The Search for Frederick Douglass' Birthplace
Frederick Douglass' birthplace... you can't get there by reading tourist
books and highway historical markers.
They're all wrong!
But now, we've located the spot and can show you the way.
My name is Amanda Barker. This project was a requirement of my
Honors English class.
Road Signs To A Dead End
In 1995, the centennial year of the death of Frederick Douglass, Ebony
urged its readers to plan family vacations so that the kids could see
monuments to black history. They suggested you visit the birthplace of
Frederick Douglass. ("How To Celebrate Black History Month 12 Months of the
Year", Ebony, Feb. 1995, vol. 50 no. 4)
Because you can't get to Douglass' birthplace by following the tourist
guidebooks and roadside markers.
Most brochures describing tourist attractions in Talbot County, Maryland,
mention the county's distinction as the birthplace of Frederick Douglass.
Like most other sources of tourist information, one online guide says that a
historical marker at "Matthewstown Road, on the banks of the Tuckahoe River...
marks the birthplace of Frederick Douglass." But you won't find "Matthewstown
Road" on any road sign. That's a local name for Md. Route 328.
If you visit Easton, the seat of Talbot County, you might see a small brown
sign at the junction of U.S. Route 50 and Route 328 that invites you to turn
north on Rt. 328 to the "Birthplace of Frederick Douglass". Route 328 will
lead you to a historical marker at the west end of a highway bridge that
crosses the Tuckahoe River. But the marker is six miles from the real
There Is No Tuckahoe, Maryland
Douglass "rediscovered" his own birthplace on a return visit to
Talbot County in 1878. When we went looking for it, we discovered that we
had to do some research and explore the area to find the right spot. The
confusion begins with Douglass' own words in his autobiography. He records in
his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,
that he was "born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles
from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland."
Douglass biographers ever since have cited "Tuckahoe" as the Douglas
birthplace. But there is no Tuckahoe, Maryland. Douglass was referring to the
entire district of Talbot County that lies along the west bank of the
If you consult your AAA tour books or the county tourist office, or even ask
the locals, the highway marker is the closest you'll get. The sign is planted
next to the highway guard rail, with no place to park or stand. Even if you
do stop, all you'll see is a lovely stretch of the marshy, tidal Tuckahoe, a
few ramshackle houses, and a newly renovated boat ramp. The place has no
historical connection to Douglass. The sign does, at least, inspire visitors
and locals, like ourselves, to learn more about Douglass and his place in
Here is what it says:
Attained freedom and devoted his life and talents to the abolition of slavery
and the cause of universal suffrage. Visited England in 1845 and in 1859.
Won many prominent friends abroad and at home. Was U.S. Marshall for the
District of Columbia and U.S. Minister to Haiti.
Was Born in Tuckahoe, Talbot County.
The sign aroused our curiosity and motivated us to search biographies,
local roads and farms, and courthouse records for clues that would lead us
to the right spot.
When we found out that the historical marker wasn't at Frederick Douglass's
birthplace, we looked for clues that helped us find the correct site.
Here they are:
Maryland's Eastern Shore
Douglass was proud to be an Eastern Shoreman. He wrote that it's important to know about a person's place of birth "if, indeed, it be important to know anything about him". Although Douglass at one time wrote an unflattering description of his birthplace, he later told an audience in Baltimore, "I am an Eastern Shoreman, with all that name implies. Eastern Shore corn and Eastern Shore pork gave me my muscle. I love Maryland and the Eastern Shore!" When he visited the former slave plantation on the banks of the Tuckahoe River in Talbot County, where he was born, he scooped soil from the spot into his hands and later told an audience that he would carry back to Cedar Hill, his home in Washington D.C. "some of the very soil on which I first trod."
Douglass wrote that he was born in "Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough". But there is no town by that name. Instead, Tuckahoe is an area along the Tuckahoe River in Talbot County. Modern-day Hillsboro is located on the Caroline County side of the Tuckahoe River, across from Queen Anne (Talbot County), just south of Md. Route 404, seven miles east of U.S. Route 50.
Douglass visited here in 1878 when he came looking for the cabin where he was born. The location of Tapper's Corner is described in a footnote of a Douglass biography.
Meets Md. Route 303 at Tapper's Corner, close to the true birthplace, and runs south, almost to the misplaced historical marker. Biographer Dickson J. Preston mistakenly calls this Kingston Landing Road. But that road is miles from the Douglass birthplace. It runs south from Md. Route 328 southeast to the Choptank River.
Aaron Anthony Farm
Douglass's master was named Aaron Anthony. Besides owning his own farm and slaves, he was an overseer for Colonel Lloyd of Wye Mills, where Anthony lived. Anthony's farm on the Tuckahoe River was called Holme Hill back then. If you stand at Tapper's Corner facing east, where Lewistown Rd. meets Md. Route 303, you're looking at farm fields that were once part of Aaron Anthony's Holme Hill farm, where Douglass' mother and grandmother were slaves. Now it's called No-No Acres.
Lee's Mill Creek
Formed the north boundary of Aaron Anthony's Holme Hill farm. Douglass often visited Lee's grist mill when he was a slave boy and fished in the mill pond. It was later a sawmill.
Aunt Bettie's Lot
Louis Freeman pointed out a plot of land and referred to it as "Aunt Bettie's Lot" when he and Douglass visited Douglass's birthplace in 1878. "Aunt Bettie" was his grandmother, Betsey Bailey. She was married to a free black named Isaac Bailey. Their daughter, Harriet Bailey, was Frederick's mother. Frederick was named Frederick Augustus Bailey when he was born. Douglass believed that "Aunt Bettie's Lot" was where his grandmother's cabin once stood, where he was born and lived as a child.
When Douglass visited his birthplace with Louis Freeman, he recalled playing near a large cedar tree which was near the cabin. Douglass found this cedar tree and claimed that he had found his birthplace. The cedar tree was located near the edge of a ravine called Kentucky, and it was in the woods near "Aunt Bettie's Lot".
Betsy Bailey fished for shad and herring along the Tuckahoe River near a place Douglass remembered as Muddy Shore. She fished with nets that she made herself and even sold to people as far away as Denton. Muddy Shore was located at the foot of a ravine called Kentucky.
Aunt Bettie's lot was at the head of a ravine called Kentucky, along with the cedar tree. Muddy Shore was at the foot of this ravine. Kentucky was about 40 acres of wild, untillable land - a deep gully that runs from the farm fields to the Tuckahoe River.