Of the many feats Harriet Tubman accomplished, none awe me more as an historian than the estimated 13 trips she made to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Each time, she stole family and friends from enslavement much in the way Tubman first secreted herself away to freedom in 1849. Born on the Eastern Shore, Tubman grew into a fearless conductor along the perilous routes of the Underground Railroad, guiding enslaved people on journeys that extended hundreds of miles to the north, ending on the free soil of Pennsylvania, New York and Canada.
This year commemorates the 200th anniversary of her birth and tributes to Tubman abound, including those set in the landscape of her native Dorchester County. I headed to the Eastern Shore to learn how people there remember this Black American freedom fighter, only to discover that the rising waters of climate change are washing away the memories of Tubman that are embedded in the coastal marshland she knew so well.
During each rescue, precious human cargo in tow, Tubman waded into marshes of tall grass and maneuvered through forests dense with pine and oak. Moving under cover of night, Tubman was guided by the constant stars. Angela Crenshaw, a Maryland State Park Ranger, described her as “the ultimate outdoors woman,” someone who made the region’s terrain her ally as she defied slave patrols and a system that held Black Americans as mere chattel.
The historian in me knows that Tubman’s time here is long past. She escaped to free soil in Pennsylvania more than a century and a half ago, only returning to the Eastern Shore for the rescues of enslaved people. Still, like a visit to an old family homestead, I hoped that returning to Tubman’s land might allow me to better understand how her past can inform our present.
The Black freedom fighter
Until her death in 1913, Tubman committed to securing America’s best ideals — freedom, dignity, equality — in the face of its worst sins, including slavery and racism. While no precise record of Tubman’s birth survives, historians and the National Park Service say that she was born Araminta Ross, likely in March 1822. When she was not yet 30, she launched her career as a conductor of loved ones, freedom seekers, along treacherous routes. Her reputation for heroism in challenging slavery was already well-established when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Legally still enslaved, Tubman risked capture by joining the Union’s front lines to defeat Confederate rebels and win slavery’s abolition.
Her service as a nurse, a relief worker among enslaved refugees, a scout and a spy was partly rewarded decades later with a pension. Settling in upstate Auburn, N.Y., Tubman established a home for aging and indigent Black Americans, many of whom, like her, had little means of support during their last years. Tubman never wholly retired and, amid early 20th-century Black struggles against segregation and lynching, she promoted efforts to win votes for Black and white women up until her death.
Tubman is now an icon celebrated for how she effectively made good trouble on so many fronts. Among those who admit their debt to her is Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, the voting rights organizer and two-time candidate for governor. In her book “Lead from the Outside,” Abrams credits Tubman with inspiring her own efforts to raise the political consciousness of Americans. Still in the works is the 2016 plan to replace the face of President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with a portrait of Tubman. Americans may have the chance to carry Tubman’s likeness with them as a reminder that the nation’s prosperity was made possible by women and men who, like Tubman, had so little and yet contributed so much.
A pilgrimage to Tubman country
In March, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the place where Tubman’s life began. From the state capital of Annapolis, I drove across the four-mile-long, low-slung Chesapeake Bay Bridge that carries visitors from the mainland, across the open jaw of the bay, to the Eastern Shore. I then headed a short way south on two-lane roads to Tubman’s native Dorchester County, winding past small farms, jagged waterways and modest Main Streets.
No place better remembers Tubman than her birthplace, which sits on the Delmarva Peninsula (that’s short for Delaware-Maryland-Virginia). Her life centered in Dorchester County, where slaveholders shuttled a young Tubman between work in fields, waterways, yards and homes, often separated from her family.
In Dorchester, Tubman’s story is told on the walls of two visitor centers, each structure designed to blend into the grays and browns of the natural landscape. At the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1933, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tells her story through its 28,000 acres of wetlands, forest and open fields. Nearby, the story of Tubman’s life and times is recounted at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, opened in 2017, and operated by a partnership between the National Park Service and the Maryland Park Service. To introduce guests to Tubman’s life and work on the Eastern Shore, the visitor center invites them to discover how she knew intimately the land that is today the Blackwater refuge and its environs. Her epic rescues of scores of enslaved people were possible because Tubman knew how to navigate the region’s contours and trails, depths and denseness, flora and fauna, the seasons, sun and stars.
Tubman’s heroism is a point of pride to Black Marylanders in Dorchester. The struggle against slavery and racism has deep roots there. Among the locals are those descended from Tubman’s family and others who lived and labored alongside them. On my first visit in 2013, I called on Donald Pinder, a local businessman who took a leading role in safeguarding Tubman’s memory and who died last year. To begin, Mr. Pinder walked me through the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, set up in a downtown storefront in the small city of Cambridge. On the walls of the long narrow space, epic history and local memory mix. I learned how Tubman’s life has been celebrated by generations of Black Maryland farmers, mariners and rural families who have grown up far from cities like Baltimore and Washington, DC.
“The ultimate outdoors woman”
Mr. Pinder encouraged me to get outdoors to better imagine the trials Tubman faced as she steered loved ones across the rugged landscape and out of bondage. Though a city person, I mustered enough trust to follow his directions to Fork Neck Cemetery. Set on land long tilled by Black farmers, a cluster of headstones was visible from the narrow country road. Still worried about trespassing, I confirmed that it was indeed Mr. Pinder’s own family graveyard and then discovered why he sent me there. Among the weathered markers were those that dated back to Tubman’s days on the Eastern Shore. They paid tribute to Black Marylanders who had been Tubman’s neighbors, but never joined her freedom train. To recall Tubman here is to learn how the past and the present are in fact companion tales.
Back then, when I first visited Dorchester County, a Park Service site dedicated to Tubman was still a plan in the making. Encountering a single roadside marker, the only sign of what is today the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, left me wondering how in this vast, sparsely developed place, Tubman’s story would be told. Returning this year, I learned that the answer is through the land. Today the Park Service encourages even casual visitors to know the natural world that was so central to Tubman’s work.
Inside the Tubman Park visitor center, carefully crafted exhibits place her in the habitat of muskrats — as an enslaved girl separated from her family, Tubman tended their traps. We’re introduced to the arduous labor Tubman did alongside her father in the timber fields; there she learned how to navigate the Eastern Shore’s forests and waterways. Faith also figures: Tubman credited her direct connection to God with her survival and her success. Maps trace a 120-mile-long route called the Tubman Byway, which charts the journeys Tubman made, encouraging visitors to trace them by foot, bicycle or car.
Under the gloom of an overcast sky, I trekked along a gentle walking path that wends around the visitor center and its outbuildings. Just the sound of my feet crunching against the gravel attuned me to how sounds fill the vast space — bird songs mixed with the rustle of trees. There was scratching in the low brush, though I couldn’t figure out its source. I heard my own breath. And even though I was within ear shot of the park rangers, I listened for human voices, wary of encountering strangers in the woods. In Tubman’s days, I know, she, too, kept her ears tuned for the sounds of people approaching: slave catchers intent on thwarting her freedom missions.
When I told a Friends of Blackwater volunteer that I was interested in understanding Tubman’s experience, he recommended a slow car ride along the four-mile-long Wildlife Drive, which runs through the refuge’s marshland. There, I began to experience how Tubman’s travels included the smart and studied company of other inhabitants who, like her, survived by understanding the terrain and one another. I was not at a loss for company. A lone red-winged blackbird kept up a steady chatter as we both lingered above the wetlands on a raised observation platform. Fox squirrels and deer foraged while a statuesque white great egret stepped gingerly through a shallow inlet in search of lunch. I kept an eye out for the resident red fox, which I regard as a predator, but local eagles regard as a meal.
Today, it is arresting to witness how climate change along the Eastern Shore is all too quickly remaking the terrain that was the site of Tubman’s earliest exploits. The transformation gripped me when I encountered the ghost forests that dot Blackwater’s landscape. Decaying trees — devoid of foliage and branches, weathered to an eerie gray — stand tall in the brackish waters where the bay’s salt is overtaking inland sweet waters. Vestiges of a past or harbingers of the future, the skeletons of once mighty oaks and elegant loblolly pines defy efforts to wholly preserve Tubman’s memory on these lands.
I felt emboldened — perhaps Tubman’s courage was fueling my own — and ventured farther off the beaten path out to Parson’s Creek and a thread of water that was known as Stewart’s Canal in Tubman’s time. I stood alone on a short bridge that crosses the wetlands and saw a deep scar left by the enslaved laborers who long ago cut a canal that serviced timber production. Grasses are slowly claiming it. All I could hear was the wind rushing, but underneath were ancient echoes of the effort that Tubman, still enslaved, exerted alongside free men like her father, Ben Ross, as they felled, chopped and wrestled trees along these waterways. Time is rendering the scenes of Tubman’s grueling manual labor almost bucolic.
Walking in Tubman’s country had a ritual quality that felt nearly spiritual, even if I didn’t hear the voice of God that she said guided her journeys. It was here on the land that Tubman discovered her purpose. Today, Black women trek in her name as a tribute, as told in Selina Garcia’s documentary film, “A Walk in Her Shoes.” In 2020, not long after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, the jazz artist Linda Harris, along with seven friends, traced Tubman’s trail, walking a total of 116 miles. Alone, on my much shorter walk, I quietly recited short poems, hummed to myself, even if off tune. I discovered that the trek was not simply about clocking miles. It was a chance to keep company with my own thoughts, for my mind to gather itself.
The Underground Railroad routes Tubman followed were a patchy network of allies, secret passages and safe houses that began operation in the early decades of the 19th century. To foil the patrols and slave catchers that policed the Eastern Shore, Tubman deployed quick, strategic thinking to, for example, quiet a crying baby who might give her location away. Still, I imagined her with moments to contemplate her world and sharpen a sense of her place in it.
Surely, Tubman, ever the activist, would encourage those who arrive in Dorchester County to discover her memory to also take time to discover how much more difficult that will be by 2050 when it is estimated that 50 percent of the lower Eastern Shore’s high marshes will be gone. Satellite images from the U.S. Geographical Survey show how land has already been lost to rising tides. Gone are some spots where a century ago migrating birds regularly stopped over as they traveled north and south.
Two centuries after her birth, Tubman’s story continues to point toward the nation’s highest ideals. These include older lessons about the man-made world where aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality remain a high bar. Newer is what Tubman’s story reveals about the natural world, the land she knew so intimately. On the Eastern Shore, the Tubman Park and the Blackwater refuge are two chapters of the same story. We can walk in Tubman’s 19th-century footsteps on the very land where she struggled against slavery. Along the way, we may also discover our own footing in the climate challenge of our time.