In August 2019, after performing the major service on my 2007 Aston Martin V8 Vantage, it was time to go for a drive. The Eastern Shore of Maryland was calling to me, with its beaches, lighthouses, historic buildings—and its tragic history of slavery. In particular, I was looking to follow in the footsteps of Araminta Ross—better known as Harriet Tubman, the “Moses of her people.”
Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in February or March of 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. At age 27, she escaped and made her way to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Instead of remaining safely in the north, over the next 11 years she made 13 trips back into Maryland for the purpose of helping many of her relatives, friends, and even complete strangers escape their bondage. Ultimately, she directly led a total of 60 to 80 enslaved African Americans to freedom and assisted in the escape of another 50 to 70. During the American Civil War, she served as a scout and spy for the Union Army—and became the first woman in the U.S. to lead an army raid, which led to the freeing of roughly 750 slaves in South Carolina.
I would learn much about Harriet Tubman during this trip, but first I had to get to Dorchester County. Driving to the Eastern Shore on a summer Friday is generally a bad idea, as hundreds of thousands of people head to the Maryland and Delaware beaches every weekend. But arriving at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge before 9:00 am minimizes the problem. My first stop was Centreville, Maryland, where I happened across this stately old brick home, built in about 1795. It was originally 3 bays wide, with a central doorway; a fourth bay, on the right, was added sometime along the way.
This 1876 building was originally the Centreville Female Seminary, with four classrooms, about 80 students, and 3 teachers. By 1895, the school had gone coeducational, with 41 boys and 49 girls attending. After another 12 years, the school closed and was refashioned as a duplex residence, eventually becoming the single-family home seen today. (And, I might add, that family appears to have good taste in automobiles, with a Tesla Model 3 and an Audi A4.)
Next door to the school is the magnificent 1887 Robert M. Price House, which is intricate even by Queen Anne Victorian standards. Its square tower, stained glass transoms, and other features are all original—as are the gas chandeliers inside. If you look carefully, you’ll see a hitching post just ahead of the Aston Martin, and a stone step to help you climb up onto your horse. (I have the opposite problem: lowering myself into the Vantage can be a challenge!)
The Corsica River is typical of the many tidal waterways that crisscross the Eastern Shore of Maryland: relatively short, with a depth that varies significantly each day. The mudflats in the foreground would be about 2 feet underwater at high tide. Its headwaters are near Centreville, and the Corsica empties into the Chester River after only 6 miles.
On the outskirts of town, by the Corsica River, I found an unusual row of four small houses. They’re built into an earthen bank and can be entered either by doors in the lower front section or the upper rear section. There is only a single room on each of the floors.
Captain John H. Ozmon built the identical houses in 1880 for use by the captains of his schooner fleet, which was located nearby at Centreville Wharf. (His other sailors, warehouse workers, and shopkeepers also lived in Ozmon-supplied housing.) Ozmon was born in 1828 and by age 20 he was captain of the schooner Kent, transporting grain, lumber, and other products to Baltimore and Annapolis in Maryland, Norfolk in Virginia, and many other ports on the Chesapeake Bay. In later life, he was a very successful businessman and real estate dealer.
The lower story of this unusual building was Capt. Ozmon’s store, with the upper story serving as a residence for the shopkeeper. It was built at about the same time as the four Captain’s houses and primarily served sailors passing by on the Corsica River. An inventory taken at the time of Ozmon’s death in 1902 listed grains, spices, groceries, fishing gear, “one bag of gold dust,” and a remarkable variety of tobacco products.
Capt. Ozmon had a large granary near here, while his competitor Capt. Foreman kept chickens as a sideline. Foreman’s chickens would sneak into Ozmon’s granary every day and feast on the grain. Eventually, Capt. Ozmon shot a number of the chickens, and (naturally) the whole affair ended up in court. Yes, the U.S. is an overly litigious society, and no, the situation is not new.
The Maryland Slave Trade
As much as I would have enjoyed exploring other parts of Centreville, it was time to delve further south. Slavery in North America dates back to at least the early 1500s. (The year 1619, which received much attention last year, was the first year that slaves were brought to the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia.) By 1642, enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to Maryland, with most laboring in the Tidewater areas to grow, harvest, and process tobacco. The Maryland legislature banned the importation of African slaves in 1783, but smuggling was not uncommon.
Long Wharf, on the Choptank River in Cambridge, Maryland, witnessed the arrival of many of these slaves. In later years before Emancipation, demand for slave labor declined in Maryland but increased in the more southern states. In 1808, Congress banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These circumstances led to the sale of many enslaved Africans in Maryland “down the river” to the cotton states. The great majority of such sales involved the forced separation of African American families, parting husbands from wives, children from parents, and sisters from brothers, again at Long Wharf.
Long Wharf still exists, although substantially changed from its original appearance. The original Choptank River Lighthouse was built in 1871 about 10 miles downstream from Cambridge. It was destroyed by an ice flow in 1918 and replaced with a decommissioned lighthouse from Virginia. The current light is a 2012 replica, complete with an accurate “emergency vessel.”
Today, Long Wharf is a popular park and marina. The lighthouse is open for free tours during the summer months. The Aston Martin was running flawlessly, by the way. Despite its ancient original battery, the V8 Vantage would start up immediately after every stop for a picture. The brakes were smooth and powerful, the engine pulled eagerly to redline, and the manual 6-speed flicked from gear to gear almost joyously. And on the dead-flat roads of the Eastern Shore, the Vantage even achieved almost-acceptable fuel mileage!
The Rock School was built in Church Creek as an African American elementary school soon after the end of the Civil War. Although the Maryland legislature had authorized spending for the construction of such schools, local county school boards generally refused to distribute the money for this purpose. Consequently, almost all schools for African American children were funded and constructed by private organizations. The local white populations were generally opposed to these efforts, and a number of the early schools were burned.
The Rock School was not harmed, but following an “antagonism meeting” in Church Creek, the school was relocated to a less prominent spot southwest of Cambridge. It remained in operation until July 1966. Prior to 1875, it also served as the Christ Rock Church.
Following the Civil War, many newly freed African American families relocated to Dorchester County and built a community around the Rock School. By 1875, they had raised enough money to build the Christ Rock Church across the street (now Highway 16) from the school. It was extended to the rear by 6 feet in 1889, and the bell tower was added in 1911. The church was substantially renovated in 2012, which involved lifting it 4 feet off the ground so that a new foundation could be installed.
While waiting to recross Highway 16, I couldn’t resist another photo of the Vantage. When Henrik Fisker gets a design right, he really gets it right!
Birthplace of Harriet Tubman
Until fairly recently, the date and location of Harriet Tubman’s birth were uncertain. Most historians believed she was born at the Edward Brodess plantation, which was located at the end of this grass lane. More recent research by Dr. Kate Larson indicates that she was likely born in late February or early March of 1822 at the plantation home of Anthony Thompson. Thompson’s wife, Mary Brodess Thompson, owned Harriet’s mother Harriet “Rit” Green. Two years later, when Anthony Thompson built a house here for his stepson, Edward Brodess, it is believed that Harriet and her mother were relocated here.
Brodess records indicate that when Edward turned 21, he became the owner of Harriet, her siblings, and her mother Rit. Harriet lived here off and on until age 27. From the time she was 6, Harriet was often rented out by Brodess to work on other farms in the area, doing such work as wading through swamps to retrieve trapped muskrats, plowing, harvesting, and timber-related activities. Harriet later characterized Brodress as “never unnecessarily cruel,” but added that some of the other plantation owners where she worked were “tyrannical and brutal to the utmost limit of their power.” Her brother Robert said Brodess “was not fit to own a dog.” While working as a nursemaid, Harriet was whipped, sometimes daily, by the young mother who employed her. The patchwork of scars on her back was still plainly visible decades later.
Reaching the spot where Harriet was actually born was not exactly straightforward. The paved road changed to dirt early on. I puttered along at a snail’s pace in the Aston, to keep from kicking up stones.
After a considerable distance, I encountered a fence with an open gate. Continuing on, I looked for someone who could tell me if I was on the right track (and perhaps authorize my exploration), but there was no one in sight. Eventually the road became just a narrow pair of dirt tracks. Near the Blackwater River, I stopped at this, uh, intersection and reconnoitered on foot.
With the help of some old, hand-drawn maps and one modern photograph, I recognized what had been the entrance to the Anthony Thompson plantation, next to the river. Thompson owned Ben Ross, while his wife Mary Brodess Thompson owned Rit. Ben and Rit married, with Rit subsequently giving birth to Araminta “Minty” Ross. Thompson’s plantation house was built in 1810 but collapsed in 1980. Today there is no sign of it, although an archaeological excavation is under consideration.
Stewart’s Canal, and a Congenial Crabber
I left the site of Harriet Tubman’s birth as unnoticeably as possible, still without seeing anyone. There are a great many old houses and other buildings throughout the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and sights such as this one are not uncommon.
Traveling on in search of history, I stopped by the Old Trinity Church on the banks of Church Creek. It was built in about 1675 and has the distinction of being the oldest church in the United States still in active use. It’s tiny, measuring only 20 by 38 feet. The church is very original, right down to the brick floor that lies on top of a bed of sand and oyster shells. If you look carefully, you’ll see a less-than-friendly dog just in front of the end door. After a while, he preferred the shade to barking and nipping at my heels. (Interior photo courtesy of Old Trinity Church on Facebook.)
It’s not unusual to find old millstones in various places, usually serving as decorations and reminders of a bygone era of water-powered mills. However, this was the first time I’d seen them used as grave markers!
Timber was a major industry in Dorchester County for many years. Joseph Stewart was one of several landowners in the area who wanted to transport their logs along the tidal rivers to the sawmills and shipyards at Madison Bay. To this end, Stewart had a 7-mile-long canal dug by hand, using mostly slave labor. The work lasted from 1810 to 1832. In addition to the backbreaking effort and constant risk of disease, the laborers had to keep a sharp eye out for poisonous snakes. Today, the canal lives on as Parson’s Creek.
Some believe that Harriet Tubman worked on digging the canal, but Kate Larson’s research suggests otherwise, since she would have been too young for such labor. However, she was noted for her strength and is believed to have helped the loading of the canal boats and to have actually pulled the boats along the canal “like an ox,” as Dr. Larson put it.
At the modern bridge over the canal, I encountered a retired African American fellow, roughly my age, who was contentedly catching Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. We got to talking, comparing notes on crabbing techniques, lamenting the substantial reduction in the crab population over the last 30 years, discussing the history of the area, and so forth. Nathaniel told me that the ruins of Joseph Stewart’s enterprise still existed when he was a youngster. He also identified what was, to me, an Unidentified Swimming Object: it’s a beaver.
Nathaniel crabs here nearly every day, and he told me he was looking forward to heading home for a nap and then a meal of freshly steamed crabs. He added, however, that the prior day he’d awoken from his nap and discovered that his wife and sister-in-law had already steamed and eaten his entire catch! With a last look at my new acquaintance, it was time to continue on.
The Escape of Harriet Tubman
“Minty Ross” (Harriet Tubman) lived in the area of Stewart’s Canal from about 1836 to 1849. In 1844, she met and married a free African American named John Tubman. At that time she adopted the name Harriet, possibly in honor of her mother. Such marriages between enslaved and free African Americans were fairly common in Maryland. Following the American Revolution, some slaveholders embraced its promise of “all men created equal” and manumitted their slaves—either immediately or after a specified period such as 5 or 10 years. Also, most Methodists and Quakers had concluded by that time that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. By 1860, approximately one-half of the black population in Maryland was free.
Early in 1849, Harriet became ill. Edward Brodess began looking for someone to buy her, and she prayed that he would change his ways and not do so. By March, with a steady stream of prospective buyers coming to inspect her, she changed her prayers, now asking “Oh Lord, if you ain’t never going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.” Edward Brodess died one week later.
Unfortunately, Harriet’s situation became even more dire. Facing sizable debts, Brodess’ widow Eliza was now likely to sell many of the slaves. Three of Harriet’s sisters had been sold a few years earlier, and now the rest of the family was at risk of being permanently separated. In September, Harriet and her brothers Ben and Henry escaped and ran toward freedom in the north. But the brothers soon feared the consequences of being captured, and they returned to the plantation, taking Harriet with them.
About 2 weeks later, Harriet left on her own, traveling at night, following the North Star, and obtaining assistance from the Underground Railroad. She arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania some weeks and 90 miles later, a free woman for the first time in her life. She immediately resolved to return to Maryland as often as possible to rescue her relatives. As she put it, “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.”
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park opened in March 2017 and is an excellent source of information about this most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Harriet both benefited from the UGRR, during her own escape, and helped guide many other freedom-seekers to the various safe houses where abolitionists would provide food, shelter, and assistance in reaching further “stations.” As Harriet herself said, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say—I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Leaving the museum, thinking of Harriet’s arduous journey and how ecstatic she must have been at its end, I found myself driving through the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It was a beautiful area, and I spotted a number of egrets and a great blue heron without difficulty.
At first I thought this pair of cavorting birds were bald eagles (which are common here), but I later determined that they are in fact ospreys. These noble birds typically live for 15 to 20 years and mate for life.
By now it was time for lunch, so I headed for Hoopers Island and Old Salty’s Restaurant. Thinking that the local diners might be surprised to see an Aston Martin, I was soon surprised myself to discover this Ferrari F430 Spider parked there! And that’s another Ferrari (a 308GTS) parked behind the motorcycles. At least my car was the only Aston Martin…
After a terrific crabcake, onion rings, and a piece of chocolate pie, I set off to explore Hoopers Island. The name is something of a misnomer, since it’s actually three separate islands (Upper, Middle, and Lower), connected by a narrow causeway that stands only a couple of feet above the water level. Henry Hooper (pre-1621 to 1676) acquired the islands in the mid-1600s. Early on, many residents were tobacco farmers, but fishing has been the primary industry here for almost 300 years.
Hoopers Island looked like a fun place to live or vacation (except during major storms). This house in particular would be an ideal spot.
Phillips Seafood restaurants are well known in Maryland. The company got its start in 1912 on Upper Hoopers Island, and it still has a large crab processing plant here. Eventually I made my way to the southern end of Middle Hoopers Island, where the road pretty much disappeared. It used to continue on to Lower Hoopers Island, where the population boomed in the 1800s, but massive soil erosion forced everyone to relocate in the 1920s. For good measure, a hurricane destroyed the bridge to Lower Hoopers in 1933, and there’s been no point in replacing it.
The level of the Chesapeake Bay began increasing significantly in 1800 and has increased by about one foot in the last 100 years. In the process, as many as 400 islands have disappeared altogether. These photos, from Chesapeake Quarterly show the last remaining house on Holland Island (it disappeared in 2010) and all that was left of Sharps Island in the 1930s (which had originally comprised 700 acres, including a farm, a resort hotel, and a steamboat pier).
Even the southern one-third of Middle Hoopers Island is pretty desolate—in a scenic sort of way.
In places, it was hard to tell whether a house was abandoned or still in active use.
Other times, it was fairly easy to tell.
All sorts of water birds seemed to enjoy the island, including this Great Egret.
Judging by the abandoned cars I saw on Hoopers Island, the local economy must be doing pretty well!
As is usually the case when an area is dominated by a hazardous occupation, there were quite a number of churches. This Gothic Revival example is the Hosier Memorial Church on Upper Hoopers Island. The congregation was founded in 1875, and it managed to raise funds to construct a church building in 1896. In July 1900, a violent storm destroyed the church. Using as many of the original materials as possible, the church was rebuilt in 1901—and, fortunately, it is still standing.
Fording the Marshes
Back on the mainland, I stopped to admire this beautiful old property on Spicer Creek. Did I mention how nice the weather was?
Of course, just mentioning (or even noticing) that the weather is perfect is likely to tempt fate. At my next stop for a photo, there were massive, threatening clouds in the background.
Returning to the area where Harriet Tubman had lived required a long trip through another part of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The scenery was beautiful, and I was hoping to skirt the nearby storm.
Soon I began noticing helpful highway signs warning that the road is often flooded. Before long, the road was indeed under water! Remembering that the air filters on Aston Martins are located very low, and knowing that an engine is quite happy compressing air but extremely unhappy trying to compress water, I debated whether I should stop and find an alternative route. Eventually I pressed on, using an arbitrary rule of thumb that if I could still see the painted centerlines under the water, then it wasn’t too deep… (For comparison, a Model A Ford can’t corner at 1 G or accelerate from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds. But it could easily go through water 3 or 4 times as deep as what I drove through!)
The dark skies and thunderstorms off to the east, together with the bright sun to the southwest, provided a dramatic setting for the reeds and creeks of the wildlife refuge. There were no other cars on the road—perhaps because everyone else was paying attention to the flood warnings.
Bucktown, and Harriet Tubman’s Second Sight
After numerous stretches of standing water, I finally emerged from the wildlife refuge marshes and found this old structure on Maple Dam Road. It looked a lot like an 1800s one-room schoolhouse or a basic church meetinghouse, but there was no information at the site.
Half the fun of these trips is trying to track down information about “unknown” places like this old building. Back home, I first found that Zillow.com lists it as “a single family home that contains 944 square feet and was built in 1900.” They helpfully added, “The Rent Zestimate for this home is $1,250/mo.” The site indicated that the building had zero bedrooms and zero bathrooms.
After further searching, I discovered that the building was originally the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1894. By 1948, the congregation had disbanded, and in 1955 a new, African American congregation bought the property and established the Hughes Chapel. The church continued as such until 1998, when the building was purchased by the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians (descendants of the Nanticote, Pocomoke, and Choptank Native Americans). They will use it as their headquarters “long house” meeting place, once it’s renovated. Who knew? (Photo of the tribe’s Chief Wolf Mother courtesy of the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians.)
When Harriet Tubman lived in this area, known as Bucktown, she and her parents, brothers, and sisters, probably worshipped outdoors, at a clearing that is now the site of Bazel’s Church. Bucktown had many religious “camp meetings,” and slaveholders encouraged attendance—in part, no doubt, because most white preachers of the time emphasized that African Americans’ reward would be in Heaven—and in the meantime they should work hard and obey their masters. The Bucktown Mission Church did not form officially until 1876, when it erected its first church building. The present church building, known as Bazel’s Church, was constructed in 1911 (and looks very similar to both the original structure of the Christ Rock Church and the Hughes Chapel).
Bazel’s Church has changed little over the years, other than losing its plywood shutters. It is in poor condition, however, and a canvas cover is being used to reduce the damage caused by roof leaks. (Interior photo courtesy of Delmarva Now.)
Walking back to the patient Aston Martin, I realized that the thunderstorms, which had been well east of me, were now appearing from other directions. Would my pristine car, which has been in rain only a handful of times in its 12 years, be caught out?
Well, yes, as it happened! No sooner had I parked at the Bucktown General Store than the skies opened in a major way—the kind where it rains so hard that the drops bounce two to three feet off the pavement. As I sat there, trapped by the downpour, I suddenly remembered that the Vantage came with the optional, official Aston Martin factory umbrella! Once the rain let up enough to stop bouncing, I dashed out, grabbed the umbrella, and happily went back to touring.
When Harriet Tubman was about 13 years old, she accompanied the plantation cook to the Bucktown General Store to buy groceries. While she was there, a young African American boy burst into the store—chased by an angry white overseer. To stop the boy, the overseer picked up a 2-pound cast iron weight from the store’s scale and threw it at him. The throw missed the boy but hit Harriet in the head, fracturing her skull and driving part of her shawl into her brain. (Decades later, Harriet credited her thick, bushy hair, which also contained many remnants of the flax she had been breaking that day, with saving her life.)
Harriet lay on a bench for two days, close to death, before she began to recover. Almost immediately, she was sent back out to the fields where, as she later told audiences, “I went to work again and there I worked with the blood and sweat rolling down my face ’til I couldn’t see.” For the rest of her life, Harriet was subject to seizures, blinding headaches, dizziness, and other ailments related to that head injury. She would also appear to fall asleep at random times, although she was still conscious in some ways, and she would have vivid dreams (which she believed told the future) and hear voices (which she interpreted as the voice of God). In her biography of Harriet Tubman, Kate Larson notes that these are all symptoms of what is now known as temporal lobe epilepsy. She soon became known for her “second sight”—the ability to prophesize future events and to sense imminent danger.
A Conductor on the Underground Railroad
Once Harriet Tubman had secured her own freedom in Philadelphia, she wasted no time in acting to rescue her relatives. In 1850, when her sister Kessiah (and Kessiah’s two children) were put up for sale in Cambridge by Eliza Brodess, Harriet and her free brother-in-law John concocted a daring plan. At the slave auction, John quietly achieved the winning bid for his wife and children. Before paying for them, he spirited them away while the auctioneer was at dinner. Using his experience as a sailor, John loaded his family into a log canoe and sailed up the Chesapeake Bay from Cambridge to Baltimore (a distance of roughly 70 miles). There he met Harriet, who conveyed the group to their freedom in Philadelphia.
Early in 1851, Harriet waited in Baltimore while her brother Moses and two other slaves followed her instructions to escape from the Eastern Shore. She led them safely to Philadelphia, the “Quaker City.” That Fall, Harriet returned to Dorchester County and tried to guide her husband John away from Maryland, only to discover that, in her absence, he had taken a new wife and did not want to leave. Swallowing her anger and dismay, she led a group of 11 other men and women to Philadelphia.
In September 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring northern police and courts to aid in the capture of runaway slaves from the south. (The legislation was an appeasement to southern states, which had been virulently opposed to the admittance of California to the United States as a free state.) As a result, escaped slaves in the north could no longer count on their newfound freedom. In the Fall of 1851, Harriet conveyed 11 former slaves living in the Philadelphia area to St. Catherines, Ontario in Canada, receiving assistance along the way from Frederick Douglass. (Douglass himself had escaped from Maryland in 1838, going on to become a famous orator and writer in the cause of abolition.)
Harriet Tubman made a total of 13 trips back into Maryland, rescuing somewhere between 60 and 80 enslaved African Americans in total. Her advice and directions to other would-be escapees enabled another 50 to 70 to reach freedom in the north. Although she was illiterate and only 5 feet tall, Harriet achieved these results through intelligent planning, use of disguises, coded messages and songs, intimate familiarity with the forests, rivers, and terrain, and the ability to think quickly on her feet and react instantly as circumstances changed. Her “second sight” helped her to anticipate danger and adjust accordingly. Harriet Tubman carried a revolver on these rescue missions—for defense against slave hunters but also to compel the runaways not to turn back, telling them “to go on or die.” She never had to use it. (Drawing courtesy of the National Park Service.)
The Escape of the “Dover Eight”
By now, it was time to clamber back into the Aston and find the last couple of sites on my list. The Vantage seemed no worse for having experienced the heavy rainstorm—but I felt a little guilty anyway.
This house was owned by Pritchett Meredith, who was a prosperous landowner and farmer in Bucktown. In 1857, two of his slaves—Thomas Elliott and Denard Hughes—decided it was time to escape to their freedom. They had planned carefully, with apparent assistance from Harriet Tubman. Elliott and Hughes left here on March 8 and were soon joined by six additional slaves from the Bucktown area. Armed with guns and knives, they made their way north following Harriet’s instructions.
The first stop for the escapees was in East New Market, where a free African American minister named Samuel Green provided shelter. Rev. Green preached at the Colored People’s Methodist Episcopal Church, which still exists and is in active use as the Faith Community Church. Rev. Green had been born into slavery in 1801 but managed to buy his own freedom when he was about 33. He also bought his wife, Kitty, and promptly granted her freedom. Their children, however, remained slaves under the law.
The eight escapees may have followed the Transquaking River as they headed north. Although the general path of the various Underground Railroad routes is now known, at the time such information was guarded carefully to keep bounty hunters from knowing where to look. (Drawing of escape routes courtesy of Bound for the Promised Land by Dr. Kate Larson.)
As I photographed the Transquaking River, I couldn’t help noticing the numerous fishing lines and lures that were wrapped around a power cable. It probably makes sense to “look first, cast second”!
Elliott, Hughes, and their fellow escapees next found shelter at Poplar Neck in the cabin of Ben Ross—Harriet Tubman’s father, who had been granted his freedom when he turned 45. Meanwhile, Pritchett Meredith and the owners of the other slaves had posted a reward for the capture of the escapees. It totaled $3,000 for all eight of the men and women, equivalent to roughly $90,000 today. Their next conductor on the UGRR was one Thomas Otwell, a free African American and trusted friend of Harriet Tubman’s. Otwell, however, had heard about the reward and could not resist the temptation.
Otwell led the escapees to Dover, Delaware, and showed them where they could safely spend the night in a city building. Despite their fatigue, the African Americans noticed that the room they were being led to had bars on its windows… It was the city jail. The Dover sheriff was in on the deal, but he had fallen asleep; when he woke up and saw the escapees, he quickly ran back to his bedroom in the jail to get his gun. Elliott, Hughes, and the others ran after him, and an armed standoff ensued, while the sheriff’s family looked on in surprise. One of the fleeing slaves, Henry Predeaux, scattered a shovelful of hot coals across the carpeting, creating immediate chaos and providing time for the group to jump out of the second floor window and make their escape-within-an escape.
The group, which was called the “Dover Eight” by the newspapers, fled into a nearby forest—where they happened upon Thomas Otwell again. They forced Otwell at gunpoint to continue guiding them to their next proper stop on the UGRR. Eventually they arrived safely in Philadelphia and from there continued on into Canada—where two of them were recruited by the fiery abolitionist, John Brown. Brown was attempting to form a “slave army,” with which to attack slaveholders and, ultimately, to liberate all slaves, but his efforts were not successful. Harriet Tubman supported his movement, but Frederick Douglass repeatedly advised against it. Three years later, when Brown attacked the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry, none of the Dover Eight participated.
There were two other significant repercussions from the escape of the Dover Eight:
- In East New Market, the Rev. Samuel Green was suspected of having helped the escapees. He was arrested and charged with possessing abolitionist papers and other inflammatory material, but a white jury acquitted him owing to lack of evidence. Rev. Green was then charged with “knowingly having in his possession [information] of an inflammatory character and calculated to create discontent amongst the colored population of this State”—specifically, a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was convicted of this charge and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Rev. Green was released at age 62 after serving 5 years, but only on the condition that he leave Maryland.
- Officials also suspected Harriet’s father, Ben Ross, of having aided the Dover Eight. Before he was arrested, however, Harriet swooped in, convinced her parents they had to leave Maryland, and smuggled them to safety in Canada. Given that Ben and Rit were in their seventies, Harriet had to acquire an old horse and improvise a makeshift, 2-wheeled carriage to carry them to Philadelphia and then onward to St. Catherines in Canada.
In 1859, Harriet Tubman bought some land and an old house from U.S. Senator William H. Seward, who was soon to become President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. She lived here, caring for her parents, other relatives, and any escaping African American slave who happened her way. (She is shown here in Auburn, at far left. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.)
Harriet made her last foray into Maryland in November 1860, to rescue her sister Rachel and Rachel’s children. When Harriet arrived, however, she learned that Rachel had passed away, and the children could not be located. Despite her grief, Harriet was able to lead seven other African Americans through snow and freezing rain to freedom. When the Civil War broke out, she volunteered to assist the Union Army, serving as a nurse, cook, and tailor before becoming a scout and spy. In June 1863, she helped plan and lead a Union expedition up the Combahee River in South Carolina, destroying Confederate outposts and plantations and freeing over 750 African American slaves.
In 1864, she returned to her home in Auburn (now part of the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park), raising money in support of her relatives. For 10 years, Harriet had made presentations to abolitionist societies and other meetings, quickly becoming an inspiration to the cause. In later life, she became active in the women’s suffrage movement and also established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged (also part of the National Historic Park). Harriet Tubman passed away peacefully in March 1913, at age 91, after a lifetime of heroic accomplishment.
With the sun going down, I motored comfortably back home in my air-conditioned Aston Martin, passing thousands of motorists who were going in the opposite direction to enjoy pristine ocean beaches, good food, and luxury accommodations, and all of us taking for granted the freedom to go and do as we pleased.
The contrast with Harriet Tubman’s life was inescapable. It was hard to comprehend the poverty, abuse, deprivation, and despair that Harriet Tubman and other African Americans faced throughout their lives—or the courage and cunning that they would have needed to gain their freedom against overwhelming odds. All of us, regardless of race, are—or should be—indebted to Harriet and her fellow freedom-seekers for their efforts to help bring about the United States’ expressed intention “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
- When my wife and I went to see the movie Harriet when it came out, I was pleased to see that its portrayal of Harriet Tubman’s life closely matched the reality of her experience. A few scenes were invented, to help smooth the flow of the movie, but in all important respects, it was accurate.
- For anyone interested in more information about Harriet Tubman, I can recommend Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, by Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D.
- Unless otherwise noted, historical photos are courtesy of the Library of Congress, the National Register of Historic Places, or Wikipedia.