The Search For Frederick Douglass's Lost Birth Site
Honors English report by Amanda Barker, Lockerman Middle School, 7th Grade (during the 90's)
There have been many great legends in the past who shock and fascinate people with their stories and way of life. Frederick Douglass knew of a life beyond the expectations of becoming a legend. He lived his life as a slave, his mother a stranger, and his father unknown. After he escaped from slavery, he became an abolitionist, and held many important positions in the government. Even though he is known and respected by many people, you will not find his birthplace unless you research it. There is a marker for the birthplace of Frederick Douglass, but it is located six miles from the real place of birth.
If you know where to look, such as biographies, autobiographies, newspaper articles, visits to the farm, courthouse records, and interviews, clues will not be really hard to find. These clues will then lead you to discover the Aaron Anthony farm, crossroads called Tapper's Corner, a ravine named Kentucky, and Aunt Bettie's lot, where the cabin probably stood when Douglass was born. Your conclusion might question whether or not you've actually found Frederick Douglass's birthplace, and how to get there from various places. But fortunately, you do not have to do all this research just to visit his place of birth. There is now a World Wide Web page describing the most recent discoveries of his birthplace, and how to get there.
Why Douglass is Famous
Ebony Magazine suggested that to celebrate Black History Month, take your kids to the birthplace of Frederick Douglass (Ebony Magazine 23). Douglass was a great black American. He learned to read and write as a young slave, risking severe punishment. He escaped from Baltimore to New York on September 3, 1838 at the age of twenty-one. He was a fugitive, so life was still dangerous. Soon after, in 1845, he published his first autobiography called The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave. It was written mainly to dispel doubts about his past. Many people found it hard to believe that a slave could read, write, and escape slavery, then go on and give speeches about his experiences, yet stay hidden and not get caught.
After hiding in Great Britain and giving speeches there, some British Quakers bought his freedom. He returned home to Baltimore in 1847, now legally free. Frederick Douglass held many positions in the government that a black man could only dream about. In 1871 he was appointed legislative council with the District of Columbia, United States Marshall in 1877, and recorder of deeds in 1881. He was also a U.S. Ambassador to Haiti between the years of 1889 and 1891. Douglass was a strong and well-known abolitionist throughout many cities, and even other countries (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia).
Frederick Douglass was a strong abolitionist. He was involved in many campaigns and speeches against slavery. In 1841, he became an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Also in 1841, he campaigned in Rhode Island against the proposed new state constitution that would deny blacks the right to vote. Douglass traveled through the east and middle west in 1843 to address a series of anti-slavery assemblies, commonly known as "One Hundred Conventions." In the early 1850's, in Rochester, New York, he directed the city's branch of "underground railroad" . Along with his abolitionist work, Douglass found time to be a women's rights leader. A quote of his, "Right is of no Sex- Truth is of no Color....", (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia) printed in North Star Magazine, shows true meaning of his feelings and beliefs of his work (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia).
Dan Manning, an English teacher at North Caroline High School, finds it fascinating that you can drive down the road just a few miles from town and visit a famous African American's birth site. Dan feels that the Eastern Shore is the perfect area to look for sites where famous slave rights leaders lived, such as Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
The Marker Is In The Wrong Place
In order to follow Ebony Magazine's advice and take your kids to visit Frederick Douglass' birthplace, the first thing to do might be to call the Talbot County tourist office and get many of Talbot County's tourist brochures. Both of these sources would lead to either Easton or Denton, where there is a direction sign, pointing you the Frederick Douglass marker on the Tuckahoe River Bridge, which is actually six miles from his real place of birth. This marker briefly tells about Frederick Douglass and his life, but it is not a place where you can stand or walk around and imagine you are a young slave boy, playing among the other children and eating corn meal on the cold, clay ground before a fire. It is just a marker to read from the car, then drive away, past the neat green farm fields, the small, marshy rivers, and large farm houses with long, shell driveways.
Dickson J. Preston, the author of a Frederick Douglass biography, tells how the people and places of Frederick Douglass's time seemed to have just slipped away, "No trace remains at Holme Hill of the events that took place one-hundred-sixty years ago; no marker signifies that this was the birthplace of Frederick Douglass; no sign of Betsy Bailey's cabin or even of the house that Anthony's tenants and overseers occupied can be found. Those who lived and died there have vanished as if they have never been born." (Preston 35)
Dan Manning did try to visit Douglass's birthplace. He found out about Frederick Douglass's birthplace from a sign in Denton near the Choptank Electric Company that pointed him to the marker that is located at the Tuckahoe River bridge. He had also bought and read Douglass's autobiography, which he found very interesting. Plus, the English books Dan taught out of had a few articles that described Douglass as a writer. So, Dan wanted to visit Douglass's birthplace last summer, but found only a marker to read at the wrong location. He had expected a visitor's center, or maybe a monument, but at least a pamphlet to read, because Frederick Douglass was such an important person of history. After reading the marker, Dan walked around a nearby boat ramp, looking for anything more detailed and precise than the marker. Unfortunately, there wasn't anyone for him to talk to at the marker to receive more information on Douglass's life. When Dan visited the marker, he had no idea that it was actually six miles from the cabin site.
The real birthplace is six miles from the marker, at the Aaron Anthony farm. But it is still hard to find the cabin site once at the farm. It is very hard for researchers and tourists to find the exact location of Douglass's birth. The cabin hasn't been standing for nearly one hundred years. The log walls with the packed clay floor and mud and straw chimney have sunk back into the earth where they came from, as earth-made things tend to do. Douglass didn't write or describe the cabin site very much due to the fact that he lived there for a short time at a young age. There are no tour guides to lead tourists into the woods and point out an exact cabin spot where he was raised. There is no road or trail to follow to the real cabin and birth site, so this also causes an inconvenience for tourists. Because there's no trail, the briars will prick, and the mud will stick to your shoes. So you see, it is not as easy as you think to find Frederick Douglass's birthplace.
From reading Douglass' autobiography, many clues would be given, which would help you start out on "the great search" for his birthplace. He was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsboro, and about twelve miles from Easton (Douglass 21). His mother was Harriet Bailey, who was the daughter of Isaac and Betsy Bailey (21). Frederick was raised by his grandmother and rarely even saw his mother (26). Captain Aaron Anthony was Frederick's first master since birth (24). Captain Anthony had two sons named Andrew and Richard, and a daughter named Lucretia, who later married Captain Thomas Auld (27). Once, while Lucretia was reading Douglass's autobiography, she wrote, "There is a lot in the woods, to be sure, on my father's old farm. . . called Aunt Bettie's lot." in the margin of the book (Preston 216). When Douglass was seven, he moved to Colonel Lloyd's plantation and stayed there for two years (29). Col. Lloyd's farm was located on the border of the Miles River, and about twelve miles north of Easton (27) .
A biography on Frederick Douglass also reveals many clues referring to the site of the birthplace. Douglass' master, Aaron Anthony, bought a 204 acre farm called Holme Hill farm in 1802 (Preston 27). He also bought Red House farm three years later, which is just north of Holme Hill (27). Levi Lee's Mill separated the two farms, with Holme Hill to the north, and Red House to the south (36). Isaac and Betsy Bailey, Frederick's grandparents, had a little cabin in a woods clearing on Holme Hill farm, not far from the banks of the Tuckahoe (17). Isaac Bailey is believed to have been a free black man, so the cabin was not placed in the communal slave quarters (17). There was a path to the creek bank from the cabin to a spot called "Muddy Shore" (17). In 1806, Aaron Anthony bought 41 acres of land called Kentucky, which was near Betsy Bailey's cabin (27). Kentucky was a large amount of land that was wild and untilable (27). Within the large amount of land called Kentucky, there was a ravine also named Kentucky, which had a spring running through it (17). Aunt's Bettie's lot (also known as the location of Betsy Bailey's cabin) was where this deep, curving gully ran up toward the road from the creek (190).
Douglass's description of his visit to the cabin on Monday, November 25, 1878, over fifty years after he left the small cabin, also gives great detail and many other clues (Preston 190). While visiting, Douglass soon pointed out a site at the edge of a wooded ravine a few hundred yards east and just south of Tapper's Corner (219). Tapper's Corner is a crossroad not far from the edge of the woods where the ravine Kentucky is (219). Douglass recalled playing near a cedar tree near the cabin and the edge of the ravine when he was young (190). When he found the tree, he declared he had found the site of the cabin, although the cabin was no longer standing (190). The old cedar tree probably wasn't too far into the woods, because Grandmother Betsy was a farmer, and farms don't normally tend to be in the woods (20).
A newspaper called The Banner, dated Thursday, November 25, 1976, has quite a few useful clues, other than the description of Douglass' visit to his birthplace. In this article, Harry Hubbard, who then owned the Anthony farm, points out the misleading marker, and tells about Frederick's life as a slave. The article also states that Mill Creek divided Lucretia's land from Andrew's land after Aaron Anthony died. The cabin site, which was on Lucretia's land, is now at a corner of the farm field. Near the edge of the farm field, there is a ravine, a wooded bank, a stream, and a spring. From this, the slaves got their water. Hubbard said the ravine called Ivory Gully, is what Frederick called Kentucky. Ivory Gully is about sixty feet deep. There is a cedar tree a few feet from the farm field, and at the head of the ravine. If the cedar tree is pointed out, along with all the other land forms, then Aunt Bettie's lot, Frederick Douglass' birthplace, would be located (The Banner, A1).
To even find all of the important land clues, a trip to the old Aaron Anthony farm is necessary. The farm is presently called No-No Acres, and it is owned by the Callahans. To find the ravine called Kentucky, stand next to the stop sign at Tapper's Corner. To the far left, there is a large, white, two story farm house with a long shell driveway. Just to the right of the house, two large, bright white oval horse fences encircle horses grazing on the fresh grass. In front of you, an open farm field stretches across the horizon, then meets with a dense line of forest. If you face east, you will see a yellow traffic sign with a two headed black arrow almost directly ahead of you. To the right of the arrow sign, just a few feet from it, is a utility pole. A steel support cable comes down from the top of the pole and is anchored into the ground. The utility pole, the steel cable, and the ground form a tall triangle. If you look through the triangle, across the farm field, you will see a finger of woods that stretches toward the road where you are standing. This finger is the head of the ravine called Kentucky during Douglass's time. The ravine runs away from you, toward the Tuckahoe River. To the right of this fingertip of woods is a small "cove" of farm field. Somewhere along the right curve of the "cove" was probably where Aunt Bettie's lot, Douglass's grandmother's cabin, was located.
Across the farm field at the head of the ravine is a small cedar tree. This young tree could be a descendant from the old cedar tree Douglass remembered playing near during his young years at the cabin. The tree which is there now obviously isn't in the same spot as the old cedar tree was a hundred years ago, but it is close enough to the ravine to indicate that a little farther into the woods was probably where Betsy Bailey's cabin once stood. Along the bottom of the ravine, a shallow stream flows out into the Tuckahoe River. Where the stream meets the Tuckahoe, also where the mouth of the ravine is located, is probably where Douglass described "Muddy Shore".
Kentucky was a major clue to help find Aunt Bettie's lot. A trip to the Talbot County Courthouse helps specify the location of Kentucky, which was a large forty-one acre piece of wild, untillable land. To find a map of the location of Kentucky in Douglass's time, it is possible to look up Aaron Anthony in an 1806 Index of Grantors and Grantees to find the description of Kentucky the documentor wrote when Anthony bought Kentucky. The map in the Land Record book shows that the large area of land called Kentucky was where Mill Creek and the Tuckahoe River meet. The map shows where the ravine Kentucky is, pointing close to the location of Aunt Bettie's lot, which was at the head of Kentucky, the site of Frederick Douglass's birthplace.
This research project has turned out a success, because the birthplace has probably been found. But there is still some doubt that this location is correct. All of the clues seem to match up, but there might be something out there, just a small piece of information, that really hits the correct spot without a doubt. Or maybe doubts about the true location about this famous figure's birthplace will always remain in someone's mind. Who knows? We may still be looking for Aunt Bettie's lot fifty years from now.
Now that Frederick Douglass's probable birthplace has been pointed out, many people will want to know how to get to No-No Acres to visit where this legend was born. The farm is not far from both Denton and Easton. From Denton, take route 404 until the road meets with 303. Turn left on 303. When 303 turns sharply to the right, where Lewistown Road begins, you're at Tapper's Corner. From Easton, follow route 50 north to 309. Take 309 northeast past Cordova until the road meets 303. Turn right at 303. Just a short ways along 303, there will be a stop sign. This is Tapper's Corner.
After arriving at Tapper's Corner, it will be easy to locate the site. If you plan on actually walking through the woods to the ravine and the cedar tree and Aunt Bettie's lot, be sure to ask permission from Nick Callahan, the owner of the farm, before starting. Remember that even though Douglass was born there, it is still private property. Treat the area with respect and have a great time reliving the days when Frederick Douglass played around the cedar tree at his grandmother's cabin.
There is now a website on the Internet for anyone who has a computer and wants to visit Frederick Douglass's birthplace. The webpage is called "The Search For Frederick Douglass's Birthplace." On this page, there are clues that will lead you to the cabin site, discoveries that were made during the search, and maps that will help searchers layout the location of important land clues and get to the site. There is also a conclusion which questions the location and gives directions on how to get to the farm. This webpage will help people understand Douglass's life better, as well as send you in the right direction to his birthplace. So drop on by today and learn about the great black American, Frederick Douglass.