Harriet Tubman - A Story That Must Be Told
One Monday night in 1849, alone and afraid, Harriet Ross Tubman escaped to freedom. Traveling cautiously by night with the North Star as her only guide, she headed north toward the Mason-Dixon line. It was early morning when Tubman finally arrived on free soil in Pennsylvania. "When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven," she later recalled.
Harriet Ross was born about 29 years earlier in Dorchester County on the Bucktown plantation of Edward Brodess. In 1745 her grandparents were brought shackled from the Ashanti nation in Africa. For four centuries, the Ashanti leaders fought off Britain's invasions on the West Coast of Africa, resisting bondage until 896, when England colonized the land. This Ashanti courage became a legend in the United States, contributing early on to Tubman's sense of rebellion.
The fall of 1835 saw Tubman's first act of defiance. Jim, the slave of a farmer named Barnett, went to the Bucktown store without his permission. Harriet followed him to the store. A man named McCraken, an overseer, cornered Jim and ordered Tubman to help capture and tie up the runaway. She refused. As Jim went out the door, she blocked McCraken's pursuit. The enraged overseer picked up a 2-pound weight from the counter and hurled it at Jim hitting Harriet Tubman instead on the forehead. The blow nearly killed her and disabled her for months. She was left with an ugly scar and for the rest of her life she suffered from sudden, unexpected sleeping spells.
After Tubman's recovery, Brodess hired her to work on neighboring farms, allowing her slight independence and the chance to save a little money. By doing physical labor for John Stewart - driving oxen, plowing, cutting wood, and hauling logs - Tubman grew strong. It was a strength sometimes exaggerated by newspaper reports throughout the years. "I could tote a flour barrel on one shoulder", she bragged. By cutting a half cord of wood a day she earned enough money to buy a pair of oxen worth $40. Her efforts earned the attention of John Tubman, a free black man who worked odd jobs on the plantations in the area. In 1844 or 1845, although it was very unusual for a slave and a free man to be allowed to marry, Harriet married John Tubman. Reports describe him as a timid and weak man, but their marriage gave Harriet a closer look at independence.
After paying a lawyer $5 to find the will of her mother's first master, Tubman believed she was actually emancipated. Looking back many years, the examiner found a will giving Harriet Green to an heir named Mary Pattison. Harriet's mother was to serve this woman until the age of 45 but Pattison died. As there was no provision for Harriet Green in the event of her owner's death, she was liberated. No one informed Tubman's mother of her right, therefore she and her children remained in bondage. The news that she could have been a free woman made her all the more determined that one day she would be free. Working for Stewart broadened Tubman's acquaintance with the community of slaves who worked the farms and cut timber around Cambridge. She learned that many slaves were escaping from Dorchester County by way of the Underground Railroad.
In March of 1849, Edward Brodess died, leaving all of his possessions to his wife, Eliza Ann, who decided to sell several of her slaves for cash. For Tubman the choice was clear. "There are two things I got a right to," she said, "and these are death and liberty. One or the other I mean to have". In the dark of night Tubman stole away heading north following the Greenbriar Swamp along the edge of the Brodess fields. Traveling by night and sleeping by day, she did not stop until she crossed the Mason-Dixon line. For the next year, working as a domestic, Tubman left job after job. Her freedom was not enough. "I was free - but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land." Saving every penny she earned, she returned to Maryland in 1850 for her niece, Mary Ann, also called Keziah. It was the beginning of her career on the Underground Railroad.
Since no one could post bulletins on Sunday, Tubman always began her journeys with runaways on Saturday night. It would be two days before the hunt could begin. Stealing a master's horse and buggy, traveling by foot, hiding under produce wagons, working menial jobs for food - it is even reported that Tubman and her band once hid in a pile of manure - Tubman did whatever it took to bring the passengers on the Underground Railroad safely to their destinations.
In the decade that followed, undeterred by the slave owners offering $40,000 for her capture, she returned to the South 19 times to help more than 300 slaves desperate for freedom. News of Tubman's humanitarian efforts spread so widely - by both newspaper reports and word of mouth - that Queen Victoria invited her to England. Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist Thomas Garrett proclaimed her the greatest woman of her age. To her own people she was simply Moses- sent to set the people free in the Promised Land. In 1857, with the financial backing of Senator William Henry Seward, she bought a farm in Auburn, New York. In her most dangerous rescue, Harriet brought her 70-year-old parents north to live with her there.
During the Civil War, Harriet served the Union Army as a nurse, scout, and spy. Later, she returned to Auburn and organized a home for aged and needy blacks. Other causes she supported included the temperance movement and women's suffrage. By the time of Harriet Tubman's death in March 1913, at the age of 93, her noble humanitarian efforts were recognized worldwide.
Dorchester County Heritage Tourism Council, and Dorchester County Department of Tourism
Dorchester County Inventory of African American Historical and Cultural
Resources compiled by Bakari Johnson Research Historian, MD
Commission on African American History and Culture (MCAAHC), 84
Franklin St., Annapolis, MD 21401
The One Hundred Sixty Fifth Anniversary of Waugh United Methodist Church - October 20, 1991
The Dorchester News/February 13, 1974, pg. 3A
The One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary, 27th Annual Homecoming
Celebration Bethel African American Episcopal Church/September 21, 1997
Johnson, James C., Dorchester County: A Pictorial History. 1976, pg. 42
McElvey, Kay, Early Black Dorchester 1776-1870, 1990, pgs. 345-347
Dorchester Chattel Records, 1 ER 460-461, Deed of Manumissions / September 14, 1832
The Legend of Big Liz / Flowers, Thomas A., Shore Folklore, Growing Up
With Ghosts. 'N Legends. 'N Tales, 'N Home Remedies 1989, pgs. 139-142
Aunt Adaline Wheatley / Spocott Windmill Foundation, Inc.
Transquaking River Site / Underground Railroad, Special Resource Study, Management Concepts / Environmental Assessment. US Dept of the Interior, National Park Service / September 1995, pg. 49
Follow the Footstesp with this Interactive page from MPT
Birthplace of Harriet Tubman Greenbriar Road Cambridge, MD 21613 (410) 228-0401
Harriet Tubman Museum and Gift Shop 424 Race St., Cambridge, MD (410) 228-0401
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