The flat terrain and calm waters of Maryland’s Eastern Shore belie the dangers of the journeys escaping slaves made to reach freedom in the North. Burs from the forests’ sweet gum trees pierced the runaways’ feet; open water terrified those who had to cross it. As they crept over, around or through marshes and creeks and woodlands and fields, the fugitives relied on the help of Eastern Shore native Harriet Tubman and other conductors of the Underground Railroad resistance network. On previous trips to the Eastern Shore, I had biked sparsely traveled roads past farmland or sped by car to the resort beaches of the Atlantic. After reading James McBride’s novel Song Yet Sung, whose protagonist, Liz Spocott, is loosely based on Tubman, I returned for a weekend with book-club friends to explore places associated with Tubman’s life and legacy.
Most likely a descendant of the Ashanti people of West Africa, Tubman was born into slavery in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, about 65 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. After nearly 30 years as a slave, she won her freedom in 1849 by slipping over the Mason-Dixon line, the border between free and slave states. Yet she returned to the Eastern Shore approximately 13 times over the next ten years to help other slaves flee north. Because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated the return of refugee slaves captured anywhere in the United States, Tubman brought escapees to Canada, becoming known as the “Moses of her people” during her lifetime. Along with helping to free about 70 family members and acquaintances, Tubman toiled as an abolitionist; a Union Army spy, nurse and teacher during the Civil War; and later a suffragist, humanitarian and community activist before she died, at age 91, in 1913. Now, Tubman is more famous than at any time in the past. The state of Maryland is planning a park named for her, and the National Park Service may follow suit.