Place  /  Dispatch

Finding Traces of Harriet Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

A historian marks the 200th birthday of Harriet Tubman with a visit to her birthplace, only to learn how climate change is washing away her memory.

“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.