At some point in the swelling rhapsody around Harriet Tubman’s remarkable life, it is easy to wonder, with perhaps a bit of guilt, where Tubman’s heroism ends and tall tales begin.
Somewhere between mythic and make-believe slave narratives, “Birth of a Nation” and “Django Unchained” included, you want to hit pause and go searching for the truth of how, for instance, a fugitive slave slipped into Poplar Neck, Maryland, on Christmas Day in 1854 and stole off with her three brothers and several loved ones. To meditate on the nail-biting moment when this same woman was riding a train and, upon spotting a former master, had the wits to calmly pull a newspaper up to her face (unable to read, she hoped the paper was right-side up) until he was safely out of sight. To envision the close call when, in the periphery, she saw another former master in a market and, instead of losing her cool, set loose the chickens she was carrying and let them cluck at her potential captor to distraction.
Sitting at the Harriet Tubman Museum & Education Center in Cambridge, Maryland, I listened as a group of museum volunteers traded in vivid, harrowing detail these and other stories about Tubman, who not only escaped slavery but also returned home some 13 times to liberate her family and friends by tapping into a brilliantly clandestine anti-slavery network known as the Underground Railroad. As astonishing as Tubman’s feats were, her lore, though, can be hyperbolic. Among the myths is that Tubman freed as many as 300 slaves. According to historical records, from 1850 to 1860, Tubman directly freed more like 70 enslaved people and gave instructions to just as many planning their escape.
By traveling Maryland’s Eastern Shore, talking to those most familiar with Tubman’s story and experiencing my own tactile connection to these secret paths to freedom, I hoped to gain a deeper, more accurate understanding of this complex American hero. “I’ve spent most of my life learning about Harriet Tubman, and I know I haven’t even scratched the surface,” said Linda Wheatley, a founder of the museum. “I can’t count the ways she inspires me — as a woman, leader, Christian, activist. I could go on.”
It was the first night of my three-day trek across the Eastern Shore, Tubman’s birthplace and the landscape she traversed, fugitive slaves in tow, from Dorchester County through Delaware into Philadelphia.
My trip coincided with the state’s renewed fervor around Tubman: On March 11, the Maryland State Park Service and the National Park Service will open the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, a $21 million project in Church Creek that commemorates, through brochures, a film and an audio guide, Tubman’s journey, from slave to Underground Railroad “conductor” and, later in life, Civil War scout, spy and nurse. Sitting on 17 acres, the new center will be part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, a 125-mile self-guided driving tour that wends through 36 significant sites along the Eastern Shore.
While browsing the Cambridge museum’s collection, I indulged a longtime curiosity about how my forebears had survived and escaped slavery in this part of the country and how Tubman became known as the Moses of her people. In these volunteers’ eyes, Tubman’s roots in Dorchester County gave them not only bragging rights but also carried an obligation to illuminate her story in a way that a zillion children’s books — or her face on the $20 bill — could never achieve.
Through the years I had explored the cruelties of slavery in Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina. But I didn’t know many specifics about slavery on the Eastern Shore. Starting in the early 1600s until the mid-1800s, thousands of African-Americans would encounter the marshy wooded landscape of the Chesapeake Bay region, first as a gateway through which slave traders forcibly brought them from Africa into the colonies and later as essential paths and waterways that formed the Underground Railroad. From 1700 to 1770, the state’s slave population grew from 13,000 to 250,000 (Frederick Douglass was born here, in Talbot County). Yet, while Maryland’s dependence on slave labor for agriculture and timber was well established, its grip on the peculiar institution proved to be less sturdy.
In her deftly researched Harriet Tubman biography “Bound for the Promised Land,” author Kate Clifford Larson says that in 1850, Maryland had 279 runaway slaves, leading the nation’s slave states in successfully executed escapes. “Despite stepped-up efforts in Maryland and other southern states to thwart escapes during the ten years before the Civil War, some slaves did marshal the strength and courage to take their liberty,” Larson writes. “But few returned to the land of their enslavers, risking capture and re-enslavement, even lynching, to help others seek their own emancipation.”
Among those few was Tubman.The exact date of her birth is unknown (owners rarely recorded their slave’s birth dates), but historians generally agree that Tubman, who had eight siblings, was born Araminta Ross in 1822 to Benjamin and Harriet (Rit) Greene Ross, taking on her mother’s first name when she married in 1844. Many have incorrectly cited her birthplace as Bucktown; she was actually born in nearby Peters Neck, on a farm owned by Anthony Thompson, a medical doctor and timber magnate, and was later moved to Bucktown.
The morning after my arrival in Cambridge, I took the 20-minute drive to the Bucktown farm of Edward Brodess, Thompson’s stepson and Tubman’s owner. It is a serene drive, as the landscape shifts quickly from urban to wide-open rural spaces, with acres of barren, tan-colored land stretching miles into the distance, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse.
Along the way, I encountered some fascinating sites such as Joseph Stewart’s Canal, where from 1810 to 1832, enslaved and free blacks dug a 7-mile canal through the marsh for commercial transportation. The canal was owned by the wealthy slaveholding Stewart family, and Tubman’s father, who worked at a nearby timbering operation, transported materials on the canal. While in the area, I also stopped briefly at the Stanley Institute, a one-room 19th-century schoolhouse that doubled as a church, and sat at one of its wooden desks. It is one of the state’s oldest schools operated by the black community.
Tubman herself never learned to read or write. Starting around 5 years old, she was lent out to nearby families to work; she checked muskrat traps in streams and rivers, and worked as a nursemaid to a planter’s child and later as a field hand on timber farms. From Tubman’s era, the Bucktown Village Store, although renovated, still stands. It was there that Tubman, as a teenager, showed early signs of rebellion — and she paid dearly for it.
She had arrived one day at the store with a slave owner’s cook, crossing paths with an overseer arguing with his slave. The slave apparently had left the farm without permission. When the overseer ordered Tubman to help him restrain the man, she refused and the slave broke away. The overseer then grabbed a 2-pound weight off the counter, threw it at the fleeing slave and instead struck Tubman. The blow fractured Tubman’s skull and caused her to suffer severe headaches and seizures throughout her life.
Nearly a decade later, she married John Tubman, a free black man, even as she continued in servitude to the Brodess family. When her master died in 1849, Tubman and two of her brothers, Harry and Ben, fearing they would be sold, ran away — later returning for fear of punishment. Shortly after, Tubman set out on her own, guided through the night by the North Star and well-worn paths of the Underground Railroad up into Pennsylvania, where slavery was illegal. Few details of this escape are known, only that Tubman traveled by moonlight and stayed the first night with a Quaker white woman who likely supplied her with instructions and safe houses en route to freedom.
Tubman’s freedom, as she would recount in Sarah Bradford’s 1869 biography “Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People,” proved to be bittersweet. In Philadelphia, she was free, working odd jobs, but lonely. Tubman began plotting her return home to bring her kin back with her: “I had crossed de line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but dere was no one to welcome me to de land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in de old cabin quarter, wid de ole folks, and my brudders and sisters. But to dis solemn resolution I came; I was free and dey should be free also. I would make a home for dem in de North, and de Lord helping me, I would bring dem all dere.”
In 1850, Tubman made her first trip back to Maryland, where, on the steps of the Dorchester County Courthouse (which was rebuilt in 1854 after a fire), Tubman’s niece, Kessiah, was scheduled to be auctioned off. But Tubman had plotted with Kessiah’s husband, a black shipbuilder and blacksmith manumitted in the 1840s, to free his family. Before Dorchester officials caught on, he had already secured the highest bid for Kessiah and their two children and was well on his way to smuggling them to a local safe house. He then sailed up the Chesapeake to Baltimore, where Tubman greeted them and guided them to Philadelphia.
The successful rescue must have inspired Tubman. Over the next decade, aided by a tight yet vast network of black and white abolitionists, she would return to Maryland’s Eastern Shore a dozen more times, rescuing some 70 family members and friends.
Tubman was no-nonsense on these high-stakes journeys, unwilling to suffer weakness among those joining her perilous flight. “For the faint of heart she carried a pistol, telling her charges to go on or die, for a dead fugitive slave could tell no tales,” Larson writes in her Tubman biography. “Not all the tracks on the Underground Railroad were smooth.” For crying babies threatening safety, she kept paregoric, an opium extract that put them to sleep for hours.
As Larson noted: “She used disguises; she walked, rode horses and wagons; sailed on boats; and rode on real trains. She used certain songs to indicate danger or safety. She used letters, written for her by someone else, to trusted individuals like Jacob Jackson, and she used direct communication with people. She bribed people. She followed rivers that snaked northward. She used the stars and other natural phenomenon to lead her north.”
Heading north from Dorchester County, with the sun setting, I entered Caroline County and into Poplar Neck, stopping at a small log cabin built in the 1850s by James Webb, a free black farmer who lived there with his enslaved wife and four children. Along with gorgeous views of the Choptank River, the area is rich with history. Not only is it home to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where free blacks and slaves met with Tubman in secrecy to plot escapes along the Underground Railroad, but it’s also where Tubman herself escaped slavery in 1849 and would return later, in 1857, to rescue her parents from their then-owner, Thompson, who owned 2,200 acres of this area.
These days, Paulette Greene and Donna Dear, an African-American couple, own some 130 acres of that property. Beneath a giant poplar called the “Witness Tree,” where folks travel from miles away to pray and hold spiritual retreats, we talked about the sacred history of this land. Then they invited me inside their home and treated me to a delicious soup of kidney and navy beans grown on their farm.
The following morning, I continued my journey. Along Maryland’s eastern seaboard, fugitive slaves pushing to reach Pennsylvania moved through Caroline County and into Kent County in Delaware. They often stopped in Dover, where they would frequently be aided by free black and Quaker abolitionists. There the black community would later build Star Hill AME Church, which today houses a small museum, with posters advertising “Public Sale for Negroes” and bounties for runaway slaves, among other artifacts.
The museum also tells the story of white Quakers, who, opposing slavery because of religious beliefs, had freed their slaves several decades before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. As Robin Kravitz, a historian at Delaware State University, put it: “The Quakers started their manumission processes by the American Revolution. So these abolitionist connections run deep through families in this area.”
The Quakers’ commitment to the Underground Railroad inspired me on my final day on the Eastern Shore to stop at the Friends Meeting House in Wilmington, Delaware, the burial ground of Thomas Garrett, a Quaker abolitionist, a close friend of Harriet Tubman and one of the most important “stationmasters” on the Underground Railroad.
For more than four decades, Garrett assisted some 2,700 enslaved people on their journey to freedom, providing them with food, shelter, money and connections to other abolitionists. Garrett, it turns out, was the inspiration for the character Simeon Halliday, the benevolent Quaker in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In a 1868 letter, Garrett gave Tubman his highest praise: “For in truth, I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God.”
A decade earlier, Tubman had described her faith in a letter to Ednah Dow Cheney, the philanthropist and suffragist. “God’s time is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens. He gave me the strength in my limbs. He meant I should be free.”
Ron Stodghill, a former staff writer for The New York Times, is the author of “Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture.”