local blacks insisted, “stayed in the woods until the surrender” at Appomattox in 1865. Whether these stories were real or fantasy, they served a potent mythological purpose among the enslaved people of north Georgia.”
As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been much formal research done about communities like these. But it’s an area I find fascinating, and I’ll probably revisit it again in the future as I discover more.