Harriet Tubman was thirteen, a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, when she accompanied the plantation cook on an errand to the Bucktown Village Store. Jay Meredith, current owner of the store, describes the incident that would change her life: Another young slave ran through the store with his master in pursuit. The slave owner picked up a two-pound weight and hurled it at the boy just as Harriet appeared at the door. The blow hit Harriet instead, knocking her to the floor and almost killing her.
After months of convalescence under her mother’s care, Harriet began to build her strength and to work again. But for the rest of her life she would suffer severe headaches, sudden sleeping spells, and vivid dreams that she interpreted as divine directives. It’s now thought that the injury caused a condition called temporal lobe epilepsy.
Harriet claimed that her visions enabled her to elude capture on her missions to rescue other slaves. When asked whether she held ill feelings toward the man who injured her, she replied, “There’s always a purpose. God uses everything for good.”
More than a century later, we honor this courageous woman, the legendary one-time slave turned abolitionist who became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, then served as a Union spy and nurse during the Civil War and an advocate for humanitarian causes throughout her long life.
New signs along Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway invite travelers to trace Tubman’s life story. It’s a remarkable tale, tinged with tragedy and thwarted love, yet shot through with resolve, suspense, and perhaps—as Tubman herself insists–even divine intervention.
Born Araminta Ross in 1822, “Minty” took the name Harriet from her mother and Tubman when she married the free black John Tubman. John’s parents and grandparents had been the slaves of wealthy white settlers named Tubman, who later freed them. Many Tubman descendants, both black and white, now live in the area west of Cambridge around Woolford.
“This is where they were married, in 1844,” says one of those descendants, Renná McKinney, standing beside the old cemetery that adjoins the tiny Malone Methodist Episcopal Church on White Marsh Road. At the rear of the graveyard, its far reaches overgrown by the encroaching forest, three barely legible gravestones are etched with the surname Tubman.
Nearby, Harriet once rented out her services to Joseph Stewart on the vast tracts of timber owned by his family. It was in this general area, too, that Harriet learned invaluable lessons from her father—lessons that would stand her in good stead when she determined to forge a path to freedom. The North Star would be her guide, and when it was clouded over she was to look for the moss that grows on the north side of the trees. Certain plants could be foraged for food and medicine, and small animals inhabited the waterways. Perhaps more importantly, Harriet tapped into the extensive network of free blacks and slaves who maintained contact with the boatmen sailing the region’s waterways.
“They knew this country like the backs of their hands,” says James McCoy, who, like McKinney, is working to restore the Malone Church. He describes “helpers” guiding escaped slaves to the next safe location, avoiding the main roads and traveling by night. Various codes conveyed messages—colored quilts, for example, or Negro spirituals. “We still sing those same spirituals that they sang,” says McKinney. She places her hand over her heart. “Whenever we do, I feel it right here.”
A striking white sail floating above the bank of the Choptank River marks the location of the Dorchester County Visitor Center in Cambridge, the first stop on the scenic byway. Here visitors pick up the itinerary “Finding a Way to Freedom,” which contains maps and directions to twenty-eight significant locations along the route. The 125-mile tour can be completed in six hours of driving–but that, of course, defeats the purpose.
If you decide to follow Tubman’s trail, far better to immerse yourself in the spirit of the journey, setting a leisurely pace as you follow the general trajectory of the freedom seekers traveling south to north, who avoided well-traveled thoroughfares and varied their course in order to elude their pursuers. Allow about three days to check off as many of the numbered locations as you choose while you revel in your own sense of discovery.
After an orientation at the Visitor Center, a short drive across Cambridge Creek situates you among the historic landmarks of this old colonial village. By the time Harriet Tubman entered the picture, in the decades before the Civil War, the local population consisted of pro-slavery and anti-slavery whites–including slave-holders and abolitionists–plus slaves and free blacks. Among the last were individuals who had arrived with the earliest settlers, sometimes as indentured servants who then worked off their debts. Others bought their freedom, or were granted freedom from bondage by former masters—“for conscience’ sake,” according to Frederick Douglass.
On Race Street, an unpretentious storefront building houses the “Harriet Tubman Museum and Education Center.” Here a life-size mural of Harriet Tubman elicits surprise: this heroic woman, who performed almost super-human feats as she led fellow slaves to freedom, stood barely five feet tall. Photos and documents, plus audio-visual materials, attest to her role as “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.
It’s hard to imagine a more misleading yet perfectly apt designation than “Underground Railroad.” Neither physically underground nor dependent on tracks, the name refers to a clandestine network of people who helped direct freedom-seekers from southern slave-holding states to the north. Often their assistance took the form of temporary lodging, or food and clothing, or a ride to the next “station,” i.e. safe house. The routes were many and fluid, and in border states like Maryland, especially active.
Harriet Tubman, like others before her, relied on the Underground Railroad to help guide her to freedom in Philadelphia. In 1849, she was working on one of the many plantations owned by Anthony Thompson. Harriet had been married to John Tubman for about four years when she made the difficult decision to strike out for freedom. Having heard rumors that she was to be sold south, she determined to leave, armed only with the names of two agents—names she was unable to read. The agent at the first station delivered her to the next hidden in his hay wagon; a series of similar subterfuges saw her all the way to Philadelphia.
Once in Philadelphia she worked at menial jobs and saved her earnings for a return to the Eastern Shore in order to bring her husband north. It was a bittersweet trip. During the two years that Harriet had been working and saving for their reunion, John had taken another wife; he was quite content to remain in Dorchester County. After a brief, furious outburst, Harriet “…dropped him out of her heart,” and found a group of slaves who were only too happy to follow her to freedom.
But then she did the unthinkable, risking life and liberty multiple times to return to the Eastern Shore. “We have documentation for eleven of her trips,” says William Jarmon of the Harriet Tubman Museum, “but she may have returned as many as seventeen times.”
Please stay turned for the continuation Harriet Tubman’s story coming out next week on Historic Heroines.
Learn more about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway.