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Harriet Tubman Is Famous As An Abolitionist and Political Activist, but She Was Also A Naturalist

The Underground Railroad conductor's understanding of botany, wildlife biology, geography and astronomy allowed her to guide herself and others to safety.

Harriet Tubman successfully navigated her own escape from slavery, and then led dozens of others on a path to freedom, thanks in no small part to her familiarity with the natural landscape. The Underground Railroad conductor followed the North Star by night and hid in potato holes and dense swamps by day. And she had a trained ear for mimicking animal calls.

“She used the hoot of the barred owl as a signal that she’d arrived,” says Angela Crenshaw, a park ranger who worked for several years at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park. “If she had people hiding in the woods, the call would let them know that it’s safe to come out of hiding. It was kind of ingenious, because everyone was used to hearing owls. It wasn’t out of sorts—it wouldn’t raise any suspicion.”

Leading up to this year’s bicentennial of her birth, perhaps the most public conversation about Tubman has been around the efforts to use her image on the redesigned $20 bill, an Obama-era initiative that stalled under the last administration. In January, President Joe Biden announced he would speed up the project. But before that, in the early 2000s, her legacy drew attention in circles of academics, activists and preservationists as community groups and nonprofits in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman’s homeland, appealed to federal and state governments to create a park and visitor center in her honor. They feared that part of her legacy—and the region’s history—would be lost if it wasn’t enshrined in the Chesapeake Bay landscape. Two contiguous properties—a national historical park and a state park—were created in Tubman’s name, in 2014 and 2017, respectively, and a visitor center opened on the state-protected land in Church Creek, Maryland.

As part of these efforts, which coincided with a rise in heritage tourism, researchers revisited Tubman’s direct and intimate relationship to nature and examined how her rescue missions were successful because of the knowledge she developed throughout her years growing up in the Chesapeake Bay region. As scholars continue to unearth information about her life, she’s increasingly being recognized and celebrated as a skilled naturalist.