Tidewater Day Tripping - April 2010


Tidewater Day Tripping
Discovering the Underground Railroad
Bonna Nelson


Sure, I had heard about the escaped slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. I read his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in a memoir class in graduate school. And, yes, I had heard of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. And, of course, we all studied the Civil War, probably by middle school at least, and the causes fought for on both sides of the issue. But it wasn’t until I moved to the Eastern Shore a few years ago and started to hear about the Frederick Douglass memorial controversy in Easton, and the increasing attention focused on remembering the Underground Railroad heroine, Harriet Tubman, in Cambridge and then attended a fundraiser at the Wye House, a historic estate where Douglass was a slave and later an honored guest, that slavery and the Underground Railroad became real for me, not just words on a page in a book. I wanted to know more.
Recently my book club read James McBride’s Song Yet Sung, a novel about slavery, slave owners, slave catchers, watermen, farmers and others living on the Eastern Shore, particularly in Dorchester and Caroline counties, during the 1850s. The novel is supported by extensive local research and includes some historical figures such as Patty Cannon, a notorious slave catcher, as well as invented characters based on historical figures such as Harriet Tubman. McBride’s novel also described how slaves escaped using the Underground Railroad.
Song Yet Sung was the 2009 One Maryland One Book selection. One Maryland One Book is the state’s community reading project that gives residents around the state the opportunity to connect by reading the same book and opening dialogue with each other about it. According to the Maryland Humanities Council, the book was selected to offer Marylanders the opportunity to discuss race, identity, relationships, Maryland history, and families today. Numerous copies of the book are available at public libraries and local bookstores, and I highly recommend it.
With eyes opened by the characters in McBride’s book, I was compelled to attend one of the many presentations McBride himself made on behalf of One Maryland One Book and the Humanities Council. Out of sheer convenience, I attended the talk at North Dorchester High School, which ironically – or maybe intentionally – is located at the heart of some of the scenes in the book and near “stations” on the Underground Railroad. Dorchester County students and teachers, county librarians who helped with McBride’s research, as well as the general public were invited to attend.
McBride talked about his research, his book, his characters and theme and answered questions. He confirmed that one of the main characters, runaway slave Liz Spocott (named after the Spocott Windmill in Dorchester County), was based on the life of Harriet Tubman. He said that the history of slavery is a history of white people and black people intertwined and that most people didn’t own slaves or owned one or two and that owners and slaves depended on each other for survival. McBride said that slavery was a mental and physical prison and that many slaves didn’t run away because of family and fear. Through his research he learned how complicated slavery was for all people. He addressed the students directly by suggesting that descendents of watermen should go away to get a college degree and then come back to figure out how to clean up the Bay, and that descendents of slaves should go away to college and come back to tell the history of slavery.
When I decided that I wanted to learn more about slavery on the Shore and the Underground Railroad, I found that a good starting point was the Dorchester County Visitor Center at the Sailwinds Park, the first right after crossing the Choptank River Bridge on Route 50. The staff showed me exhibits about Harriet Tubman and Dorchester County’s role in the Underground Railroad and provided me the key to my personal mission of discovery – a brochure entitled Finding a Way to Freedom, Driving Tour, The Underground Railroad in Dorchester and Caroline Counties in the 1850s.
The 105-mile Driving Tour of Discovery directs the traveler to exhibits, museums, homes, home sites, meeting houses, mills, courthouses, bridges, markers and areas that held secrets of the past no longer visible in the landscape that illustrate the Underground Railroad story in Dorchester and Caroline counties. The brochure aptly describes the Underground Railroad thus:
The Underground Railroad was a secret network supported by courageous people throughout the United States who broke the law to offer transportation, refuge and comfort to escaping slaves during the 1800s. The loosely organized network was named symbolically after the new steam railroads and used terms such as “passengers,” “depots,” “station masters,” “stockholders” and “conductors.”
The “passengers” were the slaves seeking freedom. The “depots” or “stations” were safe hiding places to rest and eat and were managed by “station masters” who sometimes hid slaves in their homes. The “stockholders” gave money or supplies for assistance. The “conductors” guided the runaways from station to station heading north to safety and freedom.
Though the guide suggests allowing a minimum of four hours to complete the driving tour, I found that many days were needed in order to thoroughly explore the sites and areas that hold information about this important era of our history. As my husband and I adventured across both counties many times, we encountered dead ends or got lost and we wondered how the freedom seekers could find their way to freedom, usually on foot, under the cover of night, across miles of fields, forest and waterways, and we marveled at the courage of the heroine Harriet Tubman for returning many times to free more of her people.
We did not travel the Underground Railroad in the order suggested by the guide but made our next stop, one of the most important of all the locations, the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge. The museum is maintained by the non-profit Harriet Tubman Organization and provides exhibits, information and a video presentation. We were fortunate to encounter the president of the organization, Donald Pinder, on the day we visited and spent about two hours with him.
Pinder shared his bountiful knowledge of Harriet Tubman, known as “The Moses of Her People,” and the Underground Railroad. He described a typical escape plan for passengers from the Cambridge area. He said that Saturday night was a favored escape night because no one worked on Sunday, not even slaves. Escapees would get a head start to a safe house in Preston, about 12 miles from Cambridge, before owners would discover them missing on Monday morning. The owner had to go to the Dorchester County Sheriff to start the hunt for the missing. But by then the slaves would be in Caroline County, and the Dorchester Sheriff had no jurisdiction there.
A reward would be posted in the paper, but the passengers on the Underground Railroad would try to stay two to three steps ahead by moving on to the Mason Dixon Line, about 16 miles from Preston. Abolitionists of all colors worked collectively to achieve safe passage to freedom in the northern states.
Pinder said that Harriet Tubman “never ran the train off the track.” She never lost a traveler. She was an efficient conductor, eventually delivering her passengers to safety in Philadelphia, New York or Canada. It is estimated that she conducted 300 slaves, many of whom were family and friends. During the Civil War Harriet served as a nurse, scout and spy for the Union Army.
Born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Tubman died in New York of pneumonia at the age of 91. Pinder described the plans for expanding the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park located adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County to recognize the Underground Railroad’s most famous conductor. The 17-acre site will include a Discovery Center offering information about Tubman’s life and her fight for freedom and equality.
Pinder also discussed the methods used by conductors and passengers to communicate escape routes and plans by using hymns such as “Steal Away to Jesus,” quilts with messages hung out to dry, and clothing, such as a rolled up shirt sleeve, that might mean it was okay to travel that night. McBride incorporated these techniques in his novel, making it clear how clever and resourceful the Underground Railroad participants were about secret coded communications.
On our next several Underground Railroad adventures we followed the Driving Tour to many points in Dorchester and Caroline counties that figured prominently in that period in history. There are 23 sites or areas to visit in Dorchester County and 15 in Caroline County. Highlights of discovery include: Courthouses in both counties where slaves were sold and conductors tried and imprisoned; Methodist and other churches and Quaker Meeting Houses where African Americans worshipped or were sheltered; homes of abolitionists and free black people; areas where slaveholders’ plantations once stood; river wharves and landings where slaves were unloaded or departed from; mills and creeks – crossing points for escaped slaves; and parks such as Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Martinak State Park and Tuckahoe State Park, where walking paths through forests, marshes and streams and along rivers provide a feeling for the conditions experienced by Underground Railroad travelers.
For more information, start where we did at the Dorchester County Visitors Center in Cambridge, open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., 410-228-1000, and pick up the Driving Tour guide. Next, stop at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center at 424 Race Street in Cambridge, 410-228-0401.