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Harriet Tubman and the Route to Freedom

Feb 02, 2012 08:36PM ● By Anonymous
The strong winds of a snowstorm whip all around you. You have frost bite on your feet, but that’s the least of your worries. As you lead seven fugitive slaves from Maryland to New York, slave catchers are also hunting you.

You thought that you had made it to the safe home of a friend—an Underground Railroad “stationmaster”—but his house is occupied by someone else—an enemy. Now, you and your charge are lying on an island in the middle of a swamp, camouflaged by its tall grass. And then you hear it. It’s the voice of a Quaker singing you a secret message. The rescue mission continues.

In antebellum American history, Harriet Tubman is heralded as a legendary conductor of the Underground Railroad (UGRR). Known as one of the most infamous fugitive slaves, Tubman helped nearly 120 of her people navigate the charming, but treacherous, landscape of the Eastern Shore to escape early American bondage. It is because of her contribution to history that people come from all over the nation, and even the world, to take in the living history of Harriet Tubman and other driving forces of the UGRR, whose stage was set in Dorchester and Caroline counties.

Commemorating these heroic individuals and bringing to light the places that marked significant events is the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway (HTURRB). The 125-mile byway is a driving tour comprised of 29 official sites that showcase the well-preserved and restored landscapes and structures of Tubman’s time. Since 2009, the byway has been growing, along with the Eastern Shore economy, as the draw of tourism to the area increases. “Visitors are going to be beating a path to our door to discover [the Harriet Tubman legacy] for years to come, and so we need to be as knowledgeable as we can about what’s in our own backyard,” says Dr. Ernest P. Boger of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and head of the tour guide certification training program.

You can grab a map and start your journey at the first site—the Dorchester County Visitor Center (2 Rose Hill Place, Cambridge, MD 21613, 410-228-1000). But don’t think you’ll just sit pretty in your vehicle on this tour—the byway is dotted with opportunities to explore the outdoors, patron various shops, and discover in museums.

The Secret Road to Freedom

The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad, but a well-organized secret network of roads, waterways, hiding places, and safe houses of anti-slavery activists and abolitionists. It was symbolically named after the new steam railroads of the time, utilizing its terms, like “passengers,” “conductors,” and “depots” to describe the components of the UGRR.

With the help of its “agents,” Tubman navigated the dangerous route to freedom along the Eastern Shore, mostly at night so the band would be harder to spot. Everyone had to be stealth. No one could turn back. If they did, that could endanger the whole group to be caught, or even worse, killed.

One such safe house was that of Hannah and Jacob Leverton in Preston, known as the “Station House of Quaker UGRR Agents.” “There was a whole network of people from this point to the point north to get to Philadelphia,” says Donald Pinder, president of the Harriet Tubman Organization and Museum (424 Race Street, Cambridge, MD 21613, 410- 228-0401). “[The Levertons] set up safe houses to ensure the safety of all that got on the Underground Railroad and wanted freedom.”

According to Dr. Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for the Promised Land, the exact route and identities of those who helped Tubman on her journeys is highly speculated, but a common route is believed to be northeast along the Choptank River, through Delaware, and then north into Pennsylvania. Traveling by foot would have taken the journey of nearly 90 miles between five days and three weeks. In stark comparison, the Harriet Tubman driving tour takes only one to two days to travel.

Stops Along Living History

Harriet Tubman wasn’t always Harriet Tubman. Growing up on Brodess Farm, she was Araminta Ross. One notable stop on the byway, the Bucktown Village Store, plays a pivotal part in her transformation.

When Tubman was in her early teens, she found herself caught between a slave-owner and his fleeing slave at the store. The slave-owner told Tubman to help him catch his slave, but she refused. In order to stop his slave from getting away, he threw a two-pound weight, but the weight hit Tubman instead. “That weight struck me in the head and broke my skull,” she is recorded as saying. This accident left Tubman with what is now assumed to be temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) and Tubman suffered from sleeping spells, debilitating headaches, and visions. Some of these visions included escaping bondage into a free world and further ignited a desire for freedom within Tubman.

Today, the restored Bucktown Village Store (4303 Bucktown Road, Cambridge, MD 21613, 410-901-9255) is open to the public and home to the only original copy of the Harriet Tubman reward advertisement that exists in the nation. Walk in and enjoy “the feeling of walking back in time,” says Susan Meredith, proprietor of the Bucktown Village Store and Blackwater Paddle and Pedal Adventures. Part of the fourth generation of the Meredith family to run the store, Susan encourages Eastern Shore residents to take part in the “story of inspiration and love and family and tradition” that is Harriet Tubman and the UGRR.

Other sites on the byway include the Dorchester County Court House in Cambridge, once the center of the largest slave market on the Eastern Shore and where Tubman saved her niece, Kessiah, and her two children from the slave auction block in 1850. Poplar Neck in Caroline County is the locale of Tubman’s rescue of her brothers and later her parents, from the farm of Dr. Anthony C. Thompson. It is also believed that using just the North Star as a compass and directions from UGRR agents, Tubman found her way safely to Philadelphia from Poplar Neck on her first escape. The tour’s most northern point is the Delaware State Line, or the Mason-Dixon Line, in Sandtown, Delaware, which signified that freedom was very close for fleeing slaves.

The final count of Tubman’s rescues is believed to be 13 trips and about 70 former slaves to freedom from Maryland’s eastern shores to freedom in Delaware, and later all the way to New York and Canada. She gave instructions to about 50 other slaves that independently found their way to freedom. Despite the best efforts of the slaveholders, Tubman was never captured, and neither were the fugitives she guided. She once told an audience, “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

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The Future of Harriet Tubman: The 2013 Initiative

March 10, 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death. “It’s expected there will be a significant influx of individuals wanting to hear and feel a piece of Harriet Tubman’s story and legacy,” saud Dr. Ernest P. Boger of University of Maryland Eastern Shore. And so advocates are working to further access the living history of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in the region. The 2013 Initiative is a celebratory and commemorative plan of action for a state park and visitors center expected to break ground this year, and a Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Caroline, Dorchester, and Talbot counties in 2013.

Special thanks to: Maryland Office of Tourism, Dorchester County Office of Tourism, Caroline County Office of Tourism, the Maryland Historical Society, The Choptank Region History Network & the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference.