This is part two of a two part article. Did you miss part one? Click here.
A constant threat facing Maryland’s enslaved blacks was the possibility that at any time a member of their family could be sold to slaveholders in the deep South, forever shattering the family. Harriet Tubman had seen two older sisters sold off, one tearfully leaving behind her two children.
In 1850, during an auction at the Dorchester County Courthouse on High Street, Tubman’s niece Kezziah managed to escape with her two children when the auctioneer halted proceedings for lunch. Kezziah’s husband, a free black ship carpenter, spirited them away by boat to Baltimore, where Tubman met them and escorted them to Philadelphia.
Much of what we know about Harriet Tubman’s early life comes from records stored at the County Courthouse, built in 1853. A fire in 1852 destroyed the original courthouse, but according to Tubman biographer Kate Larson, some records were saved by a clerk who had taken them home to catch up on his work, and others by citizens who dashed into the burning building to rescue them.
Though earlier books cite Bucktown as her birthplace, it’s now thought that Tubman was actually born on Anthony Thompson’s plantation on Harrisville Road in 1822 and was taken to Bucktown as a child of about two.
Regardless, Bucktown looms large in Tubman’s life story. From an early age she worked on the Brodess Plantation, about two miles from Bucktown. Her mistress often hired her out to neighboring farms whose masters seemingly resorted to using the whip at the slightest provocation.
Judged temperamentally unsuited for domestic work, Harriet was put to work in the fields. Refuting the propaganda surrounding “happy slaves,” Tubman later declared, “There were good masters and mistresses, as I’ve heard tell, but I didn’t happen to come across any of them.”
Perhaps it was the harsh working conditions from the time she was a small child that fueled Tubman’s determination to seek freedom. “There are two things I have a right to,” she told her mother. “Either freedom or death. If I can’t have one, then I will have the other.”
It was here, at the Bucktown Village Store, that Tubman suffered her near-death injury. “After that,” says Jay Meredith, “as far as slaveholders were concerned, she was damaged goods.”
Meredith, whose family first arrived on the Eastern Shore in 1668, has restored the small store to its mid-1800s appearance. He and his wife Susan operate Blackwater Paddle & Peddle as a means of maintaining the historic building. All of which gives visitors an exciting option: take an in-depth tour through Harriet Tubman country by bicycle or kayak. Both tours afford an intimate, eye-level view of the watery expanses traversed by runaway slaves.
A new park—the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park—is taking shape on the edge of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. As the trailhead for the scenic byway, the park is developing a visitor center along with an exhibit hall and memorial gardens. The surrounding labyrinth of creeks and wetlands, at one time a refuge for fugitive slaves, recalls the backdrop for Tubman’s life growing up on the Eastern Shore.
Most of the Dorchester County sites along the Byway are clustered around Cambridge or scattered to the east and west of the new state park. Then the route heads north on Highway 16, paralleling the Choptank River, to adjacent Caroline County. This is roughly the path followed by Tubman and her charges as they aimed for Sandtown, Delaware, and the Mason-Dixon Line.
Along the way, a stop at the Faith Community United Methodist Church in East New Market reveals the dangers facing anti-slavery activists. The Reverend Samuel Green, a literate free black and an agent for the Underground Railroad, preached at the church on this site. Slaveholders, suspecting that he’d been involved in hiding several groups of runaways, had his house raided. Despite the incriminating evidence of Canadian maps and New Jersey railroad schedules, it was a book—the anti-slavery “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”—that landed him in the penitentiary.
Nor did local slaveholders take kindly to the Levertons, a Quaker family who operated a “station house” farther north in Caroline County. When their son and a free black neighbor were exposed as agents on the Underground Railroad, both men fled to escape an angry mob. The elder Levertons soon joined their son in Indiana. Their brick house remains, but it’s now a private residence. A Quaker meetinghouse, one of five in Caroline County whose abolitionist members supported the Underground Railroad, still stands in Tuckahoe Neck.
At first Tubman guided other freedom seekers to Philadelphia and New York. But after 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act granted slave-catchers free rein throughout the United States, she led her charges all the way to Canada.
Late in 1854 Harriet decided to return for her brothers Benjamin, Henry and Robert. The timing was indeed providential, since their owner planned to sell them on the day after Christmas. On Christmas Eve Harriet sent them to their parents’ cabin in Poplar Neck, Caroline County, where three other escapees joined them. Harriet’s mother was expecting her sons for Christmas, but no one dared tell her that they were hiding among the corn in a nearby fodder house for fear she would cause a commotion. When he brought them food, father Ben tied a bandanna around his eyes so that later both parents would be able to say truthfully they hadn’t laid eyes on their sons. Harriet’s party reached St. Catharines, Canada, early in 1855.
By 1857 Harriet Tubman had managed to guide most of her family members, plus many others, to safety in the north. Her parents, however, faced increasing scrutiny as slaveholders suspected them of involvement in the Underground Railroad. In one of her most ingenious escapes, Harriet rigged up a slapdash conveyance to an old horse and drove off with her parents—albeit at great risk–to deliver them safely to Canada. Later, when slave-catchers were no longer a concern, she brought her parents back to Auburn, New York.
The start of the Civil War sent Harriet Tubman on a new, equally unlikely series of adventures. Her skills at disguising herself and blending into a crowd served her well in her role as Union scout and spy. As a nurse she tended wounded soldiers of both races. Most improbably, she guided a successful raid up the Combahee River under the command of Col. James Montgomery.
Tubman hobnobbed with leading abolitionists like John Brown, Thomas Garrett, and Frederick Douglass. In 1857 she purchased her first home, in Auburn, New York, from her friend William Seward, the future Secretary of State under President Lincoln. In later years she joined Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth in the struggle for women’s rights.
So prodigious are her accomplishments that two National Parks have been proposed in honor of the woman known as the “Moses” of her people. The first is the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Caroline, Dorchester, and Talbot Counties, Maryland. The second, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, New York, encompasses the Harriet Tubman Home, the Tubman Home for the Aged, and the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church.
President Obama moved the Maryland park a step closer to reality when he announced a new national monument: the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. It’s a fitting tribute to this humble, unassuming woman, who nonetheless took pride in her record: “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
Learn more about the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway.
This is part two of a two part article. Did you miss part one? Click here.