Meeting Harriet

Harriet Tubman Park_CYeager_1171x593

Harriet Tubman grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Her knowledge of its forests and marshes helped her escape to freedom in Philadelphia and rescue more than 70 others who were enslaved. Today, the landscapes of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Maryland State Park and National Historic Park and help preserve her story and legacy.

Codi Yeager/CBF Staff

In the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay, Harriet Tubman’s story comes alive.

In mid-February, the marshes of Dorchester County are flat and cold. The wind is bone chilling. Tundra swans float down from a gray sky to settle in stubbled cornfields. This is where Harriet Tubman, famed conductor of the Underground Railroad, was born into slavery nearly 200 years ago. 

Tubman is a formidable figure in American history, her name inscribed in textbooks and learned in schools across the country. But it's here, on the Eastern Shore, where her humanity becomes palpable. Where she transcends the stoic portrait of so many history books and becomes a young woman who faced the excruciating choice of leaving her family and found the immense courage to rescue them.  

"I think sometimes people see Harriet Tubman as six-feet tall with a cape and the ability to shoot flames from her eyes," says Angela Crenshaw. "She was really just a five-foot-tall African American woman. And she accomplished amazing things." 

Crenshaw, who serves as the Assistant Manager of Maryland's Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park in Church Creek, says the reality is even more compelling than the legend. And it is inseparable from the Chesapeake landscape in which Tubman grew up, labored, fled, and returned to more than a dozen times to rescue others. 

"The landscape is an interpretive tool," Crenshaw explains. "A lot of the buildings are gone, but we're surrounded by Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. We can use the landscape to interpret her life and her legacy." 

It was a harsh landscape for Tubman. Separated from her parents at just six years old, she was farmed out by her owner to work for nearby families. One of her early tasks was trapping muskrats in the marshes, a job that often would have been numbingly wet and cold. Later, she labored in the timber fields near Parsons Creek, hauling logs across the muddy ground to Stewart's Canal—a seven-mile waterway hand-dug by slaves to float timber to Madison Bay. 

Her knowledge of the land and her comfort with the inhospitable environment, born of necessity, later became invaluable. So, too, did her interactions with free African American watermen, known as Black Jacks, who offered information about the world beyond the Eastern Shore.

At 27 years old, she fled the Poplar Neck plantation in Caroline County and traveled more than 100 miles north to escape slavery in Philadelphia. Over the next decade, she guided more than 70 other enslaved people to freedom through the Chesapeake's forests and marshes. 

The details of those journeys remain foggy, Crenshaw says—it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read or write, so Tubman was unable put her own story down on paper. But the conditions would have been grueling. 

Most of Tubman's rescues occurred in the fall and winter months. Freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad traveled by night, and winter provided long, dark hours. Cold weather also brought firmer ground in the soggy marshes, and some relief from the biting flies and mosquitoes. Still, there would be the constant discomfort of hunger and wet feet. Many enslaved children did not get shoes until they reached a certain age, Crenshaw says, because they were not considered likely enough to live or to have as much value as adult workers.

"When I go hiking, I have hiking clothes; at work, I have wool pants and steel-toed boots," she says. "They didn't have any of that."

After days in the marshes, a fresh set of clothes became a matter of survival. Station masters on the Underground Railroad would provide freedom seekers with clean clothes so when they reached cities like Philadelphia, they could blend into the crowd without arousing suspicion. If they didn't, they risked recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed the capture and return of enslaved people who had escaped, even if they lived in northern states.

It was a tenuous life, Crenshaw says, even for Tubman. After her time on the Underground Railroad, she served in the Union Army as a nurse and spy in South Carolina, becoming the first woman to lead a successful U.S. military raid. In New York, she founded a home for elderly African Americans, married a Civil War veteran named Nelson Davis, and raised their adopted daughter, Gertie. She continued to work for equal rights for African Americans and women. 

"It's a sad story, and a painful story," Crenshaw says. "But it's also a hopeful story." 

Codi Kozacek-90x110

Codi Yeager

Senior Writer, CBF

cyeager@cbf.org

Issues in this Post

What We Have to Lose   Community   Eastern Shore Office  




DISCLAIMER

PLEASE READ OUR TERMS OF USE

The views and opinions expressed in the media, articles or comments on this site are those of the speakers or authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by CBF and the inclusion of such information does not imply endorsement by CBF. CBF is not responsible for the contents of any linked Web, or any link contained in a linked Web site, or any changes or updates to such Web sites. The inclusion of any link or comment is provided only for information purposes. CBF reserves the right to edit or remove any comments and material posted to this website and to ban users from the site without notice. Partisan, pornographic or other inappropriate content, product or service promotion, foul language or bad behavior is expressly forbidden and will be removed.


The Bay Needs You

The 2018 State of the Bay Report makes it clear that the Bay needs our support now more than ever. Your donation helps the Chesapeake Bay Foundation maintain our momentum toward a restored Bay, rivers, and streams for today and generations to come.

Donate Today

Volunteer

Do you enjoy working with others to help clean the Chesapeake Bay? Do you have a few hours to spare? Whether growing oysters, planting trees, or helping in our offices, there are plenty of ways you can contribute.

Volunteer
x
This website uses cookies to tailor and enhance your online experience. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more information, including details on how to disable cookies, please visit our Privacy Policy. Close