Polaris, also known as the North Star, appears stationary above the horizon of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Tubman—who grew up near the refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland—and other escaped slaves fleeing north to Canada would use Polaris as one of their guiding lights to freedom.
by Jenna Valente
February 23, 2015
The tale of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is revered as one of the most influential moments in the emancipation of slaves in the United States. As the birthplace of Tubman, the Eastern Shore of Maryland holds a rich history in its expansive farm fields, quaint settlements and wetlands that nestle into the crooks and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay. Many individuals, municipalities and organizations have learned the stories of those that traversed the trail, risking their lives for freedom, and have collaborated to permanently preserve important landmarks along the Underground Railroad.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway spans 125 miles through Caroline and Dorchester Counties in Maryland. Along it, visitors can explore the secret network of trails and buildings of the Underground Railroad, a path forged by freedom-seeking slaves and abolitionists in the 19th century. It does not take long for those on the trail to learn the trials, tribulations and successes that occurred along the way - all because a few people decided to band together to overcome adversity and do extraordinary things.
Luther H. Cornish, 85, stands near New Revived Church in Smithville, Maryland on February 9, 2015. "There's a lot of history around here," said Cornish, who has lived across from the road from the church for almost 50 years. New Revived Church, originally known as Jefferson Methodist Episcopal Church, is one of four traditionally black churches founded after the Civil War and is part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Cornish sings on an audio guide
about the Byway.
In 1884, Araminta Harriet Ross married John Tubman, a free black. His decision to marry a slave brought a set of complex challenges to the table: one being, by law, any children Harriet had would belong to her master. Although many slaves had no material possessions, most did possess a strong sense of faith that one day all would be set right and the deep love and support of family.
Several gravestones - like the one pictured above - that lie in the Malone’s Church cemetery in Madison, Maryland, are marked with the surname Tubman and perhaps are relatives of John Tubman—relatives that may have been pivotal in helping Harriet along her way.
The crossroads outside of the Bucktown General Store once served as the center of Bucktown, Maryland, consisting of two stores, a blacksmithing shop and the shopkeeper’s home. It was here in 1835 that a thirteen-year-old Harriet Tubman was struck in the head by a two-pound iron weight thrown at another slave by his overseer, breaking her skull. She took two days rest before returning to the fields, but Harriet’s life was changed from that moment on. She suffered headaches, seizures and even visions of burning fire and flashes of lightning, and she claimed to hear whispers and people screaming. “I heard God speaking to me, saw his angels and I saw my dreams. There were times I knew things ‘fo they were gonna happen. I could see trouble coming and I could go the other way,” said Tubman.
Scott's Chapel stands in Bucktown, Maryland. Harriet Tubman's master, Edward Brodess, worshipped at Scott's Chapel, and Tubman may have done so as well with her family.
Parson’s Creek passes in a perfectly straight line under Route 16, an odd sight among the winding wetlands that weave through the area. The creek was once known as Joseph Stewart’s Canal and was dug by free and enslaved blacks over a period of 20 years. The canal leads from the Bay to the once dense interior forest. At that time, landowners like Joseph Stewart would fell their timber and float it down the canal to nearby wharves.
Construction progresses at the 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center in Church Creek, Maryland. During Tubman’s time, the residents of this waterfront town made their living from working on the Bay, repairing ships, repairing sails and fishing. Half of the blacks in Dorchester County were free. Many were sailors who regularly traveled to the ports of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, thereby playing a crucial role as messengers of news about political revolutions and carriers of information from family and friends to those who were enslaved.
“Where I come from, it would make your flesh creep and your hair stand on end to know what they do to the slaves,” said Ben Ross, Tubman’s brother, referring to the plantation from which he and his fiancée Jane Kane escaped on Christmas Eve 1854. The plot of land where the plantation used to sit can be seen by gazing across Button’s Creek, on part of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
A metal waterwheel rests at Linchester Mill in Preston, Maryland—a site that once boasted a thriving center of commerce. There has been a mill at this location for well over 300 years; it was here that free blacks worked alongside slaves and were able to pass along important messages and information. Both Quakers and free blacks helped runaway slaves navigate their way to safety in the area, using the mill as a crossing place over the creek. A metal "Fitz" waterwheel replaced an earlier wooden waterwheel in 1917.
Phragmites grow at Choptank Landing, a site that was once a thriving town, fitted with a steamboat landing and busy port frequented by those in the nearby town of Preston, Maryland. Travel by land was difficult and muddy, making the river the easier route and busy like a highway. This is the likely site of Harriet Tubman's first escape. Tubman's parents worked on a plantation nearby in Poplar Neck and were also active in the Underground Railroad.
Before the Civil War, a slave market was located in Denton, Maryland. The standing courthouse was built after the Civil War, but the previous courthouse stood on the same spot in the center of town, where public slave auctions were held on the steps of the Caroline County Courthouse.
Canada geese soar through the air near Preston, Maryland. "The wild geese come from Canada, where all are free," is a saying repeated by Moses Viney, who escaped slavery after growing up in nearby Easton, Maryland. Viney had long prepared for his escape and was kind to his owner’s hounds for months before he ran, and when they found him, he patted them, gave them a hug and sent them back to the plantation. He eventually made his way to Schenectady, New York, where he worked as the chauffeur and confidant for the president of Union College.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page.
Images by Will Parson
Captions by Jenna Valente
About Jenna Valente - Jenna developed a passion for conservation through her outdoorsy nature and upbringing in Hawaii, Washington State and Maine. A graduate of Virginia Tech's Executive Master of Natural Resources program and University of Maine's School of Communication and Journalism, she welcomes any opportunity to educate the public about the importance of caring for the environment.