Harriet Tubman’s story began in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It was here she was born and grew up enduring the inhumanity of slavery. It was here she escaped from. And it was here she returned time and again to lead others to freedom. With the announcement that Tubman will become the new face of the $20 bill, we look at some of the key points in her life in Maryland.
Harriet Tubman had close ties to the area around the current-day Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, MD, and she would probably recognize the forests, marshes, and waterways today. Decades before she was born, her grandmother Modesty was enslaved on Atthow Pattison’s farm, on the east side of the convergence of the Little Blackwater and the Blackwater Rivers. You can view the remainder of the farm’s 265-acre expanse from Stapleford Cemetery on the refuge’s Wildlife Drive. Harriet’s mother Rit was born there, and years later, a very young Harriet waded in the frigid marshes near there to check muskrat traps for her master.
By the time Harriet was born around 1823, her mother had been inherited by Pattison’s granddaughter and moved to Bucktown where she worked as a house servant for the Brodess family. Harriet spent portions of her childhood there, but it was customary to rent or hire out slaves to other landowners, and Harriet was hired out at about the age of six. She was often mistreated and beaten by her temporary masters, and she bore the emotional and physical scars for life.
As you look out over the Blackwater Rivers, imagine a six-year-old child slogging barefoot through the winter mud. One of Harriet’s first jobs was to roam the marshes to check the muskrat traps for her temporary master, James Cook. It was cold, dangerous work, done in winter when the pelts are most luxurious. The traps were set into the banks of streams near the animals’ burrows or in the marshes where they build mounds. It was not work for a child.
At some point little Harriet got sick with measles, but she was forced to continue working the traps. She became so ill that her mother convinced their owner Edward Brodess to bring Harriet home to be nursed back to health. He did, but she was returned to the Cooks when she recovered. Harriet hated having her family split apart by temporary masters. But she achieved retribution years later when she helped free those families’ enslaved men, women, and children.
In the 1830s, Bucktown was a larger community with two stores, a blacksmith, and shipyards on the Transquaking River. It was in one of those stores that teenaged Harriet had a life-changing experience. After working in the field breaking flax, she went to the store with the house cook. While they were there, a young man ran inside followed by an angry overseer. The overseer ordered Harriet to help him subdue the other slave, but she hesitated. In a flash the man hurled a two-pound counter weight that crashed into Harriet’s skull. She was out cold and carried back to the house, where she lay unconscious for two days.
Telling the story years later, Harriet remarked that having worked all day with the flax, “My hair had never been combed, and it stood out like a bushel basket. I expect that hair saved my life.”
It took a very long time for Harriet to recover sufficiently, and from that day until her death in 1913, she experienced seizures with visions and messages. Her value to her master was diminished, and he tried to sell her. But no one would buy a sick, disabled slave. As local agriculture declined, fear of being sold to the Deep South permeated every slave’s life.
Harriet labored as hard as she physically could to avoid being sold. She joined her father working timber around Stewarts Canal and mingled at the wharves at Madison. There she met free and enslaved blacksmiths, sail makers, caulkers, and remarkably black mobile sailors who were part of a secret communication network. These worldly men brought news, ideas, information, and gossip to enslaved communities around the Chesapeake and across the Atlantic.
Over the years, Harriet realized she must free herself. It was a dangerous and terrifying thought. She had grown knowledgeable about the natural and wider world while working in the marshes, laboring beside her father in the woods, and listening to stories at the wharves. She made connections and understood the possibilities. It was time for her to go.
“…there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home, after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.”
In the fall of 1849, Harriet left Dorchester County alone. Guided by the North Star she traveled by night. She connected with participants in the Underground Railroad network of sympathizers, and in a few weeks found her way to Philadelphia. Now she was free, but alone, “…there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home, after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.” She worked, saved her money, and made plans to return and liberate her loved ones.
A year later in December 1850, Harriet orchestrated her first rescue for her niece Kessiah and her two children from the auction block at the Dorchester County Court House. Working with relations in Baltimore and Kessiah’s husband, she devised a successful scheme to ferry them up the Chesapeake and eventually deliver them to Ontario, Canada. After that, she worked tirelessly with collaborators on the Underground Railroad, returned home 13 times and led 70 people to freedom, including her brothers and her elderly parents.
In the end, the place that tortured Harriet Tubman the most, offered the key to her escape. Her painful childhood years in the marshes and woods gave her an understanding of the natural world. Her ability to make the perilous trip north, through the woods, at night, with capture lurking at every juncture, became legendary. She navigated by the North Star, recognized medicinal and edible plants, and safely crossed the Choptank River with her charges. Without such practical knowledge and gritty determination, she may not have made her own escape, let alone been able to lead so many others to freedom. So the next time you ride over the Little Blackwater or around Wildlife Drive or past the Bucktown Village Store consider them the crucible for the birth and preparation of a true American hero.
To learn more about Harriet Tubman’s life and her remarkable courage and selflessness, explore the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway and visit sites where she lived, worked, and understood well. Pick up a free driving tour and/or audio guide at the Dorchester County Visitor Center in Cambridge, MD or request the Finding a Way to Freedom Map & Guide at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-228-1000.
• Book: Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson, One World/Ballantine; February 19, 2009
• Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway Tour Certification Training manual, Dorchester County Tourism, Caroline County Tourism, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, June 2011.