Bravely facing Memorial Day bridge traffic, my friend and I drove the Eastern Maryland portion of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad driving tour, starting at the new Harriet Tubman Visitor Center in the Eastern Maryland marshland. It's an odd area, and in the 1850s it was also different from the stories we heard growing up about slaves following the drinking gourd from the deep south to freedom. This is the environment in which Harriet Tubman grew up. She lived to be an old woman, escaped slavery, returned home repeatedly to help about 75 friends and family escape in daring rescues, and later was a scout and spy for the Union Army, freeing 750 slaves in one operation behind enemy lines. Here is part of her story.
In the Eastern Shore, about 50% of black people were free. The enslaved black folk were owned by white families who usually owned small farms. As both white and black families grew, they splintered off onto other farmsteads and were given or sold or rented out. Harriet Tubman spent her early childhood years here, but was often rented out to other families. As she grew older she hired herself out for manual labor. Through this work she developed entrepreneurial skills and a wide network of both white and black contacts, including Quaker abolitionists and free black sailors, who became critical in her freedom operations.
Early in her life, a teenage Harriet was in this store when she refused to help a slave owner pin down his slave. When the owner hurled a weight for the store's scale at his slave, he missed and hit Harriet in the head, almost killing her. From that point forward, Harriet suffered seizures in which she believed she had a direct line to God. She was a devoutly religious person even before this incident, and attended church every Sunday as was required by law. She learned from listening to scripture that God delivered his people out of slavery, and these seizures helped her put into action her desire to set her own people free.
Local laws stipulated that blacks were not permitted to congregate, for fear of organized rebellion. In any case, it wouldn't make sense to hatch a rescue in a public area. One of the places where Harriet would rendez-vous with escaping slaves was a rural cemetery, like this historically black church cemetery that remains in use today.
When the deep south began industrializing agriculture, the Eastern Shore was a chief supplier of slaves who were shipped off to plantations from the Cambridge wharf to never hear from their families again. Two of Harriet's older sisters were sold to the deep south to pay off their owner's debts when Harriet was a very small child.
In front of the Cambridge courthouse was the slave auction block. Here one of Harriet's rescues took place. As Harriet's niece and her children were being sold on the auction block, the niece's free husband outbid the crowd. Before payment was collected, however, the entire family had disappeared on the way to freedom under Harriet's care.
In addition to Harriet Tubman specific lore, the Underground Railroad trail features other remarkable sites illustrating life during and after slavery. One such site is this 7 mile long canal, dug by hand by slaves to float timber down to the shipyards.
Slaves were not permitted to learn to read, prior to emancipation. After slavery was abolished, a group of families founded this one room schoolhouse in Cambridge, which remained in use long after it was founded.
The Eastern Shore is far more than a respite from the city. Its rural quietude rich in wildlife belies a complicated and diverse history of people eking out a living in an isolated, waterlogged patch of land. The Underground Railroad here is unique to the Eastern Shore's geographical make-up, proximity to the north via the Chesapeake, and lack of industrialization. Every rescue was a story onto itself and you can explore each one today with a map, a tank of gas, and some curiosity, thanks to the descendants of this cast of characters from the 1850s who have restored the sites and welcome you.